Makansutra founder reveals “shocking” costs for hawkers at new Government-run food centres

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One of the points that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made during his National Day Rally speech earlier this month was how vital hawker culture is to the Singapore identity.

Revealing that Singapore will nominate hawker culture for UNESCO recognition, PM Lee also said that more hawker centres will be built to help Singaporeans cut the cost of living by opting for cheaper food and shared that 10 Social Enterprise Hawker Centres will be built to foster further bonding between Singapore residents.

While the Government is promoting hawker culture and paints hawker food as a cheap source of good food, hawkers seem to be struggling with increasingly high costs.

Hawkers at the new Social Enterprise Hawker Centres, who are mandated by the Government to make at least one dish affordable, appear set to be even more disadvantaged, with stallholders allegedly facing an average of $4000 monthly expenses.

Yesterday, renowned local food guru KF Seetoh shared, “I had the sad eye opening chance to glance at the contract agreements of some new hawkers which have been installed at our new Social Enterprise Hawker Centres (SEHC).”

KF Seetoh is the founder of the long-running Makansutra food network which has produced heritage street food guides, international culinary tv shows and operated food markets over its 21-year history. Seetoh has also been lauded by international publications like the New York Times and CNN and was recognised as Singapore’s Food Ambassador by former President SR Nathan.

Writing on the Makansutra website, Seetoh revealed:

“The folks at social enterprise food centres pay a total of $4000 pmth on average. The shocking facts, (just some) seen in some of the contracts, include compulsory payments for 
  • “coin changing service”, 
  • a Gross Turnover Profit percentage (they take a percentage of your overall takings each month or basic rents, whichever is higher),
  • separate charges for crockery washing, collection and return (despite efforts and cost to facilitate self tray-return)
  • and this brazen clause (see image) that hawkers pay the management $600 a month to have them spot check their food quality and operation ( in short, charge the hawkers to do what they naturally do anyway). As if they know better than the hawkers how to cook and operate. 
  • They also have monetary penalties like in a food court model for closures and they are expected to open 8-12 hours a day (minus preparation time). The law only allow people to work up to 12 hours a day. The old NEA hawker centres will allow emergency closures like for health, religious holidays and personal issues, just let them know.
Despite these startling high cost of operation and management fees, they are expected to offer at least one dish at below $3 in the menu.”

Seetoh further noted that such costs will have an impact on the prices consumers have to pay and predicted that this will have a “domino effect on all other F&B rentals in Singapore” if such costs continue to prevail at the SEHCs:

“So I ask, how are the true intents behind these so called SEHC being delivered. Did they misinterpret the values and goals listed, or is there a lack of vision and compassion in execution…If such cost at SEHC, meant to be cheaper and affordable for vendor and customers prevail, then it will have a domino effect on all other F&B rentals in Singapore.
“So before we shout to Unesco about how our hawker centres are also humbling entry level business opportunities for the poorer folks in our midst out to offer cheaper meals to the public and bond them, I urge the minds at the top to rethink this very worthwhile culture of Singapore and to keep it relevant and evolve organically for the next generation. I think the original noble intents were lost in translation in management, let’s get this back on track please.”

Meanwhile, hawkers at regular food centres also appear to be grappling with high operating costs.

Last month, a woman successfully bid for a hawker stall at the Chomp Chomp Food Centre at Serangoon Gardens with a record monthly rental of $10,028. The next highest bid was $3,504.68.

Another Chomp Chomp stallowner told reporters that he felt the bidder would not have been able to make profits with such high rent. 68-year-old Charlie Goh who runs Charlie Corner Health Fresh Juices told reporters: “Including operating costs, my monthly expenses amount to only $1,000. Even so, it’s hard for me to make $3,000 each month, let alone $10,000.”

For Ms Lim Ah Ber, the woman who made the $10,028 bid, she would have had to sell 3400 plates of $3 dishes a month, or 113 plates a day, just to break even if she charged $3 for the food she plans to sell. This is not including cleaner, maintenance and dishwashing fees, either.

Ms Lim may have realised this since she had a change of heart and terminated the tenancy agreement the same day she signed it. Ms Lim follows the lead of another bidder who bid $10,000 for a stall at People’s Park hawker centre only to end his tenancy before starting operations.

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