Before the coronavirus crisis, Vincent Phua was a full-time financial advisor by trade. These days though, the 30-year-old would be more likely found at his father’s Bib Gourmand kway chap stall in Old Airport Road Food Centre, helping out and taking delivery orders on his mobile phone via WhatsApp.
Phua’s father, 66-year-old Phua Gek Sia, runs To-Rico’s Guo Shi which made its name at the now-defunct Blanco Court food centre in the 1980s, serving up the classic Teochew dish of braised pork offal and soupy rice noodles. Last year, To-Ricos was recognised with the MICHELIN Bib Gourmand distinction in the 2019 edition of the guide.
But when the Circuit Breaker began in early April, limiting F&B outlets to takeaways and deliveries only, he saw a 30 to 40% drop in business almost immediately. Fortunately, he was one of the few hawkers to have younger, tech-savvy children who stepped up to help their parents market their stalls online and set up delivery systems for them.
Hawkers take to tech
Indeed, as Covid-19 has hastened the digital transformation for companies big and small across industries, so has the pandemic also pushed Singapore’s hawkers online. With dining out restrictions set to extend beyond Singapore’s two-month nationwide Circuit Breaker, hawkers will have to rely on takeaways and deliveries to survive.
In the last few months, many have begun working with food delivery platforms like GrabFood, FoodPanda, Deliveroo and WhyQ while others have taken to social media to promote their offerings and delivery mechanisms. Where before you would be hard-pressed to find a hawker taking any other mode of payment than cash, cashless transactions like PayNow and PayLah! have become the norm.
A survey of the online presence of MICHELIN-listed hawkers shows that more have become increasingly active on social media, moving beyond regular updates on opening hours and delivery options, into content creation and creative marketing. Some, like Bib Gourmand seafood haunt Alliance Seafood and Plate eatery Ann Chin Handmade Popiah, have ventured into Instagram, while MICHELIN-starred Hawker Chan has recently launched an account on trendy video platform TikTok.
For many of Singapore’s traditional food vendors, this digital revolution has not come easily.
While the demand for food delivery services has generally increased during this period, there are hawkers who remain hesitant in subscribing to such services, citing reasons like the prohibitive commission costs of popular platforms. For others like Goh Chye Oo, 58, it is business as usual at his Bib Gourmand stall Fu Ming Cooked Food in Redhill Market, even if said business has dipped by as much as 50%. “Hawkers like us, we are not educated, we don’t know how to use computers and technology. All we can do is take things one day at a time and hope things go back to normal soon,” he says.
“It’s been very difficult for older hawkers like my father to upgrade and take their businesses online since the Circuit Breaker measures kicked in,” says Phua. “For them, it’s as big a step as the government moving them off the streets and into hawker centres in the 1960s.”
Virtual hawker centres
But help is at hand for hawkers willing to take a stab at digitalisation. Hawkers have banded together in ground-up initiatives to help fellow hawkers tide through the Circuit Breaker.
The Facebook group ‘Hawkers United – Dabao 2020’ was set up by Melvin Chew, the second-generation owner of Jin Ji Teochew Braised Duck & Kway Chap stall at Chinatown Complex Food Centre to help other hawkers who did not have delivery or marketing capabilities advertise their food and services. The group grew to 25,000 members within the first 24 hours.
“At first, the older hawkers were not aware and did not know how to get involved. We saw a lot of younger hawkers helping out their elderly neighbours do postings on the group, as well as diners who wanted to support their neighbourhood hawkers,” says Chew.
A month into the Circuit Breaker, the group now has more than 260,000 members that includes both hawkers and diners, and is run by a team of volunteers, food lovers from various walks of life. “We hope to extend this initiative even after the circuit breaker period is over as many hawkers have found this group a very effective sales and promotions channel that is also free to use,” says Chew.
To-ricos Guo Shi is just one of the hawker stalls that has benefitted from this initiative. “We started out doing about 10 deliveries a day, but since posting on the Hawkers United Facebook page, we can now do about 30 to 35 deliveries a day,” says Vincent Phua.
He was, in turn, inspired to help his neighbours in Old Airport Road Food Centre, many of whom are older hawkers who were not aware of such social media movements. Working with the food centre’s Hawker Association, he set up Facebook Group “51 Old Airport Road Food Centre & Shopping Mall”, going stall to stall to help the less tech-savvy hawkers take photos and market their food and delivery options online.
“Who knows when or if things will go back to as they were before? All we can do is take things one step at a time and help those hawkers who are willing to try new things like social media and delivery,” says Phua.
With restrictions on movement and dining out extending beyond the two-month Circuit Breaker for weeks to come, changes to the dining habits of Singaporeans might just become permanent and hasten more hawkers to embracing digitalisation.
MICHELIN Guide Singapore 2019 Hawkers Online
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