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More youths are becoming hawkers in Singapore


FoodF & BInterviews

Prawnaholic, Daburu and Big Bowls Project are changing up the hawker scene with their 'hipster' dishes and fiery passion.

Over 100 hawker centres in Singapore serve as "community dining rooms", providing Singaporeans a space to eat and bond over a variety of dishes.

Amidst the debate on whether Singapore's hawker culture is sustainable, there has been a steady stream of youths stepping foot into the hawker scene.

Supported by initiatives like NTUC Foodfare's "hawker-preneurship" programme and the National Environment Agency's (NEA) Incubation Stall Programme, these young hawkers have been setting up shop islandwide.

Youth.SG spoke to three youth hawkers to find out why they chose to be hawkerpreneurs and how they use their age to their advantage.

Driven by passion

Most of the youth hawkers Youth.SG spoke to shared that passion was one of the main factors that motivated them to start their own business.

29-year-olds Lau Leslie and Sherwin Lim opened Daburu, located in Pasir Ris Central Hawker Centre, in January 2018 after discovering their common love for Western food and interest in cooking.

"We always wanted to be entrepreneurs. We felt that starting off with a hawker business is a good opportunity for us to experiment and get direct feedback from customers," said Sherwin, who used to work in the aviation industry.

Sherwin Lim (left) and Lau Leslie (right) came up with Daburu's menu after being inspired by hot plate dishes in Taiwan. 

24-year-old Habibah Moszay opened Big Bowls Project nine months ago in Amoy Street Food Centre to provide affordable rice bowls for the Muslim market.

Habibah, who sells about 100 bowls daily, said: "I was looking at market trends and realised that health food is the way to go. I was originally inspired by poke bowls, but I decided to try something different. So, I did 'cooked salmon' bowls instead." 

Habibah Moszay roped in her friends and family members to help out at her stall, especially during peak hours. 

Rocky beginnings

The journey for these young hawkerpreneurs has not been all smooth sailing. Apart from dealing with operational matters, they also had to get used to the long working hours.

24-year-old Alan Choong, owner of Prawnaholic at Pasir Ris Central Hawker Centre, felt like giving up on his first week.

The former hotel chef found it hard to adjust to the long working hours.

"Being a chef, you work for 12 to 15 hours at most. As a hawker, it's almost as if you can't stop.

"You might work for about 20 hours and even when you get home, there are still things like accounts, suppliers and rent to handle," said Alan, who runs the store with a part-time assistant.

Alan Choong hopes customers are open to having a new experience with his fusion prawn noodles. 

But these youth hawkers seem to be filled with grit.

Sherwin said: "For the first few weeks, we slept three to four hours every day, but we never thought of giving up. I guess our mindset is either do or die, so whenever things went wrong, we just went head-on and settled it."

We spoke to Prawnaholic and Big Bowls Project to find out more about their hawker experience.

The millennial advantage

Besides their youth, these hawkers are daring and tech-savvy, and they sure know how to use their strengths to their advantage. They are also more in tune with current trends.

For example, two out of the three youth hawkers we spoke to have strong social media presence. They post frequent updates about their delivery options and operating hours, together with Instaworthy pictures of their mouth-watering food.

"We know how to use social media. It's something that the old hawkers wouldn't do because maybe they don't know how to use it," said Alan, who updates his followers on Instagram whenever he has sold out for the day.

Daburu leveraged on recent events like the Trump-Kim summit (pictured) and Hollywood movie Crazy Rich Asians to market their products. 

For Alan, his previous chef experience has helped him source and pair premium ingredients in his dishes while still making them affordable.

"Premium ingredients taste good on its own, but if you want to make it affordable for everyone, you need to know where to get them and how to make the ingredients complement each other.

"Others usually say that the broth in prawn noodles is the most important, but I think they're wrong. It should be a package and everything should be done well, from the prawns to the shallots and pork lard," said Alan.

Alan Choong uses torched Kurobuta pork and butterflied king prawns in his dry king prawn noodles. 

Finding fulfilment in their work

Even though most of the youth hawkers we spoke to only started running their stalls for less than a year, some already feel that their hard work is coming to fruition.

Receiving positive and encouraging words from regular customers makes these young hawkers feel warm and contented.

"When customers give me good reviews after eating my prawn noodles, it's so heartening and priceless to see the smiles on their faces," shared Alan, who gathers feedback from his customers regularly.

Daburu's hot plate dishes have been well-received by their regulars.

Leslie, who used to work as a psychologist, said: "It feels like a successful personal project. I have fulfilled my dreams of starting my own business, selling my own products, and working with the people I enjoy working with."

Like Leslie, Habibah felt contented when she managed to pursue her personal interests while being financially stable.

"I get to spend on things I like, such as travelling, while being able to support my dad," said Habibah, who spends her free time on dance and going to the gym.

Habibah Moszay shared that the crowd arrives at Amoy Street Food Centre in batches and queues generally clear within 15 minutes. 

Pushing past doubts

Despite being able to find fulfilment in their work, some of these youth hawkers faced apprehension about their career paths when they first started working.

Alan said: "My friends and family thought I was crazy. I could have continued being a chef in the hotel and they asked why I wanted to do something on my own."

Sherwin shared that his mother did not understand why he chose to be a hawker in the beginning, even though he had a degree.

"In the past, people became hawkers for survival, whereas people are now becoming hawkers out of passion. You just have to be able to work hard to prove that having passion can lead to a viable career," he explained, adding that his mother has more faith in Daburu after seeing people queuing to buy their dishes.

While Sherwin enjoys the freedom of running his business at his own pace, he is mindful of managing the responsibilities required in the job.

"I'm well aware of the sheer hard work that needs to be put in. You still have to pay bills, rent and survive." said Sherwin.