COVID-19 forced his beehoon stall to shut - so NTU undergrad cooks for hundreds of folks in need
Over a month after he opened his on-campus supper stall, this enterprising 20-year-old lost his student customer base. Now, he and his friends help feed the elderly free breakfast instead, with 1,500 packets served so far.
SINGAPORE: Lee Ray Sheng was thrilled when his fried beehoon stall opened for business at the end of February.
Raydy Beehoon opened into the wee hours of the morning, catering to hungry students living on campus. For the 20-year-old computer science undergraduate at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) this stall was a labour of love more than half a year in the making.
He’d begun working on the financial sums over six months ago, and spent a good three months looking for a suitable location for the stall before finding one at the university’s Canteen 13.
Ray Sheng and three of his school friends then spent another three months cooking beehoon in his hall pantry and serving it up to friends, hoping through their feedback to perfect his recipe.
“To me, it was the only way we could create a product that everyone likes,” he said, chuckling.
Billed as NTU’s first supper spot, the stall enjoyed brisk business in its first few weeks. But when “circuit breaker” measures took effect on Apr 7, all students living on campus were told to move out of their residences – eliminating his entire customer base and forcing him to close.
Ray Sheng and his friends took that blow and turned it into an opportunity to “make a positive change”, using their new skills and plentiful free time. Since Apr 13, they have been cooking and delivering breakfast to needy beneficiaries, mostly elderly.
In just over a week, the group has delivered more than 1,500 packets of beehoon, largely to people living in the west of Singapore.
And, they plan to hit an even more ambitious target: 15,000 packets in the next six weeks of the extended “circuit breaker”.
FILLING A GAP FOR LATE-NIGHT BEEHOON
From a young age, Ray Sheng was passionate about the F&B industry. At 14, he worked part-time at McDonald’s for two years, before joining online food catering company Grain, first to do deliveries and then in an office role handling matters like accounting and finance.
The experience and the contacts he made in the industry, he said, stood him in good stead for his next venture.
As an undergraduate living on campus, he’d noticed that his peers enjoyed visiting a popular beehoon stall off campus for supper. Some of them, he said, would take taxis out in groups, while others were even willing to pay other students a fee to bring the bee hoon back to them.
“At first I thought maybe the beehoon was really nice … but then I realised it was the timing,” he said, explaining that on campus, there was nothing to eat after 10pm besides McDonald’s. “So we thought, why not just start our own stall?”
Ray Sheng pumped all his savings – about S$15,000 to S$20,000 – into his venture, and roped in three school friends as managers. They each chipped in seed money, totalling about 5 per cent of the total investment, in return for a stake in the business, which he registered in mid-February.
On Feb 24, Raydy Beehoon was born, and it enjoyed good business from the get-go, he said, with customers waiting up to 40 minutes for their food during peak periods.
And then the COVID-19 restrictions started kicking in.
When the tables and chairs in the canteen were closed off and they could only offer takeaways, he estimates that business dropped by about 30 per cent.
And with exams cancelled and international students returning to their home countries, the anticipated revenue peak – fuelled by students studying for exams late into the night – never came.
Instead, they had to close their stall.
“So many worries came,” said Ray Sheng. “What’s going to happen to our stock… our rental?”
Their grand plans for expanding to the National University of Singapore or opening an outlet in an MRT station had to be put on hold.
TURNING IT INTO SOMETHING GOOD
The good news was, he said, that the group could now take a breather from their punishing schedules juggling schoolwork and the business.
“We’d been working non-stop since we opened, and I’d been at the stall almost every night,” said Ray Sheng. “So we took it in a good light.”
He added that on their last night of business, there was an “overwhelming” outpouring of support from customers, which meant they could clear most of their stock. Their stall rental, which comprises a base rent of S$2,000 and 12 per cent of revenue generated, was also halved for the month of April.
But staying at home every day gave him “itchy hands”, and that was when he realised that this was the best time for them to do something good.
“We are full-time students, and we still live with our parents,” he said. “Even if we don’t have an income, it doesn’t hurt us as badly as others who are affected by this.”
So if we don’t do this now, then when?
“We considered several things, before we thought… why not just cook some beehoon for (those in need)? We have the skills, so why not we provide the labour?”
The group started an online fundraising campaign, hoping to raise enough money to cover the cost of food ingredients, packaging and petrol costs for delivery. In just over a week, they raised about SS$9,000 of an initial target of S$10,000.
“People shared it very quickly,” he said. “Someone even donated S$1,000 anonymously.”
They hooked up with charity organisation Food Bank to help distribute the food to needy beneficiaries.
THEIR FIRST HIRE
Their routine six days a week now is this: Starting from 5am, Ray Sheng and his team prepare and pack about 200 packets of beehoon at a catering kitchen space offered to them for free.
From about 9am, Ray Sheng and one friend – driving their parents’ cars – set out to drop the food off at Food Bank’s headquarters and three more designated drop-off points in the western part of Singapore. Volunteers then go door-to-door distributing the beehoon to the beneficiaries.
But besides donating time and effort, Ray Sheng also wanted to help someone who had lost their jobs due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“Initially, it was just me and another of my managers doing all the cooking, so I thought I could get some help,” he said. “I had been seeing more and more people posting online about losing their jobs. So I thought, ’why not find someone who knows how to cook beehoon?’”
Ben had applied for the position not knowing that he was already friends with Ray Sheng – whom he knew only as Ray. Ben had worked at the canteen stall next to Raydy Beehoon as a cook, before being placed on no-pay leave.
He became Ray Sheng’s first hire, and is now a chef-mentor figure to the team. “We changed up our cooking based on his advice, and we realised the beehoon tasted so much better after that,” said Ray Sheng.
EXPANDING EVEN FURTHER
When the “circuit breaker” was extended till Jun 1, however, Ray Sheng realised that they would need to redouble their efforts.
Besides their current kitchen located in the western part of Singapore, they plan to also expand their operations with an additional kitchen in the north of the island, and serve a second charity organisation, Willing Hearts.
From Friday (Apr 24), they will begin cooking and delivering food from both kitchens, doubling their output to 400 packets of beehoon a day. With more than 1,500 breakfasts distributed already, they hope to hit 15,000 by the end of the “circuit breaker” come Jun 1.
Their fundraising target has also increased from S$10,000 to S$40,000; and they hope to hire one more chef for the kitchen in the west, plus recruit five more volunteers to help with delivery.
“I’m dedicating all my time to this,” Ray Sheng said. “I’ve changed my sleep schedule and planned my whole day around this.”
He is encouraged by the response so far to his fundraiser, which reinforces his belief in Singaporeans’ generosity. It’s a point driven home by yet another complete stranger who donated S$500 initially to the first phase of their campaign, and S$500 more upon hearing about the planned expansion.
“We want to have a lasting impact in what we do,” Ray Sheng said. “Ultimately, we started this for the people, and we never expected anything in return.
“Our hearts are full.”
For more on Ray Sheng’s fundraising campaign: https://give.asia/campaign/raydy-gives