When I was 21, I worked at a roast meats hawker business. It was a part time job and one that gave me great insight into how a small business is run – and how to run it well.

Every morning without fail, we’d have customers already waiting for the stall to open at 6am in the morning, all hungry for a little bit of roasted goodness despite us being tucked away in a corner of the Chinatown Complex hawker centre.

My boss, an elderly man from Hong Kong, would work all day, often selling out by the afternoon due to the high demand. It got to the point where families asked them to cater food for their home events because they simply loved the food too much! Word got around and now they’re enjoying steady business from their catering arm as well.

And I know what you’re thinking at this point: “How does anything a hawker does have any relation at all to my tech/finance/construction/engineering company?”

When we think of businessmen, we usually think of CEOs in sharp suits with smartphone in hand or a white collared boss sitting at the end of his office chair at a comfy office. However, have we ever stopped to appreciate these small businesses right in the heartlands? 

Hawkers make tasty, delicious meals that everyone has eaten before as we rush about our busy lives. A small group of dedicated artisans making a living by making the best possible version of a dish for us to enjoy. 

According to the Department of Statistics Singapore, there are over 14,000 hawker stalls in Singapore to date….well, they must be doing something right. At the core of it, business is all the same, there are qualities that can be picked up from hawkers that can be applied to any business, as unlikely as it seems. Before you leave in a huff, hear me out!

Do one thing, do it well

Ever go to a chicken rice stall to buy wanton noodles?

Of course not, that’s ridiculous. Everyone knows that hawkers only sell very few items per stall. What’s the fancy business term for this? That’s right:


In my previous article on tips to grow your business, I said that the most important thing that you as a small business owner should do is to specialise. It is imperative to find your niche and try your best to make the best possible product to cater to your customers. This is the way to keep your customers loyal and maintain your competitive advantage.

Hawkers understand this. The roast meats stall I worked at only served roast meats. They put in the hours of buying high-quality ducks, marinating it for hours and roasting it to perfection before serving it up with fluffy and fragrant rice (Mmm, even typing it makes me hungry).

They try their best to serve up the best possible roast meat that they can in order to differentiate themselves with their competitors. The hawker stall that I worked at even infused their duck with a certain high quality (read: expensive) ingredient to give it that extra flavour.

With at least one catering event every week on top of the daily stream of customers at the hawker stall with zero marketing and relying solely on word of mouth – I’d say the roast meats stall is doing pretty well. All thanks to being razor focused on creating the best possible roast duck that they could.

To apply this to your own business, be it selling a product or service, as yourself: Am I focusing on bettering my product? What can my customer get from me that they cannot get from my competitors? 

Make those changes and always strive to improve!

Service, Service, Service

Alright, I know everyone has had a bad experience with a hawker at least once in their lives. It’s always that grumpy, old and balding one who looks as though he was forced to do cook up a plate for you, isn’t it?

Have you gone back to buy from the same stall since? I thought not.

But on the other hand, think about your favourite hawker you go to too. You know the one, the nice uncle who smiles at you whenever you show up, the one who remembers your usual order and even throws in a little extra just for you.

Provide human value to your customers.

Everyone knows you should be nice, kind and courteous to your customers – that’s a given. But there are a few other things that add to the overall customer experience to keep them coming back to you:

1. Give more sauce

At the stall, we gave regular customers extra food and sometimes even a special plum sauce that goes perfect with our roast meats, and they always appreciated the gesture. What’s more, there tend to order again that year!

For your most loyal customers, give them a little extra. It could be a tiny discount, a handwritten card or even some additional information on how to use the product. Minor things to make your customer feel special, further increasing their loyalty.

2. Train your staff well

You might give pretty good customer service, but are you sure your employees are on the same page? To prevent any lapses in service, it is important to provide training to them. Teach them exactly how you want your customers to be treated in respect of handling customer complaints, rewarding loyal customers or just generally.

3. Send those “Hampers”

During Chinese New Year, our boss always made it a point to send hampers to our biggest customers as an appreciation. This does two things: reminds the customer that we appreciate their business and also keeps our company fresh in their minds when they are planning their next event. For your business, consider crafting a personable experience with your loyal customers and I guarantee that you’d have earned a lifetime relationship with them.

Small Business? Persevere. 

After a particularly tiring work day at the stall, I was taking a little break with my boss when I asked him how long he’d been doing this for. He turned to me, a slight smile breaking across his face, and said “…my whole life.”

As it turns out, he was a 15 when he sought an apprenticeship from a roast meat hawker and proceeded to spend the next 50 years of his life perfecting the art of roasting. He had no formal education and came from relative poverty, setting the basis of which he fueled his ambition to become an expert in Hong Kong style roast meats.

“You have to toil and work hard when you’re young, young people should work.” He tells me, “I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t put in the effort in my youth.” Indeed.

In a world where 90% of startups fail, there’s a need to focus on your work and persevere through the tough times when they eventually arrive. Yes, I guarantee there will be difficult times for you and your journey ahead. But if you make sure you focus on creating an amazing product and customer service, success is there for the taking.

At the end of the day, business – big or small, relies very much on the same principles. What applies for a food hawker can be brought into the world of tech or engineering as well. Look around you, inspiration is everywhere!

Also, while you’re here, why not read about how to better manage your employees?