[Article has been updated on 9 November 2020, 9:25am]
Singaporeans have a deep, unquestionable love for food.
Dining out seems to be a national past-time, and rightly so. The city is chock full of dining establishments, from hawker centres to high-end restaurants.
In a 2018 survey by Statista, 55 per cent of respondents stated that they dined out weekly, while 24 per cent of respondents claimed to dine out daily.
With such a huge volume of Singaporeans dining out, food and beverage (F&B) owners have a large pool of customers to tap into. Of course, the quality of their food also play a large part in boosting the brand’s popularity.
Some brands have managed to do it so well that they have expanded from single hawker stalls to outlets all over the island.
Here are seven restaurant chains in Singapore that started out from humble hawker stalls:
PUTIEN is well-known in Singapore as an award-winning restaurant chain.
In 2016, PUTIEN’s founding outlet at Kitchener Road received a resounding affirmation from the inaugural Michelin Awards in Singapore, and was awarded one Michelin Star.
The brand has come a long way from when it first started as a humble coffee shop-style eatery on Kitchener Road, with only seven staff operating it.
Founder Fong Chi Chung hails from Fujian, China, and started PUTIEN in 2000 as he started to miss home-cooked Fujian cuisine.
He pooled together his savings, along with some money borrowed from his family, to chalk up “approximately $60,000” to kickstart the business.
However, the outlet operated at a loss for the first three years. Chi Chung continued to push on, and eventually business started to improve. PUTIEN finally broke even in its third year.
As business began to grow, PUTIEN’s second outlet was opened at VivoCity mall in 2016. That year, PUTIEN was also voted as one of Singapore’s Top 50 Restaurants by The Sunday Times.
This then spurred Chi Chung to continue on the road of expansion.
To date, PUTIEN has a total of 63 outlets globally across Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.
2. Ya Kun Kaya Toast
Mention “Ya Kun” and Singaporeans immediately conjure up images of kopi and kaya toast.
The classic red Ya Kun signboard is one Singaporeans recognise by heart. Besides being present in almost every heartland in Singapore, it has also made its way abroad — and is present in 11 countries.
Ya Kun was started in 1944 by Chinese businessman Loi Ah Koon, and began as a single coffee stall at Telok Ayer Basin. After operating for more than 15 years at Telok Ayer Basin, Ah Koon relocated his business across the street to Lau Pa Sat.
In 1984, it moved back across the street to Telok Ayer, before finally settling down at Far East Square in 1998.
Astons is a fuss-free dining option for Singaporeans, and at mealtimes, a snaking queue typically forms around the store quickly.
It has established itself as a household name in Singapore with 35 outlets worldwide.
Founder Aston Soon invested $35,000 to set up the first Astons Specialities at a coffeeshop along East Coast Road in 2005. The popularity of the western food joint is evident in how it managed to break even in just six months.
To cater to the growing demand, Astons Specialities moved into a proper restaurant space a few doors down the following year. In 2007, he opened a second outlet in Serangoon Gardens in partnership with a long-time friend.
Today, Astons restaurants are divided into four categories — Astons Steak & Salad, Astons Specialities, Astons Express, and Andes by Astons.
Beyond serving affordable steaks, Aston has branched out to other F&B businesses like Japanese cuisine and a fried chicken joint. It is is now a global F&B group with 11 brands under its name.
Collin’s is popular among locals for its extremely affordable and hearty Western cuisine.
The chain has 27 outlets islandwide, and also has a presence in Cambodia, Indonesia and China.
Contrary to its success today, the restaurant chain had very humble beginnings and started off as a one-man Western hawker stall.
Founder Collin Ho told Vulcan Post that he invested S$70,000 into the business, and it took him a little under a year to break even.
Beyond Collin’s stalls, the brand has since broadened its business to include Collin’s restaurants and Common Grill.
It has also tapped into the ‘halal’ market with the launch of Elfuego by Collin’s, which opened its first outlet at the iconic Jewel Changi Airport in April 2019.
5. Shen Xi Lao Huo Tang
There aren’t many places in Singapore that specialise in selling soup.
Businessman and chef Shum Hei had migrated to Singapore many years ago and wanted to introduce a Hong Kong dish to the local food scene.
He embarked on selling beef tripe noodles, wanton noodles, economic rice and tofu — but it did not take off.
Determined to make a comeback, he opened Shen Xi Lao Huo Tang Chinatown Food Centre in 2008 to sell soup.
Shum Hei told Vulcan Post that he manned the stall himself from morning to night, more than 10 hours a day.
As he grew his soup business from scratch and painstakingly perfected every pot of soup, the popularity of the stall grew as well.
Lao Huo Tang soon ventured into the restaurant business in 2011, opening their first restaurant outlet at Jurong Point, due to space constraints at the hawker centre.
He soon went on to open a second outlet at JEM, and another three years to open a third outlet at Waterway Point.
There are also many Shen Xi Lao Huo Tang stalls in Singapore’s hawker centres and food courts.
6. No Signboard Seafood
When Singaporeans talk about some of the best Chili and White Pepper Crab on the island, No Signboard Seafood is definitely in the running.
The brand had its humble beginnings in 1970s, when founder Ong Kim Hoi started a seafood hawker stall at Mattar Road Hawker Centre.
According to the restaurant’s website, it was uncommon to see fresh seafood — let alone crabs — being sold in hawker stalls. Ong, however, created its now-acclaimed White Pepper Crab dish to differentiate the hawker stall from competition.
The stall gained a loyal following and grew quickly. It has also since expanded into other F&B areas besides their seafood restaurant business.
7. ENG’s Wantan Noodle
The original ENG’s Wantan Noodle currently sits along Tanjong Katong Road and was opened by its founder Ng Ba Eng in 2012.
It is known for its springy wanton noodles, luscious wanton dumplings, fried pork lard, and their exceptionally spicy chilli sauce.
Ng Ba Eng started ENG’s from a pushcart business more than 50 years ago. In the 1970s, he opened his first ENG’s Wantan Noodle stall in Dunman Food Centre.
He joined hands with an investor, Jason Sim, who pumped in S$150,000 and they shifted their stall to a storefront on at Tanjong Katong Road in 2012.
After Ng passed away the following year, the business was taken over by the CEO of soup chain Lao Huo Tang, Thomas Hong and co-managed with one of the original business partners.
It then went on to open 12 other outlets in Singapore.
However, ENG’s Wantan Noodle recently became embroiled in a lawsuit with Ng’s son and two daughters, who started competing stall ENG’s Char Siew Wantan Mee.
Overcoming The Odds
All of the F&B brands in the list started off with humble stalls, and have overcome the odds to grow to the restaurant chains that they are today.
This is no mean feat, considering the stiff competition in Singapore’s F&B landscape.
All the founders of these brands put in blood, sweat and tears to grow their stalls, and managed to get a loyal following with their delicious food first, before expanding.
With more and more food stalls popping up around Singapore, we might see more ‘hawker stall to restaurant chain’ success stories.
Featured Image Credit: PUTIEN / Capitaland / Lao Huo Tang / Investor One / Collins / ENG’s Wantan Noodle