At a time when economies are bleeding and businesses are shutting, eatery owner Mr Douglas Ng has been bucking the trend with the opening of his larger new outlet at 77 Circuit Road in April and is even toying with the idea of expanding further.
Speaking to danamic. over the phone, the 29-year-old said: “I’m actually planning to expand even during this time of the pandemic. I feel that it is a good opportunity as I think the rental might be cheaper and hiring staff will also be easier. Even during times of crisis, people will still have to eat so I see this as a form of opportunity.”
Originally selling his famed Michelin-approved fishball noodles at hipster hawker centre Timbre+, Mr Ng had decided to close that stall in favour of a move to the larger Circuit Road outlet this year.
“Before the circuit breaker, business at Timbre+ had already dropped by close to 80%. It was a big drop so I felt that there wasn’t a reason for us to continue as this pandemic could go on until the end of the year,” he said.
“We had already planned to open the Circuit Road outlet before the pandemic so I made a quick decision to bring all my staff from Timbre+ and not hire anymore. This way, I could maintain my manpower budget.”
With Mr Ng’s Circuit Road outlet catering to the neighbouring residential estates as compared to his previous Timbre+ outlet which relied heavily on the office crowd, he has seen his business pick up significantly.
He shared: “Many people did not think we will do well by opening the new outlet during this time but since we had already decided, we stuck with the plan and luckily, it worked out better than expected. It’s just a blessing that there is still business to do and our workers can still go to work.”
Other than the switch of locations, Mr Ng has also proven to be the master of adaptation, having quickly made his fishball noodles, which has traditionally relied heavily on walk-in customers, available for island-wide delivery. Additionally, he has also sought to create new revenue streams, finding ways to work together with other businesses.
“We are now also working together with Joo Chiat Kim Choo Bak Zhang and selling their rice dumplings by being one of their collection points in our area,” he explained.
“In a way, we are trying to help other businesses by finding a win-win situation. People know that my store has a good number of walk-in customers, and businesses collaborating with us can create brand awareness and earn additional revenue at the same time.”
While The Fishball Story has so far managed to weather the current storm, it is not the case for many others in the industry and Mr Ng has some words of advice for those struggling to make ends meet.
“I’m definitely one of the lucky ones but I know of many food joints, hawkers and restaurants who are suffering and even closing down,” he added ruefully.
“I think digitalisation and the use of social media is the future for our industry. For older hawkers, this is a good time for them to learn something new but some of them are stubborn and refuse to adapt. If you do not adapt, you will be ousted over time.
“For the young people, it’s a good chance for them to come into the food business as a fair player. Normally when people order food outside, they will look at the queues or they might already have a favourite stall in mind. But with everything moving online now, people will start ordering food based on only pictures. As young people are better at using social media and designing visuals, it’s an advantage for them.
“The key to surviving during this period would be to try different avenues and platforms, and not just stick to one. Many people would say that they have already tried putting on social media and delivery platforms and complain that it is still not working. They would then have to ask themselves whether they have done it the right way and if it is suitable for their business. Most importantly, they have (to stick) to their roots but don’t stop trying and pushing themselves to do different things.”
As someone who has been in the notoriously challenging industry for the past 6 years, Mr Ng understands how harsh the environment can be and hopes Singaporeans can rally behind local food sellers during this difficult period.
“As you can see on social media, more people are cooking at home right now. You can even see people bringing out all the old recipes by their grandparents to try. But sometimes, cooking and eating food at home gets boring, and people should then go out and buy instead just to help these businesses,” he shared.
“But sadly, during this time, I also see a lot of people who are being very harsh on social media to these food businesses. When they think that the food outside is not to their liking, they will then immediately post and rant on social media.
“I don’t think that’s the way it should be. I think this pandemic is already very painful to the whole nation so it is not a time to further disharmonise everyone. Everyone should come together, support each other and appreciate the good things. By being optimistic, we will then be able to come back stronger as a country.”
This article is part of a new series, Coping during COVID, where danamic. features people from different walks of life to find out more about how they have been coping since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the shores of Singapore. Have a specific person or demographic you’d like us to feature? Write in: [email protected]
*An earlier version of the article reflected Joo Chiat Bak Zhang as Kim Choo Kueh Chang. It has since been updated.
Photos courtesy of Douglas Ng.