Meet the new ‘hawkerpreneurs’ of Singapore

SINGAPORE — Is having a degree a pre-requisite to be a hawker? That may be the case, quipped Faye Sai, who runs Coffee Break, a coffee and drinks stall, with her brother Jack and twin sister Anna at Amoy Street Food Centre on Maxwell Road.

They will be joining other second- and third-generation “hawkerpreneurs” who will be setting up stalls this weekend at the National Museum of Singapore as part of this year’s Singapore HeritageFest (SHF).

The event, called A Taste Of Heritage, which is on this evening, will feature food stalls on the museum’s front lawn — replicating the scene from the 1960s when food stalls were set up outside the building — and feature popular local dishes such as rojak, wonton noodles, roti prata, laksa and satay.

Faye was reacting to news about the recent number of hawkers who hold degrees in various fields except food and beverage. The 29-year-old is a graduate of the Singapore Institute of Management and majored in marketing, while her brother graduated from Singapore Management University’s School of Social Sciences with a degree in political science.

He was the first to join the family business full-time in 2011, while Faye explored other opportunities (including a two-year stint as a sports and events marketing executive with the Volleyball Association of Singapore). A passion for speciality coffee led her to pick up the craft of pulling a proper espresso at Selfish Gene Cafe and Strangers’ Reunion for about a year before she, too, joined the family business.

“It was a natural progression; I was just stalling,” she said with a laugh, but explained how she “could afford it” with her brother already working there full-time.

Faye said her brother’s decision to run the stall was driven by “a passion for something to call his own”, while her sister Anna, who previously worked as a pre-school teacher, only joined last October.

This is still a business their father owns, and while they keep their focus on preserving the tradition of sock-brewed local coffee, their father remains “supportive” of the innovative new additions to the menu, which include sock-brewed espresso-based drinks, from lattes to Americanos to flavoured coffees.

(Her father was the first to introduce new flavours such as almond- and mint-flavoured coffees, which he came up with when he moved the stall from Boon Tat Street to its current location in 2008.)

More people see being a hawker as a viable career, Faye said, adding that with the growing focus on preserving heritage, it has become trendy. She shared how a customer, who worked in a bank, was inspired by their youthful confidence and opened a fish soup stall of his own.

Other hawkers, who are in their 30s or younger, are proof that a good education does not have to get in the way of one’s passion. These include siblings Cho Aimin, 30, who had previously worked at Macquarie Securities for three years, and her brother Jonathan, 28. Both have a bachelor’s degree in business management and are the third-generation hawkers behind the famous Cho Kee Noodles, which will also be part of the hawker pop-up at the museum.

Then there’s Tom Loo, 31, of Tom’s Cityzoom Mee Pok Tar in Ghim Moh, who felt the calling to be a hawker too hard to resist. The graduate from Singapore Polytechnic started learning how to make fish balls from a friend’s mother right after he did his National Service in 2007 and opened a stall the following year with his savings (the kitchen equipment was sponsored by a friend’s mother).

“My diploma is in computer and network engineering and has nothing to do with my current job; maybe maths helps me calculate my income,” he joked.

The hawker trade is one-of-a-kind for many reasons, such as its work environment, long hours and the need for a hands-on approach, said Joel Chia of the Truly Group. It operates industrial kitchen Truly Test Kitchen in Tai Seng, which comprises four stalls selling porridge, noodles, curry rice and western food.

Chia, a former forex trader, said it was encouraging that social and traditional media had been highlighting several stories of young professionals entering the hawker trade. “It’s always heartening to see young Singaporeans willing to put aside their previous endeavours to dive into this somewhat unorthodox and unpopular industry,” shared the 30-year-old.

“A common streak that runs within these young hawkers is the ability to sacrifice what we are in the present for what we want to become in future,” he added. “The few young hawkers whom I know are often driven by a similar passion and love for hawker food — and a burning desire to contribute to the preservation and enhancement of this art form.”

Chia and his business partners — Deniece Tan and his brother Joshua — started with a stall selling curry rice at a small hawker centre on Telok Blangah Drive in 2013. He said that their aim was to grow the business “organically and steadily”. And, no, it is not a stepping stone to launching a bistro or something more hip.

“From start to finish, this has and will always be a business focused on bringing delicious local food at amazing value to people from all walks of life, and this is a philosophy that will never change.

“My team and I have no intention to steer away from this focus on the everyday meal for the everyday man. This will always be food made by the people for the people.”

He added: “In my humble opinion, the standard education system in Singapore prepares us for a more academic career … These (intellectual and management) skill sets do come in very handy in the hawker trade as well, though the need for a hands-on role in a hawker stall environment might require some adjustments.”

Keith Low, 25, who opened year-old Lad & Dad with his father hawking British comfort food at Serangoon Garden Market, affirmed how convictions have changed. “The younger generation are starting to realise that what their parents used to preach — study hard, get a good job, get married, buy a house — were not the key to a fulfilling life,” said Low, who ventured into the hawker business straight after graduating from university in the United Kingdom last year.

“Apart from my passion for the hawker scene, which my dad shares, I have always wanted to be an entrepreneur. I had plans to introduce Singaporeans to various British dishes and I believed that a hawker centre was the best way to do that.

“I also wanted to break the stereotype that hawkers are uneducated, uncouth and that it’s an unglamorous job.”

Low also feels that Singaporeans are more open to new ideas and challenges. “Usually when someone is not satisfied with a job, they tend to look for other safe opportunities (such as) a similar job at another organisation,” he explained.

“However, these people are now willing to take a leap from the comfort zones of their office jobs to a hawker centre, as they notice an increasing number of people (also) willing to do so.”

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