Saturday, 11 April 2015

The Future of Hawker Centres - How to keep prices low, food tasty, and the culture alive.

The solution is Democracy.

To be more precise: Meritocratic Democracy.

Who knows good food? Most, if not all of us.

Did you ever have a favourite hawker, and then he moved because the rent was raised?

At that time, didn't you wish you owned the coffee shop so you could give the hawker cheap rent so he could continue to do his business and you could continue to enjoy his food?

I did.

There was a prata stall at the coffee shop at my block. It was not the BEST prata, but it was pretty good. Curry was pretty substantial and flavourful (not the sad, thin watery dhall you get at some places), and the prata kosong were square. That is very rare today. I miss it.

The coffee shop changed owners 5 times over 12 or so years. The prata stall hung on for maybe 3 changes of ownership, but the 4th change came with a rent hike that was too much. So it closed. Or moved. I don't know.

Another stall moved in - Western food. Damn good fish and chips - hawker was "London-trained". But when the 5th owner took over, the fish and chips stall also moved. The rent went up by 250% or something, according to the hawker.

Now the coffee shop is half empty. Three or more of the stalls are permanently vacant. I hardly go there any more. Bravo, coffee shop owner.

Businessmen can be quite stupid. One owner (I think it was the 2nd) turned the coffee shop into a 24 hour joint. There is NOTHING around except HDB flats after 10 pm. I could be wrong, but my assessment was that the 24 hour experiment was a failure. The next owner dropped the 24 hour operations.

The turnover and turnover of the ownership of the coffeeshop over the years just introduced change (apparently simply for the sake of change) and not all the changes were rational, reasonable, or advantageous to the residents. And for the hawkers, it was the hike in rent. (Here is a good history/overview of the hawkers/hawker centres in Singapore, and the different rent hawkers are paying.)

So... What if... the Residents OWNED the coffee shop?

What if the residents get to choose the hawkers, and give the good hawkers concessionary rental, and in return the hawkers must sell food to the residents at a concessionary price? (The hawkers are free to charge non-residents higher price.)

This is like Fantasy League, but you get to put together the Best Damn Hawkers in YOUR Coffee Shop.

What if the coffee shop were a community-owned asset, and run by the residents' committee (or a coffee shop committee, and the hawkers were selected by the residents? What if the price of the flats included a share in the Coffee shop, and the residents can vote on the hawkers to be given concessionary rent to operate their stalls for specific hours.

Low rents just encourage hawkers to take it easy, and operate for shorter hours.

Understandable really.

But a Resident-owned Coffee shop would have a selection process where good hawkers are contracted to provide low-priced food for minimum hours of operations in exchange for low rents (you can imagine that Residents will compete to get famous or good hawkers to operate from their coffee shop). Or hours of operations could be specified. For different types of stalls

If the hawker is really good, he may even get the stall rent-free, but in exchange for some other concessions (or more concessions).

Composition of Hawker Stalls

There will be rules and guidelines for selecting the hawkers. At least one stall must be set aside for Halal food (this rule can be over-ruled if more than 85% of the residents vote to over-rule it). Other rules can be voted on. If there are at least 30% of votes for say Vegetarian food, then a stall must be set aside for that. It may be vegetarian stall, Indian food, Western food, or any category residents may think of. Maybe residents want "healthy food stall" and healthy food is defined as either Yong Tau Foo, Kway Teow Fishball Soup, Sliced Fish soup etc. That can be a category.

Categories may also be for specific meals - some stalls provide "breakfast food", another stall might be Dinner stall (Tze Char), and some stalls are all day stalls. The rule then could be, at least one breakfast stall, one dinner stall, and one all-day stall.

What if there are more categories than stalls?

The category with the least votes can be dropped. Or the hawker candidates can provide a food-tasting. Then the committee/residents vote on the best 5 hawkers.

Or there can be stall sharing. Breakfast and dinner stalls can share one stall and save on rent.

If there are not enough hawkers, or if the residents cannot agree on how to fill the last vacant stall, the vacant stall can be rented out on a monthly basis by tender or on application. This can be for a resident or new hawker who wants to try hawkering. Or visiting hawkers to try out a new location, or just for a change of environment (and for residents to try out a new hawker). Or the stall could be a mini Pasar Malam/flea market selling non-food goods, handmade crafts, etc.

The Drinks Stall

Typically, the drinks stall is run by the coffee shop owner. Residents can hire a manager to run the drinks stall for them. Or they may do away with the drinks stall and install vending machines. Or they may outsource the drinks stall to one of the beer companies to run and sell their beer. Lots of options and alternatives.

I am old-fashioned and I kinda like the idea of the old coffee stall with hot drinks, cold drinks and toast and soft-boiled eggs. If you are like me, and if enough of the residents think like me, the drinks & toast stall will be tendered out to a vendor who will provide a traditional coffee shop drinks stall fare - drinks and breakfast menu.

Or you could tender it out to Ya Kun or Killiney Kopitiam or one of the other similar chains.

The Ambience, Pricing

The Residents will decide whether to leave the coffee shop naturally ventilated augmented with fans, or air-condition the coffee shop. I would suggest non-aircon, but others may have a different view.

Residents could negotiate for a Resident's Price (in exchange for the lower rent), But this is negotiated between the hawker and the Resident (or representative). A really good hawker who is in demand, may well offer NO resident's Discount. But if you have the hawker, you have the convenience of having a good (famous?) hawker in your coffee shop.

The discount could be given only on specific sets, or only at certain times/meals, or with confirmation of resident's status, or only for take-away, etc. For example, a hawker may only give discount if you provide your own container for take-away. This satisfies the hawker that you are likely a resident.

Or the hawkers/Coffee shop can sell discounted meal coupons only to residents.

If the coffee shop is always crowded (because the Committee did such a good job of putting together the Best Damn Coffee Shop), it may be possible to set a side a Resident's dining area so residents will have some priority (Note that this will have to be negotiated with the hawkers - this could affect their business, so they won't like it.)

And hawker food prices have to rise.

Additional Services

- Tingkat/Tiffin Meal service.
The managing agent (if one is appointed to run the drinks stall) could be required to manage a meal delivery service for frail elderly or disabled residents. This may be a needed service in blocks with high numbers of frail elderly

Or even just for busy working couples.

- Pre-booked Dinners/Celebrations/Catering
Mother's day, birthdays, anniversaries, Full month celebration catering, and various celebrations. When the coffee shop downstairs was doing well (good tze char), customers would book tables for Mother's day. Not everyone can or wants to go to Lei Gardens.

- Meals for Children
Residents can arrange for their children to have their meals at the coffee shop, and to pay the hawker on a monthly basis, at a bulk rate. If there is a breakfast stall, parents can send their children to the coffee shop for breakfast before school, so they can be assured that their children don't go to school hungry and they can leave the preparation of breakfast to the hawker and the drinks stall (Milo?). After school, the parents can be sure that their children will have something for lunch.

If there is a coupon system, the children could use the coupons to buy what they like. Or there could be schedule - different hawker meals for different days, or the tze char stall (if there is one) can provide a rotating set of meals for different days of the week.

Many different arrangements. All can be decided by residents.

The Committee

Residents can be very hands-on - organising a Coffee Shop Committee, with members to be elected every few years to run the coffee shop. The committee could have rules and guidelines as to what stalls they should have and what they can offer the hawkers - how low the rent or how high the prices.

Or residents can be very hands-off. They can hire a managing agent to run the drinks stall and coffee shop according to rules and guidelines and leave it to the manager to work it all out. Or they can give specific instructions or guidelines on some aspects of the coffee shop.

They can even tender out the whole coffee shop and let Ya Kun, McDonalds, or KFC operate from the site. If that is their decision, and the decision of the residents. Today I think that won't fly, but who knows in 20 years?

Or maybe that could be part of the solution. Tender out 3 of the 5 stalls to established chains (Ya Kun, Old Chang Kee, McDonalds) and select old school hawkers for the remaining 2 stalls. Let the big chain cross-subsidise the old-school hawkers.


All the current proposals to save our hawker culture are very hands-off and bureaucratic solutions - getting a social enterprise, lowering stall rent (in unpopular areas), etc

These solutions ignore the group that most want the hawker culture to be saved - the people.

There is a truism about solving problems - give it to the one who most wants to solve it. That means the solution to the hawker culture lies with the people. This is not to say that this is the solution. This simply gives the people some control over the solution, and they can try to make it work. BUT the problem is still, who wants to be a hawker?
The dilemma of the Hawker in the future of Singapore landscape is very simply stated: Everybody wants to continue to enjoy good, cheap, hawker food. Almost nobody wants to be a hawker (with the insane working conditions), or would want their children to be hawkers.
So, the other question is, who is going to be the hawker in the future? Hawkers don't want their children to be hawkers!
Some hawker bosses have been known to not go that route. These elderly hawkers have told me: “I worked so hard to give them an education so they can get a good job, so they don’t have to do what I do. Why would I want them to take over (the business)?”
The truth that we have to accept is that Hawkers as we know it, are not coming back. The issue is opportunities. As the hawker quoted above said, the hawkers of yesteryears worked hard to give their children opportunities precisely so that they won't have to be hawkers.

So who wants to be hawkers?

I am sure that there are some people who have the passion for hawkering, love the idea of hawkering, and wants to be a hawker despite the difficulties and the sacrifice.

But are there enough of such people?

There are over 560 coffee shops and over 100 hawker centres in Singapore.

If each coffee shop has just 5 stalls and each hawker centre has just 30 stalls that would be about 6000 hawker stalls. Not counting food courts and smaller set-ups.

There may be a need for 8000 or more hawkers to fill all these coffee shops.

So the question is, do we have 8000 (or more) people (Singaporeans) who have the passion to he hawkers?

The Residents-owned coffee shop is not a full answer. At best it allows the residents some say, some control over the solution.

What will the future of the Hawker Culture in Singapore be Like?

(To be Continued.)

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