SINGAPORE: A cult following, the thumbs up from food reviewers and an almost superhuman work ethic have kept many traditional food sellers going for decades.
Even with a successor in sight, however, these ingredients may not be enough to shield their trade from change.
Take, for example, My Cosy Corner, a shop in Coronation Shopping Plaza famous for its popiah, whose fans include national swimmer Quah Ting Wen and restaurateur Loh Lik Peng.
Owner Alice Hang’s 29-year-old son Abraham Leong is “constantly surprised” people know about his mother’s shop — which also sells mee siam, mee rebus and laksa — and is proud of what his parents have achieved since 1998.
“I just want to be able to continue that because it’s a legacy I don’t want to just throw away,” said Leong, who works at a tailor shop and helps them out at My Cosy Corner on weekends.
But the closure of even established restaurants owing to the pandemic has shown him the industry’s “thin” profit margins and made him realise “it’s like building a house on sand”.
“Definitely, I have a lot of uncertainty. That’s one of the few things I think about at night,” he said.
During Singapore’s Phase Two (Heightened Alert) from May 16 to June 13, only takeaways were allowed, and My Cosy Corner’s profits fell by 30 per cent compared to pre-COVID-19 levels.
But Hang, 63, did not sign up with delivery service GrabFood. She felt its 30 per cent commission was “very expensive”.
“If I didn’t increase the price of my food and stuck to the original price, it wouldn’t be worth it,” she said.
Her son added: “If I open my services to delivery, my existing customers would have to wait even longer during lunchtime. But I’d earn less from delivery because (the service providers) take a cut.”
LISTEN: Hawker food was never meant for delivery apps: Makansutra’s KF Seetoh and Hawkers United’s Melvin Chew
Hence delivery “doesn’t really make sense” for them, although he has not ruled out the option. “I understand that … not everyone can afford to drive across the island to get popiah, and sometimes it’s just way more convenient,” he said.
“I told my mum that we can’t just keep doing the same things (we did) pre-pandemic, because it’s a completely different world out there.”
The dining-out ban in Phase Two (Heightened Alert) impacted many hawkers, especially those in business districts, the show On The Red Dot found in its Hawk This Way series.
If places like My Cosy Corner shut, “it’d be a tragedy”, said Loh, a customer for over 10 years and the founder of hotel and restaurant group Unlisted Collection.
While he said some hawkers would do well to adapt better to technology, “the reality is that most of their customers have a hard time conceiving of a different dynamic” of hawker fare — specifically, what they are prepared to pay.
He thinks people should change their mindset that hawker food is cheap and not something that should cost them more than S$2 to S$3.
SLIPPING UNDER THE RADAR, BUT HANGING ON
While stallholders at centres managed by the National Environment Agency and its appointed operators received rental relief and other support, food blogger Leslie Tay noted that these subsidies would not necessarily apply to hawkers operating elsewhere.
Among other measures, the Government encouraged commercial landlords to support their food and beverage tenants during the recent phase. “Some are doing well. But the others are also falling under the radar, and they’re on their own,” Tay said.
At Jalan Berseh, Teochew fish ball noodle seller Sim Ah Tee operates in a private coffee shop. Like My Cosy Corner, he is not on any food delivery platform.
Sim said he had to pay the full rent even when dining out was not allowed. He earned about S$100 to S$200 a day and sometimes did not make enough to cover rent. Before the pandemic, he could earn S$500 to S$600 a day.
WATCH: Another dine-in ban: Hawkers without rental waivers (23:14)
But even for a S$3 portion, his noodles are generously topped with lard, minced meat, char siu, fish balls, fishcakes and fish dumplings, he said with pride.
Explaining his prices, he added: “This neighbourhood has many old people; they usually get the S$3 portion. (They) don’t have much money — how can they afford a S$4 portion?”
His stall, Ah Tee Ko Ko Mee, is named after the “kok kok” sound made by street hawkers hitting bamboo pieces to attract customers in the 1970s.
When he was young, his parents did not have money to send him to school. His father roped him in to sell noodles in Sungei Road so that he would not mix with bad company.
“I pushed the cart, hit the bamboo sticks, walked on the road and earned some money,” he recalled.
After his father died, patrons complained that his skills did not match his father’s. Sim spent a year mastering his craft before business started improving.
Today, customers such as The 1925 Brewing Co’s co-founder and executive chef Ivan Yeo praise the texture of his noodles, the juiciness of his fishcakes and the crunchiness of his fish balls.
At the age of 74, Sim still opens the stall at 5.30am. This means he leaves his home in Tampines by 4am.
WATCH: 74-year-old fish ball mee hawker can’t bear to retire after 50 years despite COVID-19 pandemic (3:45)
To neighbouring stall operator Nick Yeo, the routine is “really a bit crazy”, especially when there is not much business in the morning. But Sim said customers have eaten his noodles in the morning all this while.
Despite developing a deformity in his leg, he cannot bear to retire yet. “I’ve already done this for so many decades,” he said.
More than a decade ago, he did train his son, Calvin, to take over, and after three years, Sim gave him the capital to open a branch. Calvin initially set up shop in Beach Road before settling in Amoy Street.
Calvin said he operated the branch for about 10 years before shuttering it owing to rising rent, food and operating costs as well as manpower shortages. The hours were long, and he sacrificed time with his children and wife.
"It was really tough,” said the 49-year-old, who had considered the stall his “baby”.
It harked back to his childhood — he said he did not spend much time with his father, who worked seven days a week. If his father was short-handed, then Calvin helped out at the stall.
According to Sim, his son does not want to take over after he retires as he believes a salaried job is better.
But for Sim, the business has enabled him to raise two children with his wife, and he feels happy and proud when customers compliment his food.
“If I do retire, I’d keep my bamboo pieces as a memento because (they) have been with me for decades,” he said. “Does anybody want them? If anyone (does), I’d give it to them. Otherwise, I’ll take them home.”
Watch this episode of On The Red Dot here. The programme airs on Channel 5 every Friday at 9.30pm.