Young entrepreneurs Alex Ho and Gay Yu Ting, who jointly own a hawker stall at Chinatown Complex food centre will be closing their stall for good in March, as the food centre will undergo renovations and will be required to be shut for three months.
Mr Ho, 28, and Ms Gay, 32, are the owners of Sutachi, which offers Japanese-Italian fusion food commonly found in cafes. In their stall, they use premium ingredients like foie gras, wagyu beef squid ink and salmon mentaiko, rare in a hawker environment.
An order of their rice bowl comes with a side of soup, and costs between S$5 and S$7.50. The most expensive dish on the menu is foie gras with slices of beef at S$19.50.
“We wanted to provide the opportunity for people to try new foods in an affordable setting,” said Ms Gay.
The stall opened its door in December 2017 and was featured on food blogs and and review sites for their affordable take on gourmet fusion food. However, that did not necessarily translate into consistent profits.
“When we opened, the first three months was very good (because) people were interested. Friends came, Eatbook came. That time, we made money. After that, it was survival period,” Ms Gay said.
She added, “Even though we were popular, we were not popular enough. The stall still could not cover our salaries. We had to take a pay cut. We have never taken a full salary in the last 14 months.”
Opening a hawker stall
After working in restaurants and hotels for a few years, they both invested S$15,000 each from their savings into the venture. They decided to open a stall at a hawker centre as it was the most financially viable option, after surveying a range of alternative locations.
“In a hawker centre, we don’t have to pay for the seating or buy any furniture. That’s already saving a lot,” revealed Ms Gay.
Although they thought of opening a stall at the newer Socially-Conscious Enterprise Hawker Centres (SEHC) where they believe their food would be more well-acceptable by customers, but they didn’t because the cost was too expensive.
The drop in business
Unfortunately, after initial success in the first three months of their opening, the stall’s business dropped and they both did not make money enough to bring home full salaries.
“With the expenses, it comes up to almost S$8,000. The average price of our food here is S$6. To hit S$8,000, we’ll have to sell about 1,300 rice bowls a month. It’s about 60 a day. When we started the stall, we agreed that our daily target is 50 to 60 bowls or about S$500 a day,” Mr Ho said.
“It sounds very little but when you actually become a hawker, S$500 is very hard to achieve. When it’s a peak period, we can hit this target. But the thing is, there are too many lull periods,” Ms Gay said.
Ms Gay said that they gave Sutachi a year to see if it would succeed. “With a year, I have the profit and loss statements to look at. We made our decision based on what we saw. I told Alex that we are still making losses and I feel that the potential growth here is minimal. We’ve already reached our potential,” she explained.
In addition, the three-month renovation of Chinatown Complex was a huge deciding factor. After sustaining losses for a year, the duo could not stomach three months without work and earnings.
Despite the lack of success in their business, the both of them did not see the last 14 months as a waste of their time and money.
“I don’t think we failed. I take it as one year’s school fees. We still got to learn. We were losing money but we are happy that we managed to stay afloat for a year without having to top-up money or take loans,” said Ms Gay.
NEA support programme
In February last year, the National Environment Agency (NEA) introduced a hawker incubation programme to help ease young hawker’s difficulties in going into the trade.
Under the programme, pre-fitted stalls are offered for rent for six months at 50 per cent off the market rate.
“The programme came out two months after we started Sutachi. If we started our business later, we could have applied to the programme. Maybe it will help to cut some losses,” expressed Mr Ho.
“Maybe we’ll have more salary each month, S$250 more each because of the rental subsidies but other than that, I don’t think it will help much,” said Ms Gay.
After reading their story, many netizens praise their courage to venture into a business, and still have a positive outlook even when the business failed.
Some even gave the business partners advice and a word of encouragement, and wished them best of luck for their future endeavours.
A few netizens even shared their personal story on starting up a business.