SINGAPORE: The lunch crowd is normally a force to be reckoned with and Mr Eric Lee, who runs Arcade Fish Soup, would attest to that. The 17-year-old franchise has three stalls in the heart of the Central Business District (CBD) and the snaking queues were always a “good problem”.
But when "circuit breaker" measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 were announced in April, Mr Lee’s world turned topsy-turvy. With most workplaces closing and implementing work-from-home arrangements, Arcade Fish Soup’s sales declined as foot traffic in the CBD fell sharply.
“We’ve been at that location for so long, most people who know us work in the CBD. So it was really awful, we suffered at least an 80 per cent drop in business.”
Mr Lee’s business, which thrived on word-on-mouth before, has never employed any form of advertising or delivery services. But with the new measures in place, where no dine-ins were allowed, the 37-year-old was left with “no choice”.
“We had to start offering delivery online. And that’s when I realised we had zero social media presence.”
The biggest challenge for Mr Lee, who is a self-confessed social media newbie, was the lack of product photos to post online.
“I was still using my professional photos from 15 years ago and I tried taking photos using my handphone by learning from YouTube, but they did not look good at all,” he said sheepishly.
Just when he was wondering how many times he could recycle his material, Jeryl Tan’s Facebook post caught his eye - the freelance lifestyle photographer was offering a one-time, free food photography and styling service to F&B businesses during the circuit breaker period.
Mr Lee was in disbelief. “I thought it was too good to be true for such a deal to exist because to take professional photos, it could cost you up to hundreds and thousands.”
THE POWER OF SOCIAL MEDIA
When it comes to social media presence, 28-year-old Mr Tan could not be more different than Mr Lee. The photographer has 76,000 followers on his Instagram page, which features flashy cityscapes all around the world - while the hawker has yet to get a page up and running as it is “too confusing”.
But circuit breaker measures have put them both in the same boat. Mr Tan also saw a sharp decline of about “70 per cent and more” in the number of jobs and he has been sustaining himself through small product shoots that he can do from home.
The idea to offer free photography services came when he thought of how he could help others and fully utilise his time instead of “binging on Netflix”.
“I noticed that there were a lot of Facebook groups for hawkers but they may not be inclusive to those who are not social media savvy,” he said. “It actually requires good visual content for people to want to click into your business.”
“So I thought, why don't I help these people who don’t have access to photography? Hopefully, the photos will get them the sales and clicks they need.”
READ: 'It’s about trying until our last breath': New F&B players cook up survival plans for COVID-19 crisis
Mr Tan, who started freelancing five years ago, also recognised that photography can be expensive for small businesses. He estimated that a photo could cost S$50-150, depending on the photographer’s experience and equipment needed.
Not everyone would find that money worth spending, Mr Tan added, if they do not understand social media as a form of advertising. Mr Lee was one of them.
“We weren’t convinced in the beginning but when I started hearing about Hawker United, I realised how powerful social media can be,” he explained. Hawkers United – Dabao 2020 is a community initiative on Facebook that provides a cost-free avenue for hawkers to promote their food and take online orders.
“Now, I’m a firm believer of social media,” said Mr Lee.
READ: Transition to a 'new normal' after circuit breaker: How will measures be lifted beyond Phase 1?
JUST LIKE A PROFESSIONAL SHOOT
Even though he is shooting for free, Mr Tan makes sure that every business and hawker is treated as a professional client.
“I communicate a lot with the businesses to find out more about their products and what message they’re trying to get across on social media.
“It’s the photographer’s job to understand and capture the essence of their business.”
After he posted about the initiative on Facebook and Instagram last week, he received 45 requests. Mr Tan also emphasised that none of the food he receives is wasted.
“I only schedule two to three shoots a day, if not there’ll be too much food,” he said with a laugh. “After the shoot, my family and I will just heat it up and finish it.”
However, not every business would “commit” to the shoot after they find out more about the process of putting it together.
“I'll always let them know that other than the food itself, props like the bowls, cutlery, spices and ingredients - all these have to come from them, because my household items might not be sufficient,” Mr Tan explained.
“If it’s a shoot for a bakery, they would have to deliver a baking tray to me as I don’t have one.”
Mr Tan also takes care in styling the food, making sure that core ingredients are the highlight of the photos, for example.
“For fish soup, I cannot have the fish slices sinking to the bottom - I need to make sure that I have enough ingredients at the bottom so that they will stay afloat. So I had to request more cabbage to prop the fish up,” he explained.
With this project, he also hopes that people will see the planning and hours that go behind a photo shoot. For one, Mr Lee was impressed by Mr Tan’s effort and professionalism, given that the photos were free.
“The photos were done really nicely - when he sent them to me, I used them immediately,” Mr Lee added. He noticed “a 50-60 per cent increase in orders” after using them on Facebook and delivery platforms.
“Through this we realised that a good product picture tells a much better story than what words can convey and Jeryl’s photos definitely had more impact than the ones I took on my handphone.”
Mr Tan said that several businesses have told him that their sales have improved ever since, which encourages him greatly.
“I was also quite surprised that some even offered to even send one more set of food another day...they really make me feel appreciated.”
For Mr Lee, Mr Tan’s kindness earned him a life-time supply of free fish soup. “I had to force him to accept since he didn't ask for anything at all in return,” he said with a laugh.