Private food court operators may add designer touches to a hawker centre, but they also come with designer prices.
By KF Seetoh of Makansutra
First it was all about bold pricing strategies, which is actually the simple act of raising hawker food prices through the roof.
Now, it’s about the prospect of privatising hawker centres, which can lead to the same effect. Imagine, the audacity of charging $17 for a bowl of laksa in a food court, as recently reported.
Sheesh! Now, a question mark hangs over the fate of the iconic Bedok bus terminal hawker centre as town keepers and private property players entertain the thought of privatising it.
(Note: About 70 stallholders at Bedok Food Centre have petitioned the Government not to tear the place down when their lease expires in 2014. These stall owners were among the first group of hawkers allowed to buy their stalls under the 1994 Stall Ownership Scheme. In three years, the land will go back to the Government, which has yet to make public its plans for it. Last September, the plot next door, which is home to a bus interchange, was sold to property giant CapitaLand. It will build an integrated public transport hub on the plot, to be ready by 2015.)
We’ve come a long way since the wild old days when then Governor F. Gimson in the 50’s declared in his Hawker Enquiry Report that “there is undeniably a disposition among officials to regard the hawkers as primarily a public nuisance to be removed from the streets.” This negative perception by “officials” came about despite the general positive population’s attitude towards them, as mentioned in the book Singapore Hawker Centre by the National Environment Agency (NEA). Boy, am I glad that British Governor did not volley his views down into society.
Hawker centres were eventually set up to house the relocated itinerant street hawkers. There were already 24,000 of them in the 60s. Today, there are over 100 public hawker centres that have become makan institutions that feed the masses. It is also listed in the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die which declared “Even Hong Kong runs a distant second”, when it came to gastronomy culture.
An official once told me that hawker centres were created as an avenue for creating a simple family business for the unskilled and uneducated.
Family heritage and secret recipes can be turned into commercial opportunities. It has served Singaporeans well. We import over 90% of our produce and yet sell food that is not much more expensive than street stall counterparts in agriculturally rich countries like Indonesia and even the Philippines.
So now there is something or someone entertaining the thought of privatising hawker centres, probably emboldened with the recent success of how it was done with a wet market in Pasir Ris.
I say don’t you dare.
Let me give you a sneak peek into what can happen to our comfort makan institution if the big food court boys muscle in on the act and turn it into, say, Maxwell Republic or Old Airport Road Kopitiam. It is known that a fancy food court stall in the fancy Orchard Road area can set you back by S$15,000 to 20,000 in basic monthly rentals. The ones in the integrated resorts can command a 30 per cent premium over that.
The operator’s business model is no rocket science — collect as high a rent as possible or slap a 25 per cent of total sales charge, whichever is higher. The stallholder’s business model is equally simple — minimise food ingredients, utility and manpower cost, and sell as high as possible. So frozen supplies, pre-packs, central kitchens, mass production, methodic line cooking, chain stalls and $8 chicken rice sets are the order of the day. Can’t blame them, they are doing business in a free market. But that will turn our food culture into a bottom-line game.
Hawker centre food vendors, on the other hand, just sell food. They make enough to get by and many even create a name for themselves because of the dedication to their craft.
Keen competition with no exclusive sale clauses and cheap rents keep their prices down. A hawker stall in the heartlands can cost about $1,200 a month (triple, if in town). A kway chap hawker in Toa Payoh once told me he has no heart to raise his prices because many of the poorer aunties there are his regulars. He does not want to deprive them of a simple $2.50 joy. He just extends his operating hours and sells more.
Managing and regulating hawker centres are big jobs. The NEA is doing its utmost and, in general, they do a good job, yet there are cracks and slips. The unfortunate fatal food poisoning case a couple of years back and the recent cleaner’s saga in Albert Street hawker centre are problems the NEA face daily and cannot eradicate with rules and regulations, yet they have been managing it for half a century.
Private food court operators cannot be expected to do any better if they take over. At best, they may add designer touches to a hawker centre, but it also comes with designer prices. Don’t forget that in ’05 and ’06 NEA public surveys showed that hawker centres topped the list of Singaporean’s favorite makan places, followed by coffeeshops and food courts (over 75% voted for it), because of their affordability and no frills convenience.
So I say: Keep it up NEA, keep the hawker upgrading programs and quality management up, keep the common man’s happy meter up, prices down and privatization out. Let it become the best makan institution in the world. Not impossible at all.
This post was first featured on Makansutra.
Photojournalist K F Seetoh is the founder of Makansutra, a company devoted to touting all the empirical wonders of Asian food culture. He inks a food guide, hosts his own Makansutra TV shows, manages food villages, creates online and mobile content, consults and operates award-winning food safaris. Yeah, in short, he eats, talks, documents and regales about food and sells coffee, sometimes while his mouth is full. CNN dubs him the ‘Guru of the Grub’ and The New York Times says he’s ‘the food guide maven’.