Bigger Business or Better Flavour?

Two Young Hawkers Share Their Stories
By Joel Lam / Wu Jian Xiao / Wang Jun

It is difficult being a young hawker in Singapore. High rent, difficulty in finding helpers to manage the stall, customers casting doubts about your abilities and strong competition from the more experienced hawkers were difficulties stated when our team went to interview young hawkers about their businesses. In this article, we bring to you the stories of two young hawkers who embody two different hawkering philosophies and have each found their own unique solutions to build their respective customer bases quickly.

In The Beginning: Common Difficulties

We invited our two young hawkers to look back to the time when they first started their hawker business. Both hawkers described to us the difficulties they faced, although we realized one common challenge brought up by both hawkers was the problem of having to build a customer base quickly. This challenge also seemed to be the most urgent as the two hawkers mentioned that they had to recuperate the money they invested when setting up their respective stalls. In the video below, our two young hawkers share their ‘origin’ stories before telling us more about their respective businesses.

Tom sharing with us on how he first started Tom’s Citizoom Mee Pok Tar (Video by Wu Jian Xiao)

Kai, owner of Roast Paradise, talks to us about the stall’s opening day (Video by Wu Jian Xiao)

Expanding Paradise to the Masses

Kai runs the 6 month old Roast Paradise with his partner Randall. Within that time, the stall had built the reputation of having its food being ‘sold out quickly’, which was a feat, considering that they are located in the famous Old Airport Road hawker centre with plenty of strong competition. During the interview, Kai was particularly clear in his thought process regarding the direction of his business and how to market his product. We were intrigued when we discovered that both Kai and Randall were previously from the Public Relations (PR) industry with no prior F&B experience. Kai and Randall used to organize big parties in the nightlife scene, which helped to hone their ability to connect with people quickly and developed excellent customer service skills. They left the nightlife scene as they found the lifestyle unsustainable as age caught up with them. While searching for the next step in his career, his business acumen led him to believe that there was a gap in the market to fill in the hawker industry – “if nobody wants to do, we should take the opportunity”.

Engaging & Retaining His Regulars

Kai’s business strategy can be distilled into two essential factors: service and quality. He mentioned that the first thing he says to Randall every morning are these two words to keep them grounded. We found Kai’s interactions with customers fascinating as he navigated many Whatsapp orders, even creating his own Whatsapp vouchers for some of his regular customers. It struck a familiar chord with my team as we ventured around Old Airport Road Hawker Centre where we saw many of the more established hawkers creating the same kind of community through face-to-face interactions. Often, these customers knew the hawkers on a personal level which was part of the reason why they kept coming back. To see Kai adapt the same broad strategy while elevating it to another level, which made it more modern, scalable and engaging for customers across all ages, was quite inspiring. During our short session with Kai, we also spoke about why he decided to enter the hawker industry and his approach to expanding the business.

Watch our interview with Kai to find out more about his thought process when approaching the hawker business (Video by Wu Jian Xiao)

Expanding The Stall’s Reach Through Social Media

Besides engaging existing customers, Roast Paradise actively seeks to expand their customer base through social media as well. It was interesting to us because it mirrored a business phase known as aggressive acquisition – think about how credit cards often give away free gifts to entice new people to sign up, or Uber giving away free rides. The way Kai and Randall integrated their past corporate experience into the hawker business has enabled them to develop a unique business model which proved to be successful. They were able to build a regular customer base and generated awareness about their stall in a much shorter timeframe.

We decided to do a quick Google search on their stall, which revealed many avenues for discovering the stall such as Facebook, Instagram, food bloggers etc. Immediately we recalled Kai mentioning that he had to reach out to many food bloggers during the time of launch, which was part of the acquisition strategy he had mapped out long before he opened the stall. While the simple strategy of ‘retain and expand’ was nothing new to the business world, Kai’s application of ‘retain and expand’ added another dimension to the conventional hawker strategy of simply producing good food and relying on the word of mouth for publicity. These initiatives taken to publicise their stall using social media received affirmation from the famous Singapore food blogger Johor Kaki (Tony), who shared with us his views on why cafes are so successful and how we could adapt the use of social media to promote the hawker industry.

Watch the video to find out more about Johor Kaki’s opinions on the use of social media in the hawker business (Video by Wu Jian Xiao)

In Search of the Perfect Fishball Noodle: Tom’s Citizoom Mee Pok Tar

As Johor Kaki had observed, there were not many young hawkers who sought out new ways to engage their customers like Randall and Kai. Our second hawker, Tom, embodied a different approach. Young but with 7 years’ experience under his belt, Tom’s philosophy in hawkering seemed more closely aligned with the older generation of hawkers who were primarily focused on improving their cooking skills. We could find little evidence of social media publicity on Tom’s fishball noodles as we snooped around the web. Tom decided to let his food speak for itself, and believed that good quality food required no marketing gimmicks (he also mentioned in the interview video below that he had little time for maintaining these social media platforms!)

Check out Tom’s pursuit of the perfect fishball noodle and his daily routines in the video above. (Video by Wu Jian Xiao)

To Tom, the hawker trade is not about well-played business strategies. Contrary to Kai, he did not believe in expanding his franchise or tapping on technology to gain as many customers as possible. Like an intricate craftsman, Tom pursued doggedly the perfecting of his recipes. We were greatly surprised at his humility when we gave him feedback on his food. He mentioned that it was truly 4 years of trial and error on his part to try and obtain the optimal taste for his fishball noodles and he still had some ways to go. He smiled at us as we tried to probe about how tough hawker life was, simply saying that it was something he got used to a long time ago.

Hungry for More

As we concluded the last interview, some questions were answered, but deeper ones emerged from our discoveries. How sustainable or replicable will Kai’s ‘from-PR-to-Hawker’ business strategies be? Should Tom’s dogged pursuit for perfection in his food craft be what all hawkers aspire to? Through this journey, we became slightly more aware of the role we played in the stories of these young hawkers. We could become pillars of support for hawkers like Tom and Kai by sharing our experiences using our own social media platforms. Or we could simply make the effort to drop by their stalls and sample their craft. We, as consumers, decide how much (or how little) we want to be part of their hawker stories and the Singapore hawker culture. The words Tony left us with echoed in our heads: “The Singaporeans should not just talk about supporting hawker food. Go and eat it, go and queue!”

Johor Kaki’s passionate appeal to the youth of Singapore. Time to go and queue. (Video by Wu Jian Xiao)

Featured image: Delicious roasted Char Siew by young hawkers Kai & Randall from Roast Paradise (Picture by Roast Paradise)

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