Trading an office and regular working hours for a hawker stall kitchen is not typically the career move a young working adult would make.
However, this was precisely what 30-year-old Eva, who runs Eva’s Pancake in Toa Payoh, did.
Wanting to try something different and work for herself, Eva left her accounting job of seven years to start her hawker stall.
Of course, life is more challenging as a hawker in many ways, not least the ‘endless’ working hours, lack of air-conditioning, and ever-rising rent.
There were times when Eva considered quitting. Luckily, she didn’t after her stall went viral on social media, and now she’s looking forward to moving to a larger stall, hopefully at a hawker centre.
It’s always tempting to quit your day job to strike out on your own when things get tough.
Eva, who is 30 this year, decided to join the NEA Hawkers’ Development Programme in Aug 2020 when she found out her company was shutting down.
She felt it was a chance to get away from the 9-6 grind, she told MS News.
Through the programme, Eva did her apprenticeship under Granny’s Pancake for three to four months before starting her own hawker stall in Toa Payoh in Dec 2020.
As she learned to make traditional min jiang kueh, Eva considered classic flavours her speciality.
“Many people ask why I don’t have other flavours like cheese or sesame, but I want to stick to traditional flavours for now,” she explained.
“I was taught by my ‘shifu’ that before I can consider making different or unique flavours, I needed to perfect making traditional pancakes first.”
The standard flavours cost $1.10 each, while Peanut Butter – our personal recommendation – costs $1.30.
The hawker grind is real for Eva, who gets up at 4am every day and is at the stall by 5am.
By 6.30am, her stall in Lor 4 Toa Payoh is open, and sometimes customers will already be queuing for breakfast before heading to work.
As the neighbourhood is a little out of reach from high footfall areas like Braddell MRT station, customers will dwindle by 1-2pm, which is when she starts closing up.
But the day doesn’t end then, as even after heading home, she still needs to prepare ingredients for the next day. By 10pm, she’s usually in bed to restart the grind anew.
Eva can only afford to take one rest day a week, every Saturday.
“I have to pay rent either way, so I have no choice,” she said.
She used to rest every other Saturday but found this schedule too draining.
Though costs have risen drastically over the years, Eva faces pressure to keep her wares at the same price.
Customers will grumble if prices increase, she said. Once, Eva recounted that a customer bought four pancakes and asked for a 40 cents discount, even though she already keeps prices as low as possible ($1.10)
At the same time, she hopes that people understand hawkers have to bear many costs that aren’t passed on to customers.
However, she’s looking to raise prices after Chinese New Year as the costs are becoming increasingly difficult to absorb.
She only gets help from her retired mother, who handles cashiering and other miscellaneous tasks.
One reason is that the kitchen is so tiny that it can’t fit more than two people, so hiring an additional worker would not be helpful.
The other reason is that it’s simply too expensive.
“Being a hawker really isn’t easy,” Eva mused. It certainly was not what she expected when she left her office job.
Because the rent “keeps increasing” – it crossed the four-digit mark last year – Eva has been trying, in her downtime, to find a spot at a hawker centre.
Not only is the rent cheaper, but it will also not spike arbitrarily. Rent stability is what Eva desires at this time amid ever-rising costs.
Another issue is that her current location, even with viral articles and word-of-mouth, still limits her clientele to residents at nearby blocks.
Food delivery platforms didn’t help either, so she cancelled the service eventually. The large commission was also a sticking point, and the costs outweighed the benefits.
While she’s grateful to her regular customers, some of whom queue up every morning to buy a pancake from her on their way to work, the queue dries up by 1-2pm.
A larger space in a hawker centre would also allow Eva to scale her business and make more pancakes as there’ll be more room for additional pans like what her ‘shifu’ has.
Despite all these challenges, Eva’s mum, who genially agreed to talk to us, is happy as long as she is.
“Her work environment used to be ‘cold’, now it’s ‘hot’,” she said, referring to the lack of air conditioning at her stall.
“I didn’t need to help her out when she was working at an office, but now she’s working at a hawker stall, I do, and I give her my time as well.”
Since she’s around at the stall daily, she understands how difficult being a hawker can be. But if Eva wishes to be in the F&B line, her mum will not stop her.
I don’t want to see her efforts go to waste as well.
Working for yourself might sound sexy compared to a “boring” office job.
But the sorts of challenges that hawkers like Eva face are real. Long working hours, few breaks, and little wriggle room for prices — even a S$0.10 increase is a considerable risk.
Without a good location, even viral marketing will not be enough to sustain a business.
But at the end of the day, Eva couldn’t find it in herself to keep going at an office job even though it was comfortable.
Should everyone be a hawker if they don’t want to work in an office? Of course not. But if you have the passion, then why not?
Here’s how to get to Eva’s Pancake in Toa Payoh:
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Featured image by MS News.
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