Hawker rentals: Food for thought


I read with interest Tay Leong Tan’s article about the hawkers and I’d like to share a quick story.

My father was a hawker and myself have also dabbled with one a few years ago.

Oh yes, I remember the experience. I had wanted to bid for a stall at Jurong West (right next to a community center). The price I submitted was $1200 (for a relatively large stall).

The process goes like this: the NEA officer would invite all the tender applicants to sit around the table. Their bids are on a document face down on the table. For reasons of fairness, no one, not even the officer has seen how much each one is bidding for.

When the documents were turned over one after the other, I realised that I had paid too much. Everyone bided for no more than $1000.

I had successfully acquired the stall, but I decided to forfeit my deposit and rent one in People’s Park hawker center instead. This rental is not with the NEA, rather it is through someone who had already won a bid from the NEA. Such rental is expensive – I paid $2000 for a stall half the size of the Jurong West one.

But still it is considered cheap. Private coffeeshops rentals start from $4k. Food courts cost a little bit more – and on top of that, they collect your earnings twice a day and deduct your rental from there.

The best option for me to start was the hawker center. Rental is cheap (as compared to commercial outlets) and although it is very unglamorous, smelly (i remember going home smelling like belacan everyday) and extremely uncomfortable, I was ready to give it a shot.

I paid shared cleaning for the services of the cleaners – this cost me $20 a week. I didn’t have to use gas, but was told it was something like $150 a month (I could be wrong).

hawker centre cleaner

What really killed the business for me, was the lack of manpower. I actually thought I could pay $800 and people would come. Well, I did manage to hire someone at $900…but she left in a week. I didn’t have pleasant experiences with the five other people I hired either, all didn’t last a week.

I finally had to up the salary offered to $1600, even then he didn’t last. Someone in Hong Lim hawker center offered $1650 and off he went.

In a Facebook rant, Douglas complained that it was “unfair” that NTUC Foodfare had requested for two dishes to be of exceptionally lower price – and why not? You couldn’t look at these two dishes the same way that you do your other products (and he could sell his other products at whatever prices he wanted).

In the first place, NEA and Foodfare has a fair bidding process.  The prices are offered by the business owners. Once in a while, some kiasu businessman decides to pay some exorbitant amount for an outlet and surely he’ll get it. He then can’t blame NEA/Foodfare for high rental prices.

Also consider this: NTUC Foodfare is a social enterprise. Being a social enterprise, you have to expect some sort of rules – a moderating of prices. If they didn’t do that, then the public at large is going to complain about why Foodfare prices are so expensive.

NTUC Foodfare goes even further, they provide grants to help you set up shop. They can take advantage of NTUC Foodfare’s bulk purchasing power. There is a “FoodPreneurs Business Grants & Schemes and there’s the whole network of NTUC to help them get workers…and all they ask is for two dishes to be kept at low prices.

In fact, you know what I think? I think that NEA (and Foodfare) should prohibit subletting of stalls at the hawker centers. Why should someone take government property meant for keeping prices low and for providing a segment of Singaporeans a means of making a living, and then use it for rent seeking?

If this practice was stopped, then only genuine cooks will be allowed to rent directly from the NEA and not from individuals hoping to make a quick buck from a piece of property.

After having been involved in the F&B trade for a while, I think the prices we pay for cooked food is a little foolish. Raw ingredient prices are so, so low. My whole watermelons used to cost just 80 cents! Haha… but I say this in jest. I understand that there is skill that goes into a dish rather than just raw ingredients.

Would I go back into the business again? Well, I’m employed now and I know my boss is reading…but hey, never say never!



(And yes, the ceilings need to be maintained also…)


About the author

Benjamin Chiang

Benjamin Chiang is an enthusiast of good advertising, deep thinking, labour issues and chocolate. He writes also at www.rangosteen.com and occasionally on Yahoo!

The views expressed are his own.

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