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Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Singapore Hawker Centre Story Part Four

I mentioned the pang brothers, Pang Lim and Pang Pok sold Aik Hua F & B in a deal that includes an industrial building in Tuas, all of their outlets except for one of two if I can remember correctly.
The action taken by the brothers were early warnings of an industry shake-up. Prior to that, these investor groups were investing heavily not just in acquiring outlets under a bullish real estate sentiment but also on central kitchen facilities as well as acquiring suppliers so mitigate the rising expansion costs.
The expansions also brought about strain on manpower, in particular the area of cleaning and upkeeping. It was a double whammy of the stick or the rod. You either face suspension of business from the NEA or clamp down by MOM for the employment of illegal workers, those whose work permit stated some other industry instead of cleaning. The Manpower Ministry was not prepared to ease licensing under this category only with the exception of those servicing the town councils. The press had reported some being caught for illegal employment as well as disputes with cleaning companies.
What is more significant to the decline in the business of serving hawker fare is an invasion of new food concepts. Backed by strong financing with some investors themselves being mall developers, companies like Ministry of Food, Minor food Group, and other single brand companies.
These new concept is easier to manage by investors as each brand needs a smaller space comparing to the need of a food court. They either come in smaller shop space or even a kiosk.
Unclean tables and time wasted waiting for available seating were some of the reasons why consumers were turning to these new food concepts even if they pay a little more, but time is more predictable and the gastronomic experience is also diverse.
Maybe Singaporeans are also getting bored with eating practically the same thing all the time.
Investors can have their exit plan and strategy, but what about the hawkers? I mentioned earlier about the issue of hawkers asking for high take-over fees to transfer their stalls, debated in parliament, and a stop to such transaction was eventually introduced.
I say it was unfair for the ministry to imposed the ban on transfer. The ministry's assumption was that such transaction will invariably transfer the cost to consumers resulting in higher food prices. This was advocated by those who believe that hawker food must be kept low.
What really matters in my opinion is the problem does not lie with the price of food, but with who is the consumer? My concern is with those who cannot afford, because they simply cannot afford. Not those who can afford but want food to cheaper so that they can have leftovers for some other indulgence.
The ministry had bought the argument that hawkers made a lot of money and therefore they are not entitled to selling their rights away for a windfall. The ministry must have forgotten comparably that these hawkers have no way of getting the kind of grants and assistance as industries and corporations enjoyed in very big ways.
Hawkers have to take care of their own medical bills unlike those employed who are covered. Hawkers pay CPF from their daily takings just to keep that license going. Hawkers don't enjoy retirement benefits or golden handshakes.
The ministry should have taken note of these factors and recognized that these transfer fees were actually delayed benefits due to the hawkers for serving others in the whole economic eco system. The ministry should have deny speculation instead of an across the board ban.
Indeed this could become a book, but there is no intention to be one, so I will stop here with comments about heritage and culture.
Whatever those with vested interest in promoting or propagating the concept of hawker food being a culture and having a heritage are up to, it is hot air they are trying to balloon.
Whatever that is due to preserved had been preserved, not through these lobbyists. Sin Leong Restaurant had its origin as a mobile hawker stall had its fair share of transformation and preserved status until they decided to call it quits.
Swee Kee fish head noodles better know as Ka So was a road side stall in Chinatown too had been preserved.
Big Nose (大鼻哥) was a road side stall in Smith Street and moved into the Oriental Cinema as a restaurant.
Those who knows cooking know that having the recipe alone can never replicate the original. Thio Ghim Siew whose brother Ghim Hock, CEO of OUE started a peranakan popiah outlet with the recipe from his aunt Mrs Florence Teo could not produced exactly the same original popiah.
Go try Kim's fried prawn noodle. What comes from the man himself and his assistant is different. Same with Ghim Tin.
I went to the Ci Yuan CC twice. I am not sure the model of social enterprise will work though I am hopeful they will. The banners outside says 24hrs, but the hawkers were all ready to have their time-card punched by 10pm.
Food business is not just about paying cheaper rental, economy of scale in procurement, or even a nice mission statement hoping for support. Maybe NTUC Foodfare may find the perfect solution if some of these pressure from government can be taken away.


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