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At least 10 hawker stalls folded at Pasir Ris Central Hawker Centre run by NTUC Foodfare

When Pasir Ris Central Hawker Centre (opposite White Sands mall) run by NTUC Foodfare opened in Jan this year, there was a large fanfare. ST reported that people had been eagerly waiting for it to open.

"It's well worth the wait," ST quoted a 50-year-old education coach living in Pasir Ris. "The food is cheap too," she added.

"(It) is a place that offers traditional and hipster cuisine at affordable prices, as well as a taste of the arts and music," reported ST. "Patrons can also attend events at the hawker centre, such as art markets, craft fairs and music gigs."

ST revealed that the hawker centre also features centralised dishwashing and common crockery systems. An NTUC Foodfare spokesman said that an online ordering system will be implemented to enable diners to order food via an app before collecting it at the hawker centre.

There are some 42 stalls located on two floors but 9 months later, at least 10 stalls have already thrown in the towel.

More than 10 stalls have quit

Last week (28 Aug), Makansutra food guru KF Seetoh published a blog revealing the sorry state of affairs the whole Social Enterprise Hawker Centre (SEHC) initiative is in.

To find out more, TOC went down to Pasir Ris Central Hawker Centre to talk to the hawkers. It was revealed that at least 10 stalls have already quit from the hawker centre.

Those interviewed by TOC also said that they intend to close shop. Many simply couldn't afford to pay the high costs, including rental and other ancillary charges imposed by NTUC Foodfare, with the low traffic of customers that they get each day.

In fact, it was found that according to the agreements signed by the hawkers with NTUC Foodfare, there is a whole bunch of ancillary charges amounting to more than $2,000 the hawkers have to contend with, in addition to paying rentals:

  1. S&CC Charges - $350 per month
  2. Table Cleaning Service - $550 per month
  3. Dishwashing Service - $850 per month
  4. Rental of Cashless System - $150 per month
  5. Food Waste Recycling Management - $40 per month
  6. Concept and Marketing - $300 per month

They also have to pay and participate in the use of common crockery and cutlery at the hawker centre including yearly replacement and replenishment. In addition, they must buy gas from NTUC Foodfare's own supplier.

Other than coping with the costs, stall operators are also made to cut down the prices of their food. While that may work with the normal food stalls, but stalls on the second floor which offer premium dishes even find it hard to make break even with the low selling price mandated by NTUC Foodfare and the high cost of their food ingredients.

Speaking to TOC, one stall owner complained particularly about NTUC Foodfare's monthly collection of $300 for marketing purposes. He noted that there has been no effort to publicise the hawker centre by the management over the past few months. He feels that if the money collected is to be used to run promotional events at the hawker centre, the business will surely pick up. But as it stands, the human flow does not justify the high cost.

Even Gen Y Michelin hawker Douglas Ng finds it hard to operate hawker stall

Douglas Ng is Gen Y hawker who became famous when his complaint about the rising cost of running a hawker stall was responded to by then Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan in 2015.

In 2015, Douglas who runs the famous fishball noodle stall Fishball Story, wrote an extensive post on Facebook to highlight the rising cost of running a hawker stall. He also said that the social enterprise model is not sustainable since hawkers have to cap their food prices.

Minister Vivian replied saying that based on his government study, stall rental was not the main cost faced by hawkers. "The reality is that rentals constitute a small fraction of the overall cost of running a hawker stall. The major cost drivers are actually ingredients and manpower," the Minister said.

"I have made it very clear to (NTUC) Foodfare that they are not to charge high rents. The top priority is to have good affordable food for my residents in Bukit Panjang. That is why every stall must have at least two low cost main courses," he added. Minister Vivian was referring to the social enterprise hawker centre run by NTUC Foodfare at Bukit Panjang in 2015.

Last month, writing on his Facebook page on National Day (9 Aug 2018), Douglas lamented that all the new hawker centres are run by corporations. "Nowadays, new hawker centres that are built, are all managed by private companies and these premises operate more like food courts than hawker centres. The rent is 3k average or 15% GTO (gross turnover)," he said.

"And furthermore, you have to pay 3 months deposit which is more than a coffeeshop which normally only take 1 month. For new hawkers, the money can be used to buy kitchen equipment or use as cashflow."

He added that hawking is no longer attractive to young Singaporeans anymore and said that even though, the various government agencies have been trying to help, but the real issues "have not been addressed".

"So, to the community that I can reach out to. This national day, when you go to any hawker centres out there. After you order your food, give them a thumbs up and tell them, 'thank you for keeping our culture and heritage alive, you have done our nation proud!'" he wrote.

On his blog, Mr Seetoh also said, "They (social enterprises) operate the new hawker centres like a hardcore commercial Food Court management system. Hence, I am seeing some issues that raises some concerns."

By law, all hawker centres are supposed to be run and managed by NEA. But these days, NEA is increasingly outsourcing its new hawker centres to middlemen like NTUC Foodfare to manage, all in the name of "social enterprise". And don't forget, middlemen also have to pay good salaries to their CEOs, directors, chiefs and heads.