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Drinks Stall Hawkers See Up To 95% Drop In Biz For Phase 2 HA, Dip Into Savings To Survive

Some have resorted to scrimping on their own meals & opening for longer hours hoping to get more orders.

Some have resorted to scrimping on their own meals & opening for longer hours hoping to get more orders.

Some have resorted to scrimping on their own meals & opening for longer hours hoping to get more orders.

Mohammad Asgar, 52, usually has a queue for his famed teh sarbat tarik, black tea pulled with a dash of milk and ginger extract. When he makes his gloriously frothy beverage, onlookers whip out their phones to Instagram him in action.

Asgar is a bit of a celebrity at his popular Bhai Sarbat
teh tarik stall at Kampong Glam. The business was passed down to him by his uncle, who opened it in 1977. But for the past two months, Asgar has been struggling with his rent. His business, once roaring, had nosedived by as much as 70 to 80 per cent in the days leading up to Phase 2 (Heightened Alert).

“Two times my landlord asked, where’s the rent?” he tells in his brand of heartfelt English. “I just tell them, ‘Give me time, give me time’.” These days, he earns between $100 to $300 a day, barely enough to pay his employees and cover rent. “My own salary never come, never mind. But I want to pay my staff. Then not enough left for my rental. I save zero per cent. That’s why I’m very scared. What to do?” he sighs.
1 of 13 He opened a thriving but short-lived restaurant

Last August, the father-of-four plowed his life savings into opening a Bhai Sarbat Restaurant, just down the street from his drinks stall. Business was brisk, but Asgar closed it in April this year due to a lack of manpower. He explains: “I waited so long, no staff come work for me. If I’ve manpower, that one very good business. My biryani is very good. But what to do?”

He acknowledges that his financial situation – which includes his wife’s medical bills – is dire. But he’s still a fighter: “My own salary, I save, save, save. All my savings I used to open the restaurant, all gone. But I’m willing to try again. Cannot surrender. Surrender is not my way (laughs).”

2 of 13 No delivery for a $1 cup of teh tarik

Asgar’s customers urged him to sign up with food delivery platforms for extra sales. But he points out: “One teh tarik, only $1. And you have to pay for delivery. Some of my customers are from Jurong, they have to pay $4, $5 [delivery fees] for teh tarik. If we have food and drinks together okay lah. But my shop only teh tarik and masala tea, that kind of thing.”

To try and earn as much as he can, Asgar is still keeping his stall open from 6.30am to 12.30am daily, even though there are few customers. He says: “We hope always, somebody can come. Waiting also never mind.”

He adds: “Some restaurants and us, we do 20 per cent [business], just enough to survive. I’m hoping my landlord will say, ‘Never mind for this three or four months. You take care of your family first.’ But I hope only lah. I don’t want to disturb my landlord.”

Bhai Sarbat Stall, 21 Bussorah St, S119439. Open daily 6.30am-12.30am. Facebook, Instagram.

3 of 13 Crowds dry up for CBD bubble tea hawker

During the Circuit Breaker last year, bubble tea hawker Angus Leong, 33, enjoyed a fortuitous surge of orders when BBT shops islandwide were not allowed to open. As he runs hawker stall Dot Sugar at Maxwell Food Centre with his cousin Dino Chua, 32 (both pictured above), he could continue operating on a technicality.

But Phase 2 (HA) came, and the CBD turned into a ghost town. Angus’ customers started working from home again, and his business fell by over 50 per cent. The few who dropped by the hawker centre went straight for the cooked food stalls. “They will tapow food instead of drinks, and go to the supermarket to buy big bottles of [soft drinks] for their families, ’cos it’s cheaper,” he shares. “People have a lot of choices for drinks.”

4 of 13 Competition from heartland BBT shops

It doesn’t help that there are many heartland BBT shops - currently open - competing with him for business. “And [food delivery platforms] like GrabFood have a 3km distance limit, so we cannot reach the heartlands,” he explains. Like Bhai Sarbat Stall’s owner Mohammad Asgar, Angus reckons that “customers are not ready to pay for the delivery fee, which is two to three times higher than the price of their bubble tea”.

The cousins have started dipping into their savings to make ends meet. “We earn about $100 a day now, just enough to cover the rent,” Angus reveals. “We are worried about our savings, but we hope to have at least 50 per cent of our regular crowd back after [dining-in resumes].”

#01-61 Maxwell Food Centre, 1 Kadayanallur St, S069184. Open Mon-Sat, 11.30am-4.30pm (shortened opening hours). Facebook, Instagram.

5 of 13 Hawker’s cold-pressed juices now a luxury for customers

Wong Su Mei is, in her own words, “probably the only hawker making cold-pressed fruit and vegetable juices on the spot”. She runs ASip Drinks at Commonwealth Crescent market, where she serves juices made using a hydraulic extraction process that retains more of the fruits and veggies’ natural nutrients.

When the Circuit Breaker began last April, the 60-something hawker still had health-conscious customers buying her vitamin-loaded beverages. That has since changed in Phase 2 (HA). Despite the low, low prices for her drinks (a 350ml cup of cold-pressed fruit juice costs as little as $2) and delivery service, there were just no takers.

“After more than a year of Covid-19, people need to hold onto their money. They would rather spend their $2.50 on chicken rice. This was what some of my customers told me.” says Mei. “Even sales of watermelon juice, such a basic fruit, dropped. People need to buy food for their families.”

6 of 13 Had to throw pricey ingredients away

During CB Phase 1, she diligently came up with new veggie juice recipes to “enhance people’s immune systems”, with gourmet ingredients like spinach and purple cabbage.

But when customers could not linger and chat with Mei about her new drinks, they ended up going for tamer options like apple or orange juice.

She eventually had to throw her well-intentioned spinach and purple cabbages away. “Their shelf life is very short. It was all wasted. They were not moving,” she laments. “I tried, but people didn’t get it.”

Mei shares that avocado prices have gone up “by a lot” due to pandemic-related scarce supply. Despite needing the income, she’s absorbing the extra cost. She reasons, “We have to think long-term. We can’t change our prices because of a one-month lockdown. It will make people lose confidence in us, when they have supported us for so many years.”

7 of 13 “Yesterday, all of us died”

Mei now has about “15 per cent of our regular business” during daytime. “After that, everyone has no business. Yesterday, all of us died. Even the food stalls. It’s even worse for drinks [sellers] — we only get five to six per cent of our usual business at night,” she shares.

She now cuts down on her personal expenditures to save money. “We make our own breakfast now, because we’re so free. I buy lunch from my neighbour, but for dinner we self-support. And we cut down on our portions,” she details.

It sounds austere, but Mei maintains that it’s to hedge against future uncertainty. She says, “We can’t just think about this month — we have to think about six months down the road.”

Some hawkers, she reckons, could be phased out by the pandemic: “People don’t want to see hawker stalls gone. But it takes a long time for business to come back, and the hawkers cannot hold on for so long. Even if they can hold on, it’s no fun, especially when they need to support a family.”

ASip Drinks, #02-85, 31 Commonwealth Crescent Market. S149644. Open daily 10:30am–8:30pm.​​​​​​​

8 of 13 Celeb fave kopi stall now operating in “Safe Mode”

Ex-petroleum trader Lawrence Tan, 47, owns kopi stall Kopi More at Golden Mile Food Centre. His ‘atas’ coffee and tea, pulled from an espresso machine, have attracted queues and celeb regulars like Edmund Chen and Xiang Yun, their son Chen Yixi, and Crazy Rich Asians star Henry Golding (who’s now based in the US).

His business fell by 70 per cent during Phase 2 (HA). As there’s less demand, Lawrence shortened his opening hours. “Just operate in Microsoft Windows Safe Mode, when the system crashes,” he jokes wittily. “It has been a tumultuous 13 months.”

To make up for fewer cups sold (“due to the nature of hot beverages, they can’t be tapow-ed for long journeys”), he also started selling stovetop coffee makers from Italian brand Bialetti since last year’s Circuit Breaker. “So customers can make Kopi More coffee at home and in the office,” he says.

9 of 13 Support from famous regulars

Despite the no dine-in measure, Lawrence’s celeb customers still turn up to support his business. He reveals, “Edmund and Yixi still frequent [my stall]. These fellows come from the east side a couple of times weekly. Real ambassadors of hawkers.”

Last week, Yixi - a talented artist like his dad - dropped by Kopi More to give Lawrence a drawing of his stall (pictured above). “It’s very accurately drawn. He’s such a chap, accompanies his folks to the hawker centre every time,” marvels Lawrence.

10 of 13 Absorbing cost of takeaway cups

Lawrence’s robust brews cost an average of $1.90 for a cup of Kopi-O or Teh. It’s steeper than your average hawker stall order, though comparable to chains like Ya Kun Kaya Toast and Toast Box. His beans are ground to order, and meticulously machine-brewed. A while back, he quit using Facebook as it was “littered with negative comments about my prices”.

He absorbs the cost of takeaway paper cups, which costs him a hundred dollars a week. Each paper cup costs 20 cents, which he says “constitutes 10 per cent [of the price for a cup of coffee].” He opines: “To customers, it hurts to pay for paper cups. It’s a period of discretionary decision-making.”

Kopi More, #B1-49 Golden Mile Food Centre, 505 Beach Rd, 199583. Open Tues-Sun, 10.30am-4pm (shortened opening hours). Instagram.

11 of 13 Lawyer’s kopi stall to help refugees

Like Kopi More, mod coffee hawker stall Mad Roaster’s biz went down by 70 per cent. It’s opened by young lawyer Madeline Chan, 27, who runs it personally to help support displaced refugees in Thailand.

Her takeaway paper cups feature stickers made by the refugees, who earn an income from making the labels at $0.50 each. A few weeks ago, Madeline received an order request from a refugee community leader who said their orders were running low.

“They wanted me to send the next few months' worth of stickers for them to work on. Internally I was like, Oh my god, I don't know if I'll even be here in the next few months! But of course I didn't say anything, I just made the order for a few thousand stickers,” she shares. “I guess that's the point of this whole thing... They shouldn't have to worry about their livelihoods because we do the worrying for them.

12 of 13 Staying positive

Despite the challenges, Madeline is trying to “stay positive”. She has ramped up her delivery network to try and secure more orders. “Either the situation changes, or we change, or we slowly run out of resources. We're trying really hard to work on the second option, but I don’t know how capable we are, to be honest,” she confesses.

13 of 13 “Either the situation changes, or we change, or we slowly run out of resources”

Recently on May 17, she opened a Mad Roaster cafe outlet in Joo Chiat. The opening was hastened by the sudden announcement of Phase 2 (HA). “If people were moving out of the CBD to residential areas, then we wanted to make the move as quickly as we could too,” says Madeline, who figured that “in a way it was good that things were so bad. We didn’t even have time to be lazy or fearful (laughs)”.

To help beverage sellers tide through the Circuit Breaker, she recommends customers to stock up on drinks like cold brew coffee, which can keep for a while in the fridge. She suggests, “Or even for stalls that don't offer cold brews, why not get your usual teh uncle to do up five or six cups for you. Say Uncle, just pour all into my tumbler”. You drink a bit every day. That kind of thing could really help.”

Mad Roaster, #02-107 Amoy Street Food Centre, 7 Maxwell Rd, S069111. Open daily except Sun and PHs. Mon-Fri 8am-3pm, Sat 10am-1pm.

Mad Roaster (Joo Chiat outlet), 441 Joo Chiat Rd, S427654. Open daily 9.30am-3pm. Online orders for delivery via Facebook, Instagram.

Photos: Mohammad Asgar/ Yip Jieying/ Kelvin Chia/ Aik Chen

Related topics

Hawkers drinks stalls Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) circuit breaker Covid-19 teh tarik coffee kopi more mad roaster asip juices dot sugar bubble tea

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