Earlier this year, a love story that blossomed over chicken chop went viral on social media.
In an interview with Chinese newspaper Lianhe Zaobao, co-owner of Western food stall Wow Wow West Elizabeth Huang (30) recalled how husband/co-owner Jayden Cheong (31) used to visit the stall with his girlfriend every week.
Then, she was also dating someone else, and only saw him as another customer.
“[This was the case] until I realised that he was coming to the stall alone. As someone who’s rather outgoing, I asked him (about his girlfriend) and found out that they had broken up.”
As he was one of the stall’s regular customers, she passed him her name card, never realising that this would bring their relationship to the next level.
Soon, he started texting her, and they began dating in Jan 2012.
By March, the pair was engaged, and they got married in May.
Now in their 7th year of marriage, the couple are partners both in life and the business, which commands long queues at ABC Brickworks Food Centre.
It Started In A School Canteen Over 20 Years Ago
Elizabeth and Jayden are the 2nd-generation owners of Wow Wow West, which was started by the former’s parents at Raffles Institution (RI) over 20 years ago.
The stall was very popular, and its name was actually given by RI students during a ‘name the stall’ challenge.
“Students not just enjoyed our food, [they also] approached my parents just to chat. Today, a bunch of these students even patronise our shop at ABC Brickworks,” said Elizabeth.
As cheap as the rental was, there was a huge disadvantage of operating in a school – the holidays.
“There were simply too many school holidays – Wow Wow West had to grow.”
They moved to Henderson Market at Jalan Bukit Merah, and in spite of strong competition from stalls selling local fare, Wow Wow West still managed to win over patrons with their generous portions of Western food.
The oldest of three daughters, Elizabeth helped out at the stall from the age of 12, and remembers the hard work that was put into the business.
The journey wasn’t a walk in the park. Early mornings, late nights…we hardly got to see our parents.
A Business With A Social Mission
But more than just being a popular stall for affordable Western food, Wow Wow West is also a business with a social mission.
This turning point happened when Elizabeth ran away from home when she was 17.
“I think it was because of the exposure I got [from being homeschooled]. It was extremely different from the typical Singaporean kid, [so my] rebellious phase was somewhat different too,” revealed Elizabeth.
During these troubled times, her father, Mr Eric Huang, turned to God for help and “made a deal […] that if his daughter returned home, he would dedicate his life to serving Him as a counselor with a halfway house”.
A few years later, Elizabeth returned home and “the dynamics of [the Huang family] changed for the better”.
To fulfil the deal he made with God, Mr Huang began to take in ex-offenders sent by halfway houses as full-time employees, even counselling them into the wee hours of the morning after the stall closed.
“They learnt [how to cook] under strict guidance from my folks, and grew to reintegrate into the society, once they were ready,” shared Elizabeth.
Beyond the stall, Mr Huang continued to conduct cooking lessons regularly at halfway houses.
At one point, he even gifted the Henderson Market stall to an ex-drug addict who had “proved to be hardworking and excelled at his performance”.
Around then, Elizabeth opened the second Wow Wow West outlet at ABC Brickworks Food Centre, fulfilling a longtime wish of hers to start a business.
Unfortunately, the new owner of the Henderson Market outlet reverted to his old ways after taking over the stall.
“Many customers started patronising our second shop at ABC Brickworks Food Centre instead. [Most of them complained about] the quality of food and the unstable opening hours [at the Henderson Market stall].”
“While we tried to mentor the new owner and acted as advisors, he wasn’t receptive and remained obstinate in his old ways.”
“There Were Customers Who Asked If I’m A Hawker Because I Did Something Wrong In Life”
As a first-time business owner, Elizabeth needed to deal with full brunt of challenges faced by hawkers – one of it being stiff competition from fellow stallholders which already had established customer bases.
There were [even] some customers who asked if I’m a hawker because I did something wrong in life.
“I think there’s […] stigma towards hawkers in Singapore. I have very strong opinions about this, but that’s a story for another time.”
In spite of the “doubts and questions thrown [her] way”, Elizabeth held her head up high and won over patrons with warm smiles and delicious food.
Running the business eventually led her to that fateful meeting with Jayden, and their relationship quickly evolved from customer-hawker to husband-wife.
“After marriage, [Jayden also] wanted to start his own business. He got tired of being in the financial industry,” said Elizabeth.
Knowing that Jayden would encounter difficulties without any solid foundation or knowledge in running a business, the Huangs “gifted him” the family business, and he has been the co-owner of Wow Wow West for the past 5-6 years now.
As someone with no experience in the trade, Jayden too needed to learn a lot of skills from scratch while fending off doubters along the way.
Blood, sweat, and tears would be most apt to describe [his experience].
Currently, Elizabeth and Jayden run the show at Wow Wow West, while her parents work behind the scenes, mentoring and helping out at the stall whenever they can.
On future plans for the brand, Elizabeth revealed that they’re looking to open more outlets, so do look out for Wow Wow West at a hawker centre near you!
I’d like to thank Elizabeth for her time!
Wow Wow West
ABC Brickworks Food Centre, 6 Jalan Bukit Merah
#01-133, Singapore 150006