Entrepreneur

Business Not As Usual: How S'pore Hawkers Are Adapting Under Circuit Breaker Measures

Hawkers nationwide have borne the brunt of the dining-in ban in light of Covid-19. Since the ‘circuit breaker’ measures kicked in on April 7, dining-in at hawker centres, coffee shops as well as other F&B premises has been prohibited and only takeaways and delivery are allowed.

Hawkers who have not jumped onto the food delivery app bandwagon are fully experiencing the sharp decline in walk-in sales.

Even then, those who are already on the apps also struggle to afford the steep commission rates that come in at 30 to 40 per cent.

Before Covid-19 / Image Credit: Visit Singapore

We caught up with a few hawkers to understand their situation better and find out what they are doing to cope with of all these sudden changes.

Sales Fall By 30 To 80 Per Cent

These days, healthy protein bowl hawker Beng Who Cooks only manages to sell seven to 15 bowls a day at his stall in Hong Lim Complex Market & Food Centre.

Jason Chua of Beng Who Cooks / Image Credit: NTUC

For hawkers like him who are located around the Central Business District (CBD), Singapore’s work-from-home measures have had a bigger impact on them than businesses in the heartlands.

On [better days], we are affected by 30 per cent, while on a bad day, we can see our sales drop by up to 80 per cent. But ever since the ‘circuit breaker’ measures started, it’s been horrible. We are only selling seven to 15 bowls a day.

Jason Chua, Founder of Beng Who Cooks

Tan Wee Yang of Ah Tan Wings echoes the sentiment that business volume is largely dependent on location in these times.

While his Yishun outlet is getting by with about 30 per cent lower sales, he sees a drastic drop of 70 to 80 per cent in sales at his Timbre+ outlet at Ayer Rajah Crescent.

“If it’s not near any residential estate and surrounded by only offices, it’s quite dire,” says the har cheong gai seller.

The drastic drop in sales:

HawkerType of FoodLocationImpact of Covid-19
Beng Who CooksProtein BowlsHong Lim Complex And Food Centre30-80% decrease in sales
Ah Tan WingsFried ChickenTimbre+70-80% decrease in sales
Ah Tan WingsFried ChickenYishun Park Hawker Centre20-30% decrease in sales
The Fishball StoryFishball NoodlesTimbre+ At least 70% decrease in sales
Tan Wee Yang of Ah Tan Wings / Image Credit: WhyQ

Also located at Timbre+, The Fishball Story has decided to close that outlet and shift to a new vicinity.

“I have closed my Timbre+ outlet due to Covid-19. Business dropped by more than 70 per cent as customers who patronise us now work from home. But because of that, I opened a new outlet at 77 Circuit Road to cater to people around the estate,” says founder Douglas Ng.

The Fishball Story’s Douglas Ng (in red) / Image Credit: Douglas Ng

Food Delivery Apps Are Not A Hawker’s Main Business

A study by Deliveroo in 2018 found that 69 per cent of consumers in Singapore order from food delivery apps at least once a month.

That number has since grown exponentially. More hawkers have joined delivery platforms like foodpanda, GrabFood, Deliveroo, and hawker food-centric WhyQ.

But one thing stays the same: many hawkers still depend very much on walk-in sales.

From their perspective, getting sales from food delivery apps is great, not a must. If there are one or two orders a day from the apps, hawkers see it as a bonus.

Especially before the coronavirus outbreak, many hawkers saw food delivery apps as a source of side income akin to freelancing — it’s nice to get some income from side hustles, but it’s not your main job after all.

More Hawkers Turning To Food Delivery Apps To Drive Sales

As we edged towards the start of the ‘circuit breaker’ where workplaces close and Singaporeans are encouraged to stay home, more hawkers have hopped onto food delivery apps ahead of the dining-in ban.

Hawker food delivery platform WhyQ‘s co-founder, Rishabh Singhvi, confirmed over the phone that the platform has seen a surge in the number of new hawkers joining.

They have also reached out to hawkers in their current database to offer help and find out which hawkers will stay open or close their stalls.

We opened an online registration function to facilitate online on-boarding. We also set up a hawker support hotline for them to call in. We used to go down to each hawker stall to meet them physically. Sofar, we have three to four times the number of enquiries as compared to when we just had a dedicated email. With the support of the hotline and online registration and Covid-19, we have basically ‘exploded’.

Rishabh Singhvi, Co-founder of WhyQ

The homegrown startup also gets ‘hawker captains’ to hand out business cards to hawker partners and non-WhyQ hawkers, in a bid to persuade elderly hawkers to join WhyQ through word-of-mouth.

“In a non-Covid19 situation, elderly hawkers may not be receptive towards delivery apps [but] Covid-19 has made them more willing to use technology,” he says.

If some hawkers are still uncomfortable using the app, the hawker captains will also assist them by manually placing the orders for them.

This is a huge opportunity for WhyQ to leverage on. They are the go-to hawker food delivery service which promises a low delivery fee of only $1.50, and they do not impose a minimum order amount.

Image Credit: WhyQ

Other food delivery apps take a cut from F&B merchants between 30 to 40 per cent on all orders. That works out to $1.50 (30 per cent) for $5 worth of yong tau foo.

They also tend to have minimum order amounts — $10 for foodpanda, $8 for GrabFood. Deliveroo has no minimum order, but a small order fee applies.

Hawkers who are already on food delivery apps are now doubling down on these services to keep business afloat.

I’m definitely moving on to more online deliveries, but deliveries do take a huge cut. But any sales are better than no sales.

Tan Wee Yang, Founder of Ah Tan Wings

foodpanda recently partnered WhyQ to expand its hawker food delivery options.

There are currently over 300 hawker stalls on foodpanda, but it aims to onboard another 80 hawker centres across the island by the end of the year, to represent more than 1,000 hawker stalls.

Some Hawkers Hire Their Own Delivery Drivers

Ah Tan Wings is on WhyQ, foodpanda, GrabFood and Deliveroo, while Beng Who Cooks and The Fishball Story are doing their own deliveries.

For The Fishball Story’s founder, Douglas, he says that he is doing his part to help some private-hire drivers.

“I am giving all the delivery fees to them. Some have families to feed too. Even if it’s for four to five delivery personnel, I will do my best for them too,” said Douglas.

Beng Who Cooks, on the other hand, has moved to an online ordering system through a Google Form they set up. As they are located in the CBD, they have fully experienced the effect of office workers working from home.

“Everything, 100 per cent of Beng Who Cooks sales, are all from online pre-orders for this ‘circuit breaker’ period,” says Jason Chua, the co-owner and chef.

Image Credit: Beng Who Cooks

“Since the day the Government announced that the ‘circuit breaker’ is going to happen, we have already initiated island-wide delivery. Come on, we all know everyone working in CBD area would already be working from home! So either we do island-wide delivery or we (perish) together with Covid-19,” he says, rather candidly.

You might be thinking: “If there are food delivery apps, why should I order my meals from these hawkers directly?”

Well, not all of them are on the food delivery apps.

Allied Foodservice Equipment has compiled a comprehensive list of heartland hawkers that are open and offer food delivery—many aren’t on third-party delivery apps.

Screengrab of the list / Image Credit: Allied Foodservice Equipment

Hawkers Band Together On Facebook Group ‘Hawkers United – Dabao 2020’

One ground-up initiative that has been gaining attention is a Facebook group which aims to help hawkers who do not have delivery or marketing capabilities to get by during the ‘circuit breaker’ period.

Within its first two days, it quickly grew to 25,000 members. The Facebook group ‘Hawkers United – Dabao 2020‘ currently stands at 210,000 members as of writing, a sharp 30 per cent increase from 156,000 last Thursday.

‘Dabao’ essentially means ‘takeaway’ in Chinese and it was set up by Melvin Chew, a hawker himself who wanted to preserve hawker culture in the midst of these challenging times.

Hawkers are using the group as a venue to advertise their food, and some fans are also helping to shout out about their favourite hawker stalls. We also see Samaritans coming forward and offering to help elderly hawkers deliver orders from customers.

Many hawkers are also accepting pre-orders via phone or text so that the food will be ready for the moment a customer reaches the stall, in order to minimise social contact while they are waiting.

Like Douglas, a handful of hawkers are also doing their own deliveries by collaborating with private-hire delivery drivers.

The Fishball Story is one of the hawkers who have joined the Facebook group.

WhyQ is currently in talks with the creators of the Facebook group to expand their efforts and will announce their plans in due time.

NEA Waives Rental And Cleaning Fees To Help Hawkers

In a bid of support from the National Environment Agency (NEA), more than 6,000 cooked food stallholders located across 114 hawker centres in Singapore will not have to pay for table-cleaning and centralised dishwashing services from April 7 to May 4.

I think it’s definitely a good gesture from NEA, it really helps us tide over this period.

It really keeps the hawkers going, especially the elderly hawkers who are considering hanging up their aprons and calling it quits for good.

Tan Wee Yang, Founder of Ah Tan Wings

The Fishball Story’s Douglas will not benefit as he does not have an NEA-managed stall, but he calls the waivers a “huge deal” for hawkers.

“Some hawkers were so worried before this,” he says.

He sees it as two sides of a coin — some hawkers are relieved and assured that they can just focus on serving food, while others may see it as “time to take a break”.

“So personally, I think these three months of waiver will help boost their morale and help these hawkers tide over,” said Douglas.

Image Credit: Visit Singapore

Support Local Businesses And Help Them Survive

There are 114 hawker centres in Singapore, and this excludes the hundreds of coffeeshops, food courts, canteens and stand-alone food shops and stalls.

We could be looking at 15,000 food stalls in Singapore.

It is daunting for the players with the sheer number of competitors, and making ends meet has been further exacerbated by Covid-19 and the ‘circuit breaker’ measures.

On days when you don’t plan to cook at home, ordering from these small businesses will go a long way and help preserve the hawker food industry. Otherwise, we may find our favourite stalls closed down by the time Covid-19 blows over.

Please #SupportLocal and #SaveFnBSG.

Featured Image Credit: Michelin Guide / Beng Who Cooks / WhyQ

 

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