S’porean hawker reveals noodle ingredients prices, shares plan to pay staff better

Artificially depressed wages comes at hidden costs to hawker assistants.

By Belmont Lay | February 22, 2018

It is not everyday you get to read the first-hand account of what it is like to be a hawker in Singapore.

So, it is a breath of fresh air when there is a Singaporean hawker-entrepreneur who has taken some time out to share about what really goes on in the cutthroat F&B industry here.

Amoy Street Food Centre: A Noodle Story

A popular Singapore-style ramen hawker stall, A Noodle Story at Amoy Street Food Centre, has put up a Facebook post to address the public about a sensitive topic — price increase:

However, unlike most announcements, the post explains the rationale for the price increase in context, with the individual ingredient retail prices broken down and accompanied by a message of hope for hawker assistants everywhere.

What the post is about

The post starts off by questioning if the envy of hawkers appearing to be making a lot of money is even accurate.

After deducting the costs of running a hawker business from the revenue, the reality of the work and the payoff is rather stark: Take-home wage per person is about S$72 for 10 to 12 hours of backbreaking work a day at a relatively popular stall.

Low hawker food price unfair

Just because it is hawker food, doesn’t mean it is inferior.

The post then goes on to explain that the ridiculously low hawker food prices in Singapore, say, S$3.50 for chicken rice, comes at hidden costs.

This sort of artificially depressed prices come at the expense of hawkers and the stall assistants, who slog hard day after day for very little and often unfair remuneration.

Moreover, plenty of such stall assistants get stuck in a vicious cycle of low pay and tough work, as a lot of them are not as well-educated and do not know their rights.

They also make do with no Central Provident Fund (CPF) contributions and no entitlements, such as sick leave and insurance.

Some take home as little as S$1,800 a month, working more than the stipulated hours asked of normal employees.

The solution

A Noodle Story is proof that Singaporeans will pay for quality.

In a move that can be described as radical transparency, A Noodle Story then listed the retail prices of the ingredients used in its popular noodle dish to give customers a sense of how much a bowl is when deconstructed:

🍜Noodles – $2 (crafted exclusively to my specifications and seasoned with imported dried shrimps and kelp that cost $97/kg.)

🥚Whole Egg – $1.50 (I use USA-patented pasteurized egg that cost double the price of ordinary eggs.)

🥩Cha-su per slice- $1.30 (Premium pork belly cut that is slow-braised for 36 hours.)

🥟Wonton per piece – $0.80 (Jumbo-size wontons made with fresh 100% fresh Indonesian Pork with huge chucks of shrimps.)

🍤Potato-wrapped Prawn – $1.30 (Crispy prawn fritter that is fried-to-order in fresh veg oil everyday.)

(Note: Each dish has two pieces of wonton and cha-su each)

Total retail price: S$9.00

The post then said it will be raising the prices of its small and medium bowls to S$8 and S$11 respectively.

The previous prices were S$7 and S$9 respectively.

The additional amounts customers pay will go towards the wages and benefits for the hawker assistants.

(It is understood that cost price is half of retail price, but does not take into account the rental, utilities, manpower, equipment and maintenance.)

A Noodle Story is co-founded by Gwern Khoo and Ben Tham (pictured above). The hawker stall was started on Feb. 17, 2013.

It has been on the Bib Gourmand list of Singapore’s Michelin Guide since 2016.

Full Facebook post by A Noodle Story

I’m Going Totally Naked With You!

Some time back, this photo caught my attention. It was posted by a celebrity chef on Instagram, relating to a TV show about Hawkers.

Here’s a quiz for you.

There are so many plates piled up high. Doesn’t it seem that they’re on their way to wearing Rolexes and driving Mercedes?

Well, I beg to differ. Let me give a quick explanation…

From the picture, there seem to be around 200 plates.

Selling 200 plates at $3/plate will give $600 in revenue.

Cost of ingredients should be around $1.50 which gives us a tidy profit of $300.

But wait… That’s not all.

Assuming only 4 off days per month, and also assuming a combination of cheap rental and low utilities of $120 per day (I deliberately based my calculations real low for uncertainty. Just to let you know, there are many hawkers that easily surpass this hypothetical figure…)

TA-DAH! We are left with $180 of cold, hard cash.

It’s going to be crazy cooking and serving 200 hungry customers all alone, so two hawkers will probably end up with $90 each.

I’m not finished yet…

Taking a reasonable time of 1 – 1.5 minute to cook and serve one plate, these hawkers will probably slog for 4 hours of non-stop, fast-paced cooking. Add on prep and cleaning time, and they’d have earned $90 for 10-12 hours of back-breaking work with only 4 rest days a month. (My calculations might not be exact, but it should be close enough)

That’s not all. In a business, there’s equipment to maintain, 20% CPF to deduct, insurance to pay, etc.

And this take home wage of $72 ($90 – $18 CPF deduction) is for a mildly successful hawker stall with plates stacked up to the sky.

No wonder, few youngsters are willing to join the hawker trade.


What I’m going to say is highly provocative and may ruffle some feathers… But it’s the unvarnished truth.

When I started, my foremost mission is to make people happy through food.

I still do.

In fact, all this while, I’m willing to take home less to provide more value to you.

Because I know, as a consumer just like you, we want the best bang for our buck.

But as business owner, I also know that artificially depressed pricing will hurt someone along the chain. And mostly, it’s the hawker assistants at the losing end.

The game is such that prices are being depressed to remain competitive. Good for consumers like us. Bad for low-wage hawker assistants that do not possess the knowledge and skill to get out of this sticky web. And thus, this become their fate in life.

It’s as what they say, ‘Work till you die.

As an insider in this cut-throat hawker industry, I’d heard first-hand, some wretched stories …

The unspoken rule is such that hawker assistants are poorly paid.


Hawker food is meant to be cheap. So I can’t afford to pay you good wages. And so, this unspoken rule became cast in stone. This becomes the industry’s standard.

I personally know of a hawker assistant trapped in an endless pit working 12 hours a day. Work got pay, no work no pay. Is require to work on public holidays with no annual and medical leave benefits. Only one off day a week. Zero CPF contribution from the employer. All these for less than $1800 a month with the added bonus of health issue sustained through repetitive injury working in tough conditions.

This is cheapening someone’s time. In fact, this is pure exploitation. But this is also how they can afford to sell you a plate of chicken rice at $3.50.

This is a shadowy, dark-alley kind of affair. It’s illegal but rampant in this industry. Just because we can get away with it doesn’t mean it is right.

It is a fact that office jobs are paid more handsomely than manual labour. Even so, we should not undermine the value of such work.

Just because someone was dealt with poor cards early in life doesn’t mean they should not have a chance in life.

Hawkers use their blood and sweat to cook each dish. And if they scale up the volume served, it’s through sheer hard work and effort. They deserve every single reward they are entitled to.


Recently, I sent my vacuum machine for servicing. I was billed a service charge of 4 man-hours at $100/hour excluding parts. Total bill was $662.33 for probably an hour or two job. This is what MNCs are charging and you should count yourself lucky if you’re working for one.

In life, everybody is dealt different playing cards. Some are lucky, some not so. Four new members will be joining my team soon. I insist on paying my hawker craftsmen and women a good wage. I believe it should be fair and decent for the long, back-breaking work they will be doing.

This is a responsibility. A huge one. My team’s well-being and course in life are somehow now intertwined with my decisions. I value my people and it’s my duty to ensure they are given the wages and working conditions they deserve.

Like you, they need their family time. They have personal needs. They must be able to pay their mortgage loan and still survive. To go on a holiday trip with their love ones once in a while.

Like MNCs, I would like to introduce things like Family Day, good bonuses, annual staff retreats and a host of goodies for happy, productive workers.

At the end of the day, what we want is a bowl of delicious noodles cooked by smiling artisans lovingly each time.

Happy people. Better society.

Not exhausted, grumpy cooks that couldn’t care less about what they are serving.

The question is this:

Should we maintain the old unethical ways? Or do our part in lifting up the hawker industry in our own little way.

It won’t be easy. This will be a tough journey faced with many obstacles.

But as they say, “A journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step. “

I will be adjusting our price to $8 for small bowl and $11 for the medium bowl. This increase in margin will go solely towards wages and benefits for my hawker assistants.

As promised, I’m going stark naked and upfront on the breakdown of each components in our dish.

🍜Noodles – $2 (crafted exclusively to my specifications and seasoned with imported dried shrimps and kelp that cost $97/kg.)

🥚Whole Egg – $1.50 (I use USA-patented pasteurized egg that cost double the price of ordinary eggs.)

🥩Cha-su per slice- $1.30 (Premium pork belly cut that is slow-braised for 36 hours.)

🥟Wonton per piece – $0.80 (Jumbo-size wontons made with fresh 100% fresh Indonesian Pork with huge chucks of shrimps.)

🍤Potato-wrapped Prawn – $1.30 (Crispy prawn fritter that is fried-to-order in fresh veg oil everyday.)

As you can see, this is still very good value and yet allows me to sustain the business with a reasonable margin to pay my team a good wage.

Let’s be honest; a comparable bowl in a ramen outlet will probably cost double this price.

I sincerely hope to have your continued support

Is it accurate to say that the F&B scene in S’pore is brutal? Yes

About Belmont Lay

Belmont can pronounce "tchotchke".

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