This article originally appeared in Dollars and Sense.
An article on Channel NewsAsia called “Why are we willing to pay S$20 for a bowl of ramen but not bak chor mee” raised discussion once again on whether or not Singaporeans should be paying more for hawker food as a way to show support for our hawker food culture, especially since, the writer argued, we have shown our willingness to pay for more expensive foreign food. In the article, a comparison was made between how Singaporeans “Will scream murder if a bowl of Bak Chor Mee costs more than $5”, but “will pay $20 or more for a bowl of Ramen”. If you are a foodie in Singapore, it’s easy to read this article and jump onboard the #supporthawkerculture crusade. For example, we can reason to ourselves that bak chor mee isn’t inferior to ramen. Hence, we should be paying a similar price to what we are willing to spend for Japanese Ramen. But just how logical is this argument? Would paying two or even three times more for hawker food really protect and improve our hawker culture? Or would it just backfire and kill it instead?
What Exactly Is The Hawker Food Culture In Singapore?
In Singapore, eating out daily is pretty common. Based on a survey conducted by IKEA, only about 22% of Singaporean households cook on a daily basis. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, given how busy most of us are and the ample options we have when it comes to affordable local fare thanks to our hawker culture. It’s easy to think of our hawker culture strictly by the kind of food that we are used to having in our hawker centres and coffee shops. These include chicken rice, nasi lemak, bak chor mee, nasi padang, economic rice, rojak, nasi briyani, roti prata and hundreds of other food choices. These food choices not only represent the cultural diversity that we enjoy in Singapore, but also the type of food that we expect to find at a reasonable price at a hawker centre or coffee shop.
Our hawker culture isn’t just about popular local food sold affordably. Strategic location matters as well. By good location, we don’t mean that hawker foods do well because they are situated in centralised locations like Orchard Road or Vivocity. They almost never do. Rather, these hawker centres and coffee shop find themselves well nestled in HDB housing estates where they enjoy good foot traffic from residents staying around the area. This makes many hawker centres and coffee shops convenient and affordable options for people in Singapore to be turning to on a daily basis, thus reinforcing our hawker culture as a necessity and a way of life. In contrast, even the most popular restaurant chains like Ajisen Ramen, which has about 17 outlets across Singapore, or Ding Tai Fung, which has 21 outlets in Singapore, cannot claim to offer such convenient accessibility to Singaporeans, no matter how often you wish to dine there. Neither do they try to claim to be an alternative to hawker food.
Understanding The Economics Of Restaurant Dining
Restaurants make profits by providing us with aspects of dining that hawker centres and coffee shops do not offer. These include service (though not always great), air-conditioning and of course, the chance to dine in a restaurant situated in a shopping mall or hotel. When people go to such restaurants for a meal with their friends or loved ones, a no-frills experience with good local food isn’t what they are looking for. Rather, they are seeking ambience and the ability to dine for a prolonged period. They are paying for space, time and service. This isn’t to say that food quality isn’t important. It is. Rather, people are paying more for entirely different reasons aside from just food when it comes to dining at restaurants. Many restaurants continue to do well despite having food which is inferior to what you can find at a good hawker centre stall. At the same time, food courts that operate in popular malls pay higher rent, which translates into higher prices for their food. For example, the food court at MBS is well known for charging high prices for local fare. You simply cannot ignore the real estate factor.
Even Restaurants Reduce Their Prices When They Move Into Hawker Culture
Pepper Lunch is a good example. A popular brand in Singapore for years, Pepper Lunch started moving into the food courts over the past decade through Pepper Lunch Express. Though the same brand, the pricing strategy for Pepper Lunch and Pepper Lunch Express is different. For example, beef pepper rice sold at a restaurant outlet would cost $9.90. The same beef pepper rice costs $6.90 at the food court, or about 30% less. This isn’t price discrimination. Rather, it’s a pricing strategy based on the brand’s recognition that there is a fundamental difference between dining at a restaurant and a food court, even if food quality is similar. They know that people don’t always go to a food court looking to spend $10 or more on a meal, but that they are willing to do so at a restaurant. They are plenty of expensive local food items that Singaporeans are willing to pay more for, despite the fact that they can enjoy cheaper alternatives in the hawker centres. These include Chatterbox Chicken Rice at Mandarin Orchard (S$27), Fried Rice with Shrimp and Egg at Ding Tai Fung (S$11) or Wanton Mee at Crystal Jade Kitchen (S$7). The point of bringing up these examples isn’t to suggest that these places are overcharging. If that’s the case, then we should complain as well that ramen and just about any foreign food served in restaurants are overpriced as well. Rather, it’s to stress that similar local meals can cost differently depending on where it is being served and eaten. At the same time, a higher price should not be mistaken as a food type being superior to another. Instead, it should be understood as a price difference as a result of different cost inputs such as labour, rent, and technology deployed. To be strong advocates of our hawker culture, we need to understand what it represents. To us, that equates tasty and affordable no-frills food that matters to us, and which we hope to consume as often as possible. To end off, what we would boldly say is that a $20 bowl of bak chor mee at a hawker centre won’t save our hawker food culture. It would simply kill it.