Hawker Chan had humble beginnings as a hawker stall located at the heart of Chinatown, which has since expanded into a global restaurant chain.
It was founded by Chef Chan Hon Meng, who is the world’s first one-Michelin hawker.
Despite his success today, the 55-year-old grew up from a poor family background. He lived in a village in Ipoh, Malaysia, and both his parents were farmers. His family raised livestock and grew produce in the family’s farm.
At 15, he dropped out of school and left his hometown to find a job in Singapore, which sparked the beginning of his culinary journey.
Back home, Chan often helped prepare meals for his family and this gradually led to a fiery passion in cooking.
He took on an apprenticeship under a Hong Kong chef, where he learned and developed a soya sauce chicken recipe.
In 2009, he went on to open his own hawker stall called Liao Fan Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle in Chinatown Complex Food Centre. He cited the venture as a way for him to scratch his “entrepreneur’s itch”.
“The rental was one of the cheapest around, and I lived nearby too so, I thought to myself, why not give it a go?” he shared in a separate interview with Set The Tables.
Moreover, he had a lot of experience working in the F&B industry so the idea of running his own business did not come across as a daunting thought.
He also holds a very simple business philosophy: good food should be made simple and affordable.
This was why he priced his dish at a mere S$2 (price has since been slightly raised to S$2.80). To no surprise, the stall quickly grew popular, drawing snaking long queues.
The business journey wasn’t easy however. According to the company, Chan faced numerous challenges, including stiff hawker competitions, commitment of hawker continuation and keeping the food quality consistent.
Eight years later, Chan earned his first Michelin Star for his signature soya sauce chicken rice, which is his very own recipe.
The particular dish has been awarded the “world’s first hawker Michelin-starred meal” and the “cheapest Michelin-starred meal in the world”.
Getting awarded the Michelin star was life-changing to say the least.
His business “grew by three to four times overnight,” he said. Waiting time averaged two to three hours, up from the usual 45 to 60 minutes.
Demand was clearly at an all-time high, but he ensured that he kept his daily servings at 200 plates to maintain quality.
Chan believes that the “consistency in taste and food quality” are essential to his success.
“(The) local community are more familiar with the food menu that I serve: comfort food. Of course, the food quality also has to always maintain consistence,” he told Vulcan Post.
In fact, he makes it a point to personally check on the quality of the food that is served at his restaurants.
However, not only did more customers visited his stall, many potential investors also started approaching him.
It was reported that Chan had wanted to sell his recipe for S$2 million and was in talks with a global F&B company.
In 2016, Chan made the decision to partner with Hersing Culinary – the conglomerate which franchised Tim Ho Wan – to start its first quick-service restaurant concept.
The latter invested S$1 million into the joint venture for business expansion, which led to the opening of the first Hawker Chan outlet at 78 Smith Street.
However, shifting to a restaurant concept meant that prices have to be increased, though they are still kept affordable at S$5 for a plate.
On a daily basis, Hawker Chan serves more than 2,000 whole chickens.
Spurred by the success of Hawker Chan in Singapore, they decided to bring the brand across the borders.
“The fame will not last forever, we have to strike while the iron is hot,” he said, commenting on the expansion.
They chose Taiwan as its first overseas market as the country is famous for its delicacy and street foods variety.
Today, Hawker Chan has 25 outlets globally, including presence in Melbourne, the Philippines, Jakarta, Taipei, Bangkok and Kazakhstan.
All these outlets have been slowly established — they’ve never launched their outlets simultaneously.
Only when there is an opportunity, and the existing outlets are stable with at least three months of steady operations, will they then look at growing further, said Chan.
The COVID-19 pandemic however, posed as a roadblock for its continued success. The significant decrease of tourists in Singapore and lesser customer dine-ins have greatly affected sales, said the company.
On the flip side, the pandemic has presented them with the opportunity to capture another segment of the customer base. It started taking in online orders and expanded its delivery services, which helped push sales.
Looking back on his journey so far, Chan noted that “passion, hard work and effort is the key to achieve (good) results”.
“I have failed numerous times in life. However, failure is the key of leading a successful life. The tendency to get up and proceed forward is more important to be successful,” he said.
Beyond expanding his business, Chan said that he is honoured to get to travel around the world for food-related events or business opportunities — a dream that was once unthinkable for someone who grew up poor in a small village.
Featured Image Credit: Hawker Chan / DanielFoodDiary
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