What Does it Take to Build a Thriving Hawker Business? Long Hours, Attention to Detail, and a Profound Respect for the Customer
KLue magazine June 2007 Issue 104
Text: Robyn Eckhardt Photos: David Hagerman
'You see? The noodles are late today because of the rain.'
Steven eyes his watch. His demeanor, always genial, becomes decidedly more so as a white van with the words 'Kein Ayam Itik Mee Telur' stenciled on its sides comes into view.
The fresh egg noodles have arrived. Crisis averted.
It's 6:05 on a wet Wednesday morning. Ninety minutes earlier Steven guided his black Harrier to a space in front of Restoran Hong Seng and, with wife Oiling and helper, unloaded its contents: unwieldy stainless steel pots, a family-size Coleman cooler, bulging plastic bags.
The first customers wouldn't arrive for at least an hour, but there was soup to simmer, lettuce and bean sprouts to wash, wonton to stuff, and meat balls to boil. Then there were kalamansi to halve, sambal to spoon into saucers, green onions and long beans to arrange in the display case, tofu puffs to snip, coconut milk to stir into the curry.
Steven's Section 17 stall is known for wonton filled with prawns so fresh they sing of the sea and a curry noodle that, according to one fan, is 'not too spicy, not too rich - just right.' He and Oiling plunged into the world of food hawkerdom eight years ago, selling first from Kedai Kopi Wah Cheong and then, after a break in New Zealand, moving next door to Hong Seng. The coffee shop's vendors are rarely idle, but it Steven and Oiling's stall that consistently sells out and shuts earliest, often before lunch on weekdays and by 10:30 or 11am on weekends.
But lest you envy a schedule that appears to allow plenty of time for repose, know that the couple's day begins while most of us are still tucked into our beds and doesn't end until we're just sitting down to dinner.
This morning, as usual, they rose early enough to arrive at the Old Klang Road market by 4am. There, they purchased santan (coconut milk) and other ingredients, then returned home to prepare everything for transport to the coffee shop.
Wouldn't it be easier to do all that shopping the prior afternoon? Wouldn't it be nice to get an extra hour or two of sleep?
'My customers wouldn't stand for it!' insists Steven. 'The santan must be absolutely fresh, otherwise it doesn't smell nice and won't blend properly with the curry.'
Extreme attention to detail makes for a load of work. Once the stall closes there's washing up to do and pots to load into the Harrier, and then it's back home to prepare the next day's meals. Steven could buy prepared curry paste. Instead he makes it from scratch, softening dried chilies in boiling water, stripping them of their seeds, boiling them again, and then grinding them - along with galangal, lemongrass, turmeric, candle nuts, and curry leaves - to a paste.
In the meantime he's prepared a clear soup from chicken and ikan bilis. Some of the broth takes the paste, and the mixture is left to simmer for ten hours. Now he turns his attention to the prawns he sources from a Sekinchan supplier ('You just can't find tasty prawns at the market.'), which he'll peel and toss with a wee bit of sugar (to preserve their 'bounce') before depositing them in the fridge.
Then there's the loh see fun ('rat tail' noodles). Steven can't abide the commercial versions, laced as they are with preservatives and slick with oil. So he makes his own, everyday, from rice flour and water. If, when the curry pot runs dry, there's noodles left in the display case, they're thrown out. Serve day-old loh see fun? Over his dead body.
Finally, well after six in the evening, Steven and Oiling steal a few hours to relax.
'Oh! The light is on! They're getting ready to open!'
Steven and his fellow vendors have been prepping in the milky glow of Hong Seng's outdoor bulbs. At 6:20am the scrape of plastic chair legs and the grate of metal shutters signals the start of the business day. Hushed toil is replaced by the hum of commerce. Early-bird customers trickle in, place breakfast orders, and retreat to their tables with the paper and a pot of tea. Car doors slam as passengers jump out to ta pao (take-away). A Rapid KL bus rumbles at the stop in front of the shop.
As the scent of curry leaves envelops Steven's stall like a warm hug, business comes in fits and starts. There's take-away for eight, then nothing, then more take-aways and service for a table of five. So it goes until ten-ish when, as Steven says, the 'real rush' begins.
From now until closing it will be a full court press. He and Oiling, outfitted in Nike trainers, jog pants, and polo shirts, are ready for action. As the orders pile up they and their helper perform a well-rehearsed dance, seamlessly negotiating each other on the small patch of tile behind their stall.
Then, the last of the curry is sold. The frenzy ceases and clean-up begins. Oiling smiles. Steven, chatting with a regular, lifts his basebal cap and mops his brow. Eight hours down, seven to go.
He's in his element.