SINGAPORE: They had not yet graduated from university, but like many of their peers, Joanne Heng and Chan Kheng Yee were already out and about looking for a full-time job. A posting on online portal Gumtree caught their attention, and they responded to the call for “interns” the very next day.
Like any job application, the two friends had to go through a job interview filled with questions about their sincerity, motivation and commitment to the position.
But this job required very different skill sets from your typical office job: Anson Loo, the person who made the post on Gumtree, was looking for young interns to help him run his hawker stall.
“I realised that there are young people who want to become hawkers, but face a lot of financial constraints,” said Anson, who sells prawn mee at Ghim Moh food centre. “So I thought, why not target young people with no experience, so I can give them the training from scratch?”
YOUNG AND INEXPERIENCED, BUT PASSIONATE
Of the seven who applied, Anson said Joanne and Kheng Yee fit his requirements the best. They were young, passionate and completely new to the hawker trade. And indeed, the two, who met while they were studying in the polytechnic, recalled bonding over a shared interest in F&B even as students.
“We used to do part-time jobs at events or pasar malams, and after all these jobs, we realised the joy and satisfaction of serving people food we created ourselves,” said Joanne, a sociology graduate from the National University of Singapore (NUS). “We always preferred it to admin or office jobs.
“And besides, we both love to eat.”
Their initial post-graduation plan, they explained, was to find an office job to earn enough money to set up their own food business. But they knew they would be dragging their feet to work every day, they added.
A chance online search, however, led them to Anson, and on the route to becoming full-fledged hawkers.
“We just searched Gumtree with keywords, and we typed in the word ‘hawker’,” said Kheng Yee, who has a psychology degree from the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS). “His post came out tops.”
Their decision in June was without a doubt, an unconventional path for young university graduates. And the two recalled the shock and surprise from their friends and family when they first started.
“My parents were expecting me to get an office job, or become a teacher, and they didn’t expect me to go into this line,” said Kheng Yee. “My friends were quite shocked, but then at the same time they were also encouraging, because I think for our generation, the focus is on doing things we want to do, and excelling in it.”
It is a flurry of activity in the tiny stall, and the two go about their daily tasks quickly and confidently: De-veining and de-shelling the fresh prawns, slicing the pork and cooking the noodles.
They greet their customers with warm smiles, encouraging them to add on an extra fish cake to each steaming bowl of fragrant prawn noodles that they serve up, and swiftly dispatching each order to the waiting customer.
Dressed in matching red shirts emblazoned with the logo of their stall, Prawn Village, it is hard to imagine the difficulties the two said they went through just a few months ago.
But there were teething issues when they first started work in June.
At the time, Prawn Village opened for business at 9am, and the two said their biggest initial challenge was waking up early enough to get to work by 7.15am – a necessity, given the numerous tasks they have to complete before they serve their first customer.
“I have to wake up at 5.30am every day, and not press the snooze button,” said Joanne, laughing. “And after that you’re aching everywhere.”
“There was this once, we were really very late, and Anson asked us if we really treat this as work, or if we want it to be like a school, where there’s discipline,” added Kheng Yee.
The early mornings have got even earlier ever since the stall relocated to Ghim Moh in December, as they now serve their first customer at 6am. Now, they wake up at 1.30am to accompany Anson to buy the fresh seafood, before starting preparation work at 3am.
As inexperienced hawkers, learning to cook the food and prepare the ingredients efficiently also took them a while.
“My memory isn’t very good, so remembering orders was my biggest challenge,” said Joanne. “Especially for those people who come and order, then go and sit down.
“Then later, they will come and tell me that my noodles are very nice, but my service is very bad!”
But they got up to speed after a few months of hard work, and lots of guidance from Anson.
“On my first day, I remember thinking ... there are so many different types of noodles and I’ll have to remember them ... and I thought that level was unreachable,” added Joanne. “But over time when I look back, I realised that I’ve grown so much since the very first day that we started.”
“I never thought I would touch these noodles, and now we’re cooking them.”
And despite Anson having some initial doubts about their abilities, they have progressed to the point where he is now able to let the two of them run the stall independently.
“I was a little sceptical about their attitude and commitment, because there were initially some hiccups due to communication breakdowns,” he said. “But they showed me that they are not quitters.”
“They are really determined, they try very hard, and they can accept my scolding. That’s very impressive.”
TIME FLIES WHEN YOU’RE HAVING FUN
It is hard work. The two work 12-hour shifts, six days a week. They also have to clean the stall thoroughly at the end of each day and do the dishes.
And there is also much work behind the scenes. After assessing their skills and interests, Anson tasked the two girls with different responsibilities – Joanne handles the logistics of ordering and deals with suppliers, while Kheng Yee does research and development on the food, experimenting with new recipes and trying out different noodles.
This means that even when business tapers off, they have things to do. Despite the long hours, they say they wouldn't have it any other way.
“When customers like our noodles, they come back and give us the feedback, saying that our noodles are fantastic, and they’ll recommend more friends to come,” said Kheng Yee. “I feel like the customers can tell that I cook my noodles with heart, and it’s really nice to hear what they say.”
And in August, they also got a little surprise from Anson, in the form of a promotion.
The initial plan, he explained, was to take the two on as “interns” on a profit sharing basis, with Anson taking 50 per cent of the profits, and the two splitting the remaining 50 per cent. But after doing this for two months, he realised the model did not sustain the incomes of all three of them.
“So we sat down and discussed, and we realised that the two of them can actually run the stall by themselves,” he said. “So I told them if you are keen, let’s work on a timeline where I’ll exit from this business, and let the two of you run this whole show yourselves, and I will give you 90 per cent of the profit.
“And then I’ll look around for other stalls to do the same thing.”
Though the promotion came as a surprise to Joanne and Kheng Yee, they agreed, and are now full-fledged partners in the business. But they are not taking it for granted: Work still goes on, and plans are in the pipeline to expand the stall further.
“Hopefully, we can make it even bigger than it is now,” said Joanne. “And maybe next time, we’ll be the ones recruiting interns.”