Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Original Food Hall

Nur Asri is an Associate for Larisa Ortiz Associates

Hawker centers in Singapore go way back. Its history goes back to the 1950s and 60s when migrants took up hawking on streets as a quick and easy means of earning a living. However, the conditions in which street hawking was being carried out were bad – drains were polluted, sidewalks and roads were strewn with trash and as a result, vermin were a common sight. The government became concerned about the state of hygiene in the city and, in the style of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s campaign in the 1930s to rid New York City streets of pushcart vendors, began relocating street hawkers to facilities with proper sewers, safe water and electrical lines, and full kitchen and storage equipment in 1971. These are now widely known as hawker centers. Hawker centers are semi-enclosed buildings that house a variety of food stalls serving food, drinks, and desserts that are almost always prepared to order. Sounds familiar, no? Read: The Modern Food Hall 

In fact, there are a number of similarities between the food halls that have recently grown in metropolitan cities here in the US and the over 100 hawker centers in Singapore.

1. Size and Layout
Stalls in both food halls and hawker centers are small in size. At hawker centers, stalls typically measure no more than 80-100 sf each.

Also, the seating layouts of both food halls and hawker centers promote a sense of community. Seating is dispersed throughout both and are not assigned to customers so it works on a first-come- first-serve basis. This means that you might very well be sitting with strangers during busy lunch hours.

2. Tenant Mix
Hawker centers feature food from Singapore’s various ethnic groups – Malay, Chinese, Indian – and is a direct reflection of local inhabitants. In food halls, offerings are also diverse, however, they may be less organic and more curated. Some food halls, for example, brand themselves as chef- driven halls and provide offerings that are completely distinct from local residents’ tastes and preferences.

3. Employment opportunity
Both food halls and hawker centers provide great inclusive employment opportunities. Given the low barriers to entry (presumably the smaller spaces ask lower rents compared to full-service restaurants or caf├ęs), many more aspiring food entrepreneurs are able to enter the culinary field via these facilities.

As reported by JLL, startup costs are much lower and lease terms more flexible in food halls than traditional retail leases. Lease terms for food hall vendors are typically one to two years, much shorter than the five- to 10-year terms that landlords command for conventional full –service restaurant spaces.

4. Social space
With more food halls being located in mixed-use developments and transit-oriented developments, they are also becoming more physically accessible to wide range of customers. This has also been thecase with hawker centers in Singapore. Many are located in residential neighborhoods or near transit stations and therefore has successfully served local residents, workers, and visitors.
As a result, food halls and hawker centers provide a great shared space for informal social gatherings, community events and programs. For years, hawker centers have served as meeting spots for the elderly during the day as they sit and enjoy coffee and toast. Families also gather on weekends to eat together without spending too much money.

However, despite these similarities, the modern American food hall hasn’t quite matched up to the hawker center of Singapore. There are stark differences between the two.


1.  Customer
Legacy Food Hall in Plano, TX famously tagged in posts on social media site, Instagram.
While food halls here in the US strive to meet the needs and preferences of a variety of consumers from low- to mid- price points, how many can really show a diverse customer base? Food halls here in the US often have carefully curated brands and marketing materials that, for the most part, appeal to millennials and mid- to high- income customer segments.

Meanwhile, in Singapore, the hawker center is the place where Singaporeans from across income levels and ethnicities gather to eat with purpose at all times of the day. At lunch time, business types, taxi drivers, students, and the elderly are all seen queueing for the very same Chinese noodles or Malay fried noodles. This is largely because price points are extremely low that customers run the whole gamut from blue collar to white collar and even the creative in-betweens. Everybody needs quick and cheap food from time to time.

The main reason that price points remain so low at hawker centers however is due to ownership and management.

2. Ownership/ Administrative Capacity
Today, the Singapore government continues to own the majority of hawker centers across the country.  Prospective hawkers have to bid for available stalls and pay rent to the government at subsidized rates. These subsidies allow product prices to be kept lower than that in shopping mall food courts.

Of course, I’m not saying that food halls should be government- owned and operated to truly achieve the diverse customer base it’s currently seeking but it’s important we realize that the profit motive of private food hall developers and operators are often misaligned with the community, economic, and social benefits that could be attained.

In order to maintain the mission of low cost culinary offerings for diverse customers, partnerships and support from public bodies or non-profit organizations must be built to ensure that food halls resonate with local customers and communities. These supporting bodies may even be able to offer complementary community programs at low cost and therefore attract a wide range of customers from the neighborhood. Diversifying ownership of food halls might just solve its issue of not quite reaching the masses in its current branded state.