In the climate of a global pandemic, things change constantly and rapidly.
When the first COVID-19 case emerged in Singapore in January, no one imagined we’d now be living in a semi-lockdown, with almost everything closed except essential services.
In a time like this, acting fast can be critical to the fate of local businesses.
That’s exactly how Melvin Chew, second-generation owner of Jin Ji Teochew Braised Duck, responded when he watched Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong deliver the “circuit breaker” measures on 3 April.
Melvin created Hawkers United – Dabao 2020 on the very same day, a Facebook group that has become a bustling avenue for hawkers and restaurants to promote their food and take online orders.
For many business owners, it’s a saving grace in the nick of time as sales hit rock bottom once the dine-in ban kicked in.
The group blew up with 25,000 members in just two days—speaking volumes not just about the drought hawkers are facing, but also the overwhelming support customers are pouring out.
At the time of writing, Hawkers United has grown nearly tenfold to about 238,000 members.
Stepping Up For The F&B Community
As a hawker himself, Melvin is in the same boat as every other F&B owner in Singapore.
His braised duck and kway chap stall at Chinatown Complex started feeling the heat as early as the day Singapore raised its DORSCON (Disease Outbreak Response System Condition) level to Orange.
Some companies gradually started implementing work-from-home even before it was officially enforced.
Given that his stall is located near the CBD, the walk-in crowd that used to comprise of office workers mostly “disappeared”. Sales eventually fell by “50 to 70 per cent”.
While business was already poor for a period of time, Melvin knew he needed to act when news broke that food establishments would soon be limited to take-away and delivery only.
I foresaw that many hawkers who used to rely on walk-in customers will now need help to promote their stalls online.
Most hawkers do not have social media accounts or the know-how [to leverage such platforms], because we [dedicate all our time] to cooking, looking after our day-to-day business, and taking care of customers face-to-face.Melvin Chew, Founder of Hawkers United – Dabao 2020
Once the circuit breaker measures were announced, businesses had just a small window of time to prepare their contingency plans.
“Everything happened so quickly. Suddenly we had four days from the circuit breaker announcement to put together our take-away and delivery systems,” Melvin shares.
As he spoke with other people in the trade, he especially felt worried for hawkers who run their businesses alone.
“The struggles of a one-man operation are real,” he says. “Many of us didn’t know who to turn to and what to do.”
Like the name ‘Hawkers United’ suggests, Melvin strongly thinks it’s time to set aside the ‘every man for himself’ mindset, and instead face this crisis in solidarity.
Hope For Hawkers As Orders Streamed In
Since I joined the Facebook group, my phone buzzes with notifications informing me about new posts a few times a day.
Many of these posts—shared by restaurant owners, hawkers, or sometimes even their children—get flooded with comments from customers who want to know more about their menus and availability.
More than just heartening displays of support, Melvin confirms that these enquiries do translate into sales.
Some stalls and eateries have even seen a huge upturn in business.
One stall in Bukit Batok, Joyfull Roasted Delights, managed to fill up all its delivery slots after promoting its dishes on Hawkers United.
Another piece of good news came from 928 Yishun Laksa, which received such a great surge in demand they could no longer keep up with orders.
[The stall owner’s nephew] contacted me the other day to delete their most recent post [on Hawkers United].
His 70-year-old uncle [could no longer take in new orders] because he was now selling an average of 800 bowls a day.Melvin Chew, Founder of Hawkers United – Dabao 2020
Besides cooked food stalls, Melvin shares that his group has also managed to help local businesses in other F&B categories.
First Brew, which manufactures and sells bottled health drinks like soya bean, almond milk and sesame milk, lost a large chunk of business when their usual clientele of hotels and restaurants cancelled their orders.
However, none of their soya bean drinks went to waste. The company ran a 1-for-1 promotion and customers on Facebook eagerly helped them clear their excess inventory.
“These very encouraging testimonies mean so much to the community because [they show that] there’s hope,” says Melvin.
Even so, he remains candid that not all members of the group experience the same level of assuring results.
Some business owners “would like to do better”, and he is still finding ways to help them.
Extending A Hand To Grocery Retailers, Delivery People
Just as quickly as Hawkers United was created, the initiative has morphed to meet the needs of different groups, all in a matter of weeks.
To help customers find eateries near them, a simple website was set up to direct them to lists of businesses organised into the North, South, East, West and Central regions of Singapore.
“It is a temporary solution. Please pardon us as it’s a work in progress,” Melvin humbly says. Even though he provides this for free, he intends to work on an improved version that will become their permanent site.
Beyond hawkers and restaurant owners, local grocery retailers and wet market stall owners also began to list their fresh and frozen produce on the group.
Likewise, their posts gained a lot of traction from customers who had trouble getting delivery slots from major supermarkets.
Observing this, Melvin and his team opened a sister group, Pasar United, so that grocery sellers could have their own stage.
They also created Delivery United, a platform where businesses or individuals who need delivery services can advertise their jobs, and delivery people can find more income opportunities.
“Everyone Here Is A Volunteer”
Running these groups has become like a second job for Melvin, but he doesn’t complain.
“Successfully bringing hawkers, other F&B outlets and consumers together means that I spend a lot more time on [Facebook] than ever before. And I still open my stall for business, manage customers’ orders, and cook every day,” he says.
While he personally engages with most of the hawkers, he didn’t embark on this endeavour alone.
Even though it was my idea, I needed friends to help make this work since every member has to go through an approval process, and every post needs to be looked over before being going live on the Facebook group.
We have to protect the community from spamming and scams. Quite a number of scams have surfaced and we had to quickly address them.Melvin Chew, Founder of Hawkers United – Dabao 2020
Alongside him are a team of administrators and moderators:
Clarence Choa, Melvin’s friend and hawker foodie, and Jeremy Nguee, chef and owner of Batu Lesung Spice Company and Mrs Kueh, help members with their queries and “approve hundreds of posts every day”.
Professional photographer John Heng and telco salesman Sean Low support members who have difficulty setting up and posting photo albums.
Celine Asril, chief content strategist for South China Morning Post, chips in with her years of experience to help improve the group’s social media strategy, while Jill Sara handles public relations and marketing.
Everyone here is a volunteer. No one takes commission from any third party or gets paid to do this.
Yet, everyone is on board to help the community grow and do well—we aim to give each and every hawker a fighting chance to survive in these tough times.Melvin Chew, Founder of Hawkers United – Dabao 2020
Together with the efforts of these heroes, keeping local businesses alive ultimately boils down to the support of customers.
Featured Image Credit: DiscoverSG, Hawkers United – Dabao 2020