Monday, September 22, 2014

Da Tou Xia Prawn Noodles - An Epitaph

By the time you read this, Datouxia will have sold its last bowl of prawn noodles. This is obviously not just a regular food review post, and though I will talk a bit about their food, this is more a commentary on the sad state of the food industry in Singapore today.

Datouxia has been around for just a few months and in that short span of time, they have managed to create quite a buzz among the food community here.

Started by a trio of family members, Greg, Erin and Han, they had the ambition of creating a new prawn noodle powerhouse in Singapore.

Occupying an entire shophouse along Upper Aljunied Road, they specialized in prawn noodles akin to what Wah Kee is doing in Pek Kio. Their prices ranged from a simple 3.50 bowl all the way up to an abalone filled 15.00 premium bowl.

Han, who is their main cook had only started to learn how to make prawn noodles in less than a year. Before that, he was at an economic rice stall and was picking up his prawn noodles skills from a few other prawn noodles stalls he worked at along the way.

Range of Prawn Noodles

During the few months that they were in operation, the owners were savvy enough to engage the social media to gain some traction. So much so that for the last couple weeks or so, it was pretty much on everyone's radar.

We finally made a trip last Wednesday to their place to savor their food and though we were not swept off our feet by their prawn mee, we still thought that they were definitely better than the average prawn noodle stall out there.

The broth, which was their main selling point, was flavorful and robust, but just not properly balanced for my palate. The thing is that all great prawn noodles probably started the same way. Most attained greatness by continuing to listen to feedback and through trial and error and a lot of hard work, eventually refined their recipe and techniques to produce a great bowl of prawn noodle broth.

Soup Version

The sad thing is that despite this good start, the owners announced that they will close by the end of last Sunday. It was a shock to us, and quite frankly, we did not anticipate such a swift end to what was a very promising beginning. They cited that it was no longer viable to run the prawn noodles place.

We actually had a discussion that night about their business issues. They were concerned about not being able to generate a sustainable crowd (especially at night), and was looking to add more food items to their repertoire.

As it was, they were already selling ngoh hiang in addition to the noodles to provide more variety to their menu and even then, it seemed that it was not enough. That led me to wonder about the current difficulties in setting up and maintaining a food business in Singapore.

Noodles with Abalone

Starting a food business here, be it hawker, cafe or fine dining, is simply not easy. It is a very long and arduous road to success. And it's not helped by the fact that the powers that be are feverishly encouraging the younger generation to take to food street as if it's some sort of glamorous and glorified profession.

It may be easy to say that being a hawker is all rosy and exciting, but it is another thing when you actually have to put on an apron and wake up in the wee hours of the morning to start your preparation and hard work. Thoughts of preserving a food heritage may be furthest from the hawkers' mindset.

The long hours working behind a hot stove and the serving of customers throughout the day can take a toll on those who have never actually experienced such hardship. And the work conditions and environment in a kitchen does not necessarily equate to what you can get from air-conditioned office work.

There are also the greedy landlords that will always take the opportunity to raise the rent when a food business is successful. Not just a little, but often, they will double or even triple the existing rates in order to capitalize on an opportunity that they have no hand in.

Homemade Chilli

Then, there is the labor issue which perplexes me and the food owners. Instead of just restricting the number of white collar foreign workers, our authorities have decided to tighten the availability of the blue collar workers instead, thus making it doubly hard for our food owners to hire foreigners to work in their kitchens.

Why is this important you ask? Well, it all comes down to our food owners finding it hard to hire locals willing to work in this trade. For so many years, our society has deemed that the hawker and food profession is meant for the less educated segment and as such, it has never been seen as a desired or esteemed line of work.

Many young Singaporeans who have entered this field are unable to stay for long, and they often blame the factors of the long hours and difficult kitchen conditions as reasons for quitting. Worse, some leave simply because they find the salaries of being a hawker or working in a kitchen way below their expectations, which are often blown out of proportion.

With such a difficult labor situation, it is no wonder that the food owners are finding it increasingly tough to both maintain a high cost of operation and still be efficient in churning out good quality food. This has inevitable led to a number of negative outcomes in our food industry today.

Prawn Noodles with Pig Tails

The high cost of running a food business has meant that a number of food operators have resorted to short cuts in order to cover their costs. A lot of things in Singapore are outsourced from factories and wholesale suppliers. Just take chee cheong fun for instance. How many of such stalls actually make their own flat noodles and sweet sauce/chilli today? Not many, I presume.

Because of the labor situation, service from hawkers, cafes, restaurants alike are poor when you compare it to other countries. Very often, it is hard to even get a smile from anyone in the food industry these days, let alone getting great service. Heck, by the time you visit the same restaurant again, most of the waiters might have changed.

The quality of our produce is also dismal when you realize that most of our food have to be imported. We have very little agricultural industry of our own and the powers that should be are eradicating it further in exchange for urban development. Condos take precedence over farms, it seems.

Because of this, we have to import produce from overseas and this means two things. Food costs have gone up, and food can never be as fresh when it has to be air flown from another country. And yet, the hawkers are also unable to transfer this increased food prices back to their customers as hawker food is meant to cater to the masses. A no-win situation for the food owners.

Dry Prawn Noodles

Coming back to Datouxia, it is a pity that they have to end so quickly and suddenly due to circumstances beyond their control. It is symptomatic of our food problems in Singapore. The odds are stacked against anyone who wants to be a food business owner here.

The small food owners will always have to compete with the big boys who will have more than a distinct advantage and this will often result in a David vs Goliath scenario. The only difference is that David usually loses on this island, as is the case with Datouxia.

There are some on Facebook and Instagram who wish that Datouxia will make a comeback because they enjoy their prawn mee. I am not so selfish as to wish them the same, as I can understand where Greg, Erin and Han are coming from.

They seem like genuinely earnest people who just want to do something that they enjoy and want to make a go at it. Unfortunately, this country is no longer conducive for people like Datouxia to be successful. It will take a small miracle, in fact, for any newcomer to come through the ranks of newly minted food operators and be able to maintain their success for a prolonged period of time.

Instead, I wish that they will embark on something that they will truly enjoy doing. And doing a food business is not something that most will enjoy here, especially if they have to face the daily struggle of high rentals, rising food costs, human resource issues, unreasonable customers and even redundant administrative work when all they want to do is to cook good food to feed people.

The happiest cooks are those who see their customers being fed well and enjoy a satisfactory plate of food. That pure, untempered joy of running a food business is probably the furthest thing from most hawkers and food owners in Singapore today.

Hawkerpreneur. Boy, is that an ugly word.

Da Tou Xia
Formerly at 383 Upper Aljunied Road

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