Why Young Hawkers Charge More But Earn Less, According To Ah Tan Wings Founder Wee Yang
“Fried chicken is something I’ve always enjoyed,” Tan Wee Yang is saying, gesturing to his loaded plate of nasi padang with a sheepish laugh.
It’s barely scraping 11am, and already the 28-year-old owner of Ah Tan Wings is scoffing his meal before the lunch crowd descends upon Timbre+, where one of his two stalls is based.
The other, located in Yishun Park Hawker Centre, sits alongside a bevy of stalls run by young and old hawkers alike.
Ah Tan Wings’ starring dish — har cheong gai, or prawn paste chicken — has taken Wee Yang places.
That includes serving chefs at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019 reception — and, late this month, flying to Myanmar for a Singapore Tourism Board-hosted activation alongside the likes of Hawker Chan.
Shortly after completing a diploma in business studies at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Wee Yang took on a full-time job in the machinery and construction industry — but the assurance of a stable monthly income wasn’t reason enough to stay.
“I began taking leave on Fridays to experiment with my fried chicken recipe and sell my food at markets like Artbox and Singapore Night Festival,” he shares.
Fuelled by the receptive response to his wings, the young hawker went out on a limb in 2017, armed with $10,000 in savings.
This was matched with his winning spot in the Tiger Street Food Support Fund, an Asia Pacific Breweries-backed initiative that awarded 25 young and upcoming hawkers with a $10,000 grant to put towards their dream.
That small pool of money was barely enough to break even, though, particularly when he pit cost against time.
“My sister was helping with the venture, and by the third month we were selling out an hour before closing time. But profits monthly only came in at $1,000 to $2,000 — which worked out to even less when split. I was working 15-16 hours daily, and it just didn’t seem worth it. My family had to even come to my stall for dinner if they wanted to meet. That’s how much of a social life I had.”
These days, Wee Yang focuses more on publicity and operations — and allows his team of seven to run the stalls, although he does shuttle between both outlets.
On his days off, the young hawker makes the marinade and chilli sauce for his har cheong gai. It’s a closely-kept secret that even the Heads of Kitchen at Ah Tan Wings don’t get privy to.
Sure, prawn paste fried chicken sounds straightforward enough to make in theory — is it not simply marinated chicken that’s coated in batter and fried to an addictive crisp?
Yet the simplest of dishes often involve more complexity than meets the eye.
It took over a year for Wee Yang to perfect his har cheong gai recipe, in a process that involved experimenting with over 300 variations of fried chicken.
At some point, Wee Yang realised getting the best har cheong gai recipe isn’t about clean-cut ratios per se — unlike, say, the beef patties at homegrown joint Omakase Burger.
When it comes down to it, grit and experimentation are necessary ingredients for a chance at success.
The former, in particular, means refusing to take no for an answer — as in the case of his quest for a chicken wing supplier early on.
“I went around making calls. When you’re new, people won’t take you seriously because they think you’ll close down within a year or three years, which is the case for many F&B businesses. Our rates [from suppliers] were therefore not very good because we ordered in smaller amounts,” he says with an easy laugh.
He carries this sense of humour — a light-hearted, unguarded air about him — throughout our chat, even when detailing his struggles.
Late last year, Wee Yang was forced to shutter his third stall in Maxwell Food Centre after just under a year, in a decision that cost him some $15,000. While he acknowledges it “isn’t much” in the grand scheme of things, it was a painful lesson about the pitfalls of being in the hawker trade.
“My Maxwell stall… that was unfortunate. It was crazy.” He pauses to shake his head, as if in disbelief at the gall of life to deal him such curveballs.
“I went through three Heads of Kitchen within seven months at Maxwell alone. Each Head is trained for about a month under me, but when they go to a new outlet, their attitude sometimes changes. I’ve hired people from all sorts of backgrounds, and sometimes they do illegal things and I’ve to let them go. One of my ex-staff was borrowing from moneylenders and telling people he worked at my stall. I still get messages asking me where he is, and I’ve to tell them he left long ago.”
On this, he cites the challenges of expansion, which segue into manpower issues.
It isn’t a problem unique to his business, though.
Unlike the privately-owned Timbre+, where rental is higher, opening a stall in a hawker centre presents a Pandora’s box of problems – including that stall owners can only hire Singaporeans and PRs.
“Not being able to hire foreigners can be quite limiting. Many stall assistants know you need them more than they need you. [Some of] my staff would go drinking during their lunch break then disappear in the evening…especially when I wasn’t there. There’s the whole, ‘If you fire me, I’ll just go to your neighbour’s stall to work’ mentality.”
All Hands on Deck
“I’ve realised hawker stalls are only ideal if you just want one stall.” Wee Yang pauses here, as if ruminating the irony of his statement. “Expanding is easier if you’ve a huge extended family or friends who’re willing to come down to help with the stall. Most of my relatives are educated and wouldn’t want to come into the hawker industry. It’s really not sustainable working morning to night alone with no extra hands.”
His days of clocking 16-hour shifts have since dwindled, but they haven’t by any means been replaced by a cushy 9 to 5. In all the changes the hawker industry is undergoing, shorter hours are not one of them.
Between overseeing Ah Tan Wings, Wee Yang has been quietly growing two concepts: WOKWOK cereal prawn potato chips, and a fried chicken bowl concept to ride off the cloud kitchen trend.
The latter — a newfangled concept that involves multiple F&B businesses working from a centralised kitchen for food delivery orders — is one of several means of maximising profits, along with automating the cooking process using equipment like meat pressers.
It’s clear sustaining a business in the trade doesn’t allow room for complacency, and Wee Yang reiterates this with nary a trace of indignation.
“It’s not true that [younger hawkers] are working less and charging higher prices. Older hawkers can do it because their rental’s much lower. They’re the pioneer generation, and the Government doesn’t want to jack up their rates. That’s something I completely understand. For a stall in a good location, their rent might be under $1,000 — whereas ours might be $4,000 to $5,000.”
To bridge that disparity in rental, Wee Yang stripped back the menu; gone were fusion food dishes including okonomiyaki and French fries. Instead, he honed in on doing one thing well: double-fried har cheong gai, served unaccompanied or with rice and sliced cucumbers.
“To sustain a business, a consumer must want to eat your dish on a regular basis. Trendy, hipster food concepts like truffle chicken rice won’t [keep customers coming back],” he explains. “Most Singaporeans ultimately want rice or noodles with their meal.”
The move could in part be the reason for Ah Tan Wings’ success. And Wee Yang’s intent on keeping the business thriving through multiple leaps of faith — by injecting any money made back into the business.
“I don’t save at all,” he admits. “Whatever money I make, I pump it back in. It’s not sustainable in the long run, but I give myself five more years to work on this. Even if I fail, I’ll still be 33 — young enough to start again in another industry. [Entrepreneurship] is risky, but it’s my passion.”
About Hustlers of Singapore
We often bemoan how bland and boring Singapore is — but it’s the people that make a place.
Enter Hustlers of Singapore, a biweekly series that profiles personalities and entrepreneurs who’ve dared to make the change in this shiny metropolitan that we call home. From Singapore’s first female pro-wrestler to so-called hawkerpreneurs, these are the stories behind their financial (and emotional) struggles.
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