Hawkers may conjure up the image of grime and sweat, and these two next-generation hawkers in Singapore get candid about the business and its hard work. For 31-year-old Walter Tay of food stall Father & Son, the trade trains you for life. “It’s the real Ah Boys to Men,” he says. And 29-year-old Keith Koh of food stall Lad & Dad concurs: “We go through so much and make a lot of sacrifices.”
NSMan chats with the pair to find out more about the challenges they face and what it is like to work in father-son pairs.
How did you both get started?
KEITH: The idea came about when I was at university in London. I was studying for a business degree and worked part-time at a hotel restaurant. I realised my passion for F&B, and had the crazy idea of going back to Singapore to introduce an unfamiliar cuisine at a hawker centre – because it provided an affordable platform for dining.
WALTER: I’d failed in my previous ventures. Luckily I had my dad, who pulled me out of depression and motivated me by asking me to help him out at the stall.
Share with us your daily routine.
KEITH: I grab our supplies in the morning before heading to the stall to prepare for the day. Our lunch starts at 11.30am. Then we close between 2.30pm and 5.30pm to prepare more for the following day. We reopen at 5.30pm for dinner, and close at 9.30pm and clean up. Then we leave the stall at about 11.30pm.
WALTER: On weekends, I’m at the stall cooking with my dad. Weekdays, I start my day with a workout. [He is also working on starting up a new fitness brand.] Then I dash off to the stall where I cook from 4.30pm to 8pm.
Tell us a great thing about being a hawker?
KEITH: Receiving positive feedback from customers.
WALTER: Having sceptical people try our carrot cake and then ordering takeaways! It’s a sign of success.
What was your father’s reaction when you said you wanted to be a hawker?
KEITH: My parents were initially against the idea but, over time, I’d managed to convince them. They had wanted me to “make use” of my degree and get a job like everyone else.
WALTER: My dad was actually very happy and proud. He’s the kind of hawker who hopes that the younger generation would take over.
Share with us some challenges you faced when working with your dad?
KEITH: We have very different opinions about things, so there have been many clashes. My dad being a senior and who he is, it’s hard to correct him or tell him off. We live together, so sometimes issues at work spill over at home. But we’ve managed to overcome those obstacles together.
WALTER: From the start, there was a bit of miscommunication between us because we brought the family dynamics into work, which I believe isn’t healthy. Since we’ve become clearer about our respective roles and responsibilities, things are better.
So there were compromises?
KEITH: I had to be more patient with my father, and he’s had to be more open-minded to my suggestions.
WALTER: We’re from different generations and are both strong characters. So we’ve learnt to slow down when we’re in a discussion and not let things get too heated.
But surely there are also positives of working together?
KEITH: It’s a kind of love-hate relationship. That said, we also understand each other better now. Spending that much time together does that.
WALTER: There’s much more mutual respect between us now compared to just the regular father-son relationship previously. I’m very lucky to have him as my dad – I’ve always regarded him as my hero because he makes things happen. He embodies the fighting spirit.
What advice or tips do you have for young people who want to be hawkers?
KEITH: Think once, think twice, then think again.
WALTER: It is the best platform to learn about life.