Hawkers in Singapore have been hit hard by the pandemic and it's more important now than ever to support them.
It’s been a rollercoaster ride for the local dining scene. Just last year, we were hit by the circuit breaker (CB). But as we moved to Phase 2 and Phase 3, there was a glimmer of hope – until restrictions were tightened once more. Again, F&B businesses bore the brunt of it. And there’s one group of people who always need our support: hawkers.
With the dining restrictions, restaurants and cafes jumped on the food delivery bandwagon to tide them over. But what about hawkers? The temporary measures exposed an underlying struggle. During the CB, we had the food delivery apps debate: whether they’re the most practical and effective way to support eateries. And this year, hawkers made headlines – in particular, elderly ones who weren’t as tech-savvy and faced difficult times when people stayed home.
The struggles of hawkers in a pandemic world
With WFH as the default, it’s only natural that food deliveries increase and walk-in diners decrease. Unfortunately, that effect trickled down to hawker centres. Amoy Street Food Centre saw an 80% drop in footfall, says Gwern Khoo, co-owner of A Noodle Story.
“Walk-in sales and revenue have definitely been affected. Lucky for us, as we pivoted online during the last CB, we were not as affected as our neighbours,” he explains.
At Tekka Market and Food Centre, Seeni Ibrahim, the owner of Yakader Muslim Food, mentions the drastic drop in diners. Fortunately, his business didn’t see much of a dip thanks to online and offline orders from customers.
For hawkers who aren’t on delivery apps, their only source of revenue comes from self-collection orders. The folks of Wow Wow West Genuine at ABC Brickworks Market & Food Centre lament their struggles amidst Phase 2 (HA).
“Hawkers have extremely low-profit margins. Finding appropriate delivery channels or packaging that will retain good food quality remains a struggle,” the team says.
Another factor? The high commission and membership rates on delivery apps. In addition, hawkers are required to pay fees like facility management and table cleaning, which inevitably eat into their costs. “Until we’re able to find a feasible solution, we will not be on board on any delivery platform; we’ll opt only for self-collection.”
These sentiments echo with many hawkers during what’s been termed “CB-lite”. Perhaps diners were aware of their plight, but not the full extent of it – until their struggles were thrown into sharp relief when a poignant video of a nasi padang hawker went viral. Through tears, she shared her troubles and how badly affected her business was. Soon after the video went live, people poured in to support the hawker stall and her food sold out quickly.
The local community shows its love
One great initiative we spotted: a map of digitally disadvantaged hawkers created by a Reddit user. What started with just 10 stalls now has 200, thanks to contributions. Know a hawker who’s not in the directory? You can add one!
On Instagram, @wheretodapao is another thoughtful project. With over 37k followers, the account spotlights elderly hawkers who need our support. Each user-submitted photo comes with a caption narrating a personal anecdote about the hawker and their food. As you browse through the posts, you’ll get acquainted with the faces behind each stall. These are real people whose livelihood revolves around feeding us, even during a pandemic.
It doesn’t stop there. The government also encourages hawkers to go digital. Just last year, it was reported that 18,000 stalls received cashless payments. Now, there’s a push for hawkers to get on delivery platforms by providing them with incentives.
Get in, we’re gonna save the hawkers
Having earned Unesco status, hawker centres are the heart of Singapore’s culture and food scene. With our ever-changing landscape, these familiar sights are one of the few constants. Flanked by skyscrapers and mega malls, they offer an affordable respite for many and a safe haven where people from all walks of life can eat and mingle.
Want to support our local hawkers? It’s easy, just purchase and appreciate their food. There are various Facebook groups like Hawkers United: Dabao 2020 and Can Eat! Hawker Food for you to share your favourite stalls and unearth hidden gems. To enjoy fuss-free selections, WhyQ and#SupportLocalSG are great delivery options.
Also, check out the @SaveTheHawkersBot on Telegram. It matches customers interested in buying food from a particular hawker centre with people heading to that same place. And don’t underestimate the power of word-of-mouth. Just like how you’d recommend a restaurant to your friend, do the same for your favourite hawker.
We all can play our part to preserve our beloved hawker culture. It’s one thing that unites us and it’ll take more than a pandemic to change that.