After Denise Chew (also known as Deanna) converted to Islam in 2009, she had a tough time finding a ‘halal’ alternative to her favourite food – prawn noodles.
The traditional recipe is boiled with pork bones and served with lean meat and lard, so she decided to tweak her mother’s recipe to concoct her own Muslim-friendly version.
It took her 6 long years to perfect the recipe before she’s finally satisfied with it.
According to Deanna, the soup is the ultimate dealbreaker – it is what makes or breaks the prawn noodle.
She substitutes pork bones with chicken bones; and throws in heaps of prawn shells, anchovies, and dried shrimps to the broth before boiling it for three hours to extract the seafood flavour.
Needless to say, the perfected broth captured the hearts and tastebuds of many, especially her husband’s family.
“They had never tasted prawn mee before and I was so touched that they had been requesting for this dish at every gathering,” recounted Deanna in her Instagram post.
“What gave me the most pride was my mother-in-law’s constant endorsement. It was then that my husband and I realised that we should share this dish with more people.”
From Bankers To Hawkers
The 34-year-old then took it to Instagram to post her signature prawn noodles.
Orders from strangers started snowballing, and she has since garnered a strong following of over 27,000 fans today.
“Some followers started to ask if I could sell the prawn mee, so I did. It went from a quarterly pop-up sale to almost a weekly affair, where limited quantities were put on sale.”
“Business was promising, and sales were brisk. But we realised that we cannot rely on just Instagram to reach out to the masses, so we figured that the best way is to set up a physical stall.”
So when a stall at a hawker centre opposite their house was available for rent, the couple took it as a positive sign.
Deanna’s Kitchen was soon established in June 2017.
Deanna is still working as a full-time banker, but her husband, Muhammad Asri Ramili, 38 – who worked in the same sector – gave up his cushy job to run the stall with the help of two other employees.
They first opened for business during the fasting month, but it still did really well.
In fact, the stall often drew long queues, and customers even had to stand in line for close to 2 hours to get their halal prawn mee fix.
Their menu ranges from $3.50 for a regular bowl, to $38.50 for a seafood platter.
Asri said that they typically sell between 150 and 300 bowls a day; and on good months, they will usually sell out by 2pm.
According to Deanna, they cannot afford to replenish and sell more because each pot of soup takes more than 3 hours each time to boil – and most times, they boil it overnight.
“We don’t want to cut corners and make the soup less flavourful,” said Deanna.
“Moreover, we are exhausted after serving 300 bowls in that short period of time. Actually, exhausted does not even describe how tired and aching our bodies get [after a day at the stall].”
Challenges As A First-Time Hawker
Without any prior experience in the food industry, the couple admitted that it was tough to get their bearings right.
“Cooking at home with a 10-litre pot is really a huge difference as compared to [cooking with] a 100-litre pot,” lamented Deanna on Instagram.
She also shared that the couple was often taken advantage of due to their inexperience as first-time hawkers.
“We were given really crappy quotations from vendors, suppliers, and we even had to deal with a horrid t-shirt printing company.”
Our seafood man gave us good supplies for two days in the beginning, and then the quality just got worse day after day. We had [experienced our fair share of] mushy prawns, prawns that turned black when cooked, and clams that were not fresh.
“We have changed a total of three suppliers before sticking to the current one. We knew our quality of seafood had to improve, if not our efforts will be wasted.”
We’ve now locked in some quality suppliers, but they take the opportunity to increase the prices because they can see that we are getting some publicity. So this business is really damn difficult – you have people trying to ‘makan’ you all over.
At the end of the day, the couple said that they prioritise serving quality food to their customers – even if it means spending more money on securing a good supplier.
They also make an effort to fry their own shallots, which is a very labour-intensive and time-consuming task.
“We used to only go through 3kg of shallots a week, now it’s like 20kg a week. We tried to use ready-peeled shallots, but it backfired on us because the quality of it wasn’t always good.”
“Having our homemade fried shallots to go with our prawn mee is a must!”
Spurred by good business response so far, Asri said that they are looking to expand this year and are scouting for new locations so far.
We see many entrepreneurs jumping the gun nowadays and opening restaurants or cafés with very high start-up cost, but they don’t usually last very long.
“We believe that if we take things slow and get our bearings right, by God’s grace, we will be able to move along just fine. We want to show that we can start out small as a hawker stall before moving on to bigger things like introducing delivery, and eventually start a franchise or open several outlets.”
“Most importantly, you should have a unique product that will appeal to the mass.”
Toa Payoh West Hawker Centre
Blk 127, Toa Payoh Lor 1 #02-25
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Featured Image Credit: Ng Eng Hen