If people ask me if I regret [becoming a hawker], I would strongly say no. If you have the right elements and the right tools, it’s not tough. It’s just how you see it.
Randall Gan (28) is the co-founder of popular roast meat establishment Roast Paradise, and a ‘hawkerpreneur’.
This is a term that has gained popularity in recent years thanks to the rise of new-age hawkers, who are breathing new life into Singapore’s hawker scene with their creations.
And just like many of the hawkerpreneurs we’ve interviewed, Randall’s love for food and making it is infectious.
Greeting my colleague and I with a wide smile when we dropped by his newest establishment Fook Kin (the result of a collaboration with radio DJs The Muttons and burger joint Fat Boys) Randall wasted no time in picking out his recommendations, tapping on the iPad menu as he excitedly shared interesting anecdotes of each dish.
As a gatekeeper of the quality of char siew and siew yoke sold at Roast Paradise’s two outlets and Fook Kin, it’s hard to believe that one of Randall’s best dishes used to be “maggi mee with some extra liao*”. (*’ingredients’ in Mandarin)
In fact, Randall and Roast Paradise partner Kai (33) actually have no culinary background, and worked together in the nightlife and events industry prior to starting up.
“Me and Kai have been friends for about 13 years. We did underage events, […] corporate events, [and we even] did a lounge at Marina Bay Sands,” explained Randall.
Having worked at events part-time since he was a teen, Randall admitted that as fun as the industry was, “there’s a lot of late nights and heavy drinking”.
“[When I was working in the industry when I was] 19 until I was 22, that was whoa…those 3 years were really hardcore,” he recalled.
Work was non-stop. I could drink like 5, 6 times in one week. Our late nights were until 7 in the morning…sometimes to 10.
As their job started to take a toll on their health, the duo decided that it was time to take a break.
“The entertainment line is tough lah. You can earn a decent living, but if you talk about progress and career path, I think [there isn’t any]. So we asked ourselves: ‘What can we do next?'”.
“Then we thought about F&B – there is [definitely] progression, it’s just a longer path to take. It’s like a bond…5 to 8 years [to succeed].”
And as daunting as the prospects were, the friends were ready to take on the challenge.
1 Year To Master The Art Of Roasting Char Siew
Following Kai’s contact, they took a trip up to Kuala Lumpur for two main reasons – first, to try the “one of the top 5 best char siew in Malaysia” and more importantly, to see if they could bring the Malaysian-style of char siew to Singapore.
In Singapore, there are over 200 shao la (roast meat) stores. Maybe even more now. So we were thinking: ‘What can make us different from them? What can make us stand out from the rest?’
Determined to give Singapore foodies a slightly different version of char siew (Malaysian-style char siew is sweeter than the one we have in Singapore) they trained under the shifu for 4 gruelling months before returning home.
“Usually, it takes 4 months to learn. But to really master [the technique], I took 1 year haha,” laughed Randall.
“There were many cuts and burns [in the process], and sometimes the supply of meat is rubbish…[there was] a lot of trial and error.”
“What Makes You Think You Can Do F&B?”
Jumping headfirst into an industry that both didn’t have any formal training in was a huge gamble, and Randall recalled his parents’ shock when he first told them about the venture.
My parents gave me the ‘shocked face’. Like: ‘Huh? Say again? Are you sure? Normally at home you don’t even cook! What makes you think you can do F&B?’
“All these comments [weren’t very motivating] during the first few months. But I just believed in myself and I also believed in Kai, and we said: ‘Let’s just do it lah, one day we’ll see the light.'”
One thing they were certain about, though, was their choice of location.
“We chose Old Airport Road Food Centre because of one thing – the crowd was overwhelming. It was bustling.”
After around 8 months of preparation, the very first Roast Paradise stall opened at Old Airport Road Food Centre in August 2015.
“Of course, when we first opened, there weren’t many people.”
[When] we looked at the cashier box at the end of the day, it’s not a lot [of earnings]. Then we asked ourselves: ‘Is this the life we really want?’
Finding a supplier that they could rely on was also an uphill task, as many “bo chup*” about their small-scale business. (*’don’t care’ in Hokkien)
“It was only after we gained popularity that they slowly come back to us,” he sniggered.
Fortunately, business turned around eventually, and Randall stated that one of his most memorable experiences was seeing the “boom” of their queues.
“One of the best moments is when we see a queue of like 20 people on weekends before we open, haha!”
Following their success at Old Airport Road Food Centre, they opened another outlet at Happy Hawkers Food Court in Ang Mo Kio to much fanfare.
Fook Kin – “Are We Ready For It?”
Barely 4 months old, Fook Kin came about as a collaboration between radio DJs The Muttons, Bernie Tay, founder of burger joint Fat Boys, and the Roast Paradise duo.
“Kai’s friend actually told Bernie about our char siew. [He] liked it, and said: ‘Why not let’s start a restaurant [together]?”
Already the owners of 2 thriving stalls, Randall shared that while he felt excited, he couldn’t help but think if they were really ready for it.
“Restaurants are a big thing. But Kai [assured me] and said: ‘Let’s do it.'”
“Anyway, we don’t have personal commitments like a family [to take care of].”
Perhaps thanks to the ‘star power’ of the founding team, Fook Kin took off almost immediately, and they sold out all their stock before 8pm during the first 2 weeks of business.
“Now we sell out at 9:30pm? [But that’s after] we found the correct portion to prepare [for the crowds].”
Randall revealed that weekday lunches and weekends are the busiest periods for Fook Kin.
“I’m Quite Surprised That A Lot Of Bankers Like To Go Into F&B These Days”
Some people see being a hawker as “Wah xiong leh! Girls see also like very low class.” but I don’t think so leh.
Even with a new restaurant under his belt, Randall is still strongly (and proudly) tied to his hawker origins.
“Why people say that our hawker culture is dying is because being a hawker is tough work – it burns your weekends, and there’s a ‘bond’ to the business.”
It’s not like [something] you can do it for 3 months and then expect to earn $10k a month.
“I’m quite surprised that a lot of bankers like to go into F&B these days,” he mused. “I’m not really sure why, but I think it’s because some think it’s easy money.”
“Some people take F&B as a form of investment, where you can autopilot and money would come in. But you need the right elements to make it work, or else it’s really very tough [to survive].”
As for his future plans for the Roast Paradise brand, Randall shared that they would like to open “more stores in other regions (of Singapore)”.
“Food courts and kopitiams asked me to open there, and [while] I feel like it’s good, I also feel like it’s not time yet.”
He also has his sights set overseas, and listed population-heavy neighbouring countries.
However, he is quick to add that his priority is stabilising the business in Singapore before venturing overseas.
“Our big aim is to supply to supermarkets, and if possible, open in China. We just need the 0.0001% [to buy from us], haha!”
“What strives me to do better is that while it’s tiring and tough work, every time a customer tells me ‘Wow, Randall. Power.’, I find that all the hard work is damn worth it.”
I’d like to thank Randall for his hospitality and time!
111 Killiney Road
Roast Paradise (Old Airport)
Blk 51, Old Airport Road Hawker Centre, #01-121
Roast Paradise (Ang Mo Kio)
531, Ang Mo Kio Ave 10