Shentonista Eats — All Fired Up

No hawker centre feast, one might argue, is complete without barbecued seafood. Think thick slabs of fork-tender stingray, charred to perfection and slathered with a spicy, umami-packed sambal sauce; the perfect accompaniment to a steaming bowl of rice. Top it off with a cold sugarcane juice and you’ve got the perfect combination for a hearty, satisfying meal—and no one has done this better or for longer than Jiao Cai Hotplate BBQ.

Mdm Neo’s husband set up the original stall in 1982, and they claim to be the first to serve up the cuisine. More interestingly, the business seems to have adapted a franchise model, expanding to different hawker centres in Jurong East, Whompoa, Woodlands, and Yishun, with stalls run by various family members. The challenge, as always, is keeping the quality consistent—and it is this challenge that Mdm Neo’s son, Zhijie, has vowed to take on to allow his mother to retire. The going might be tough, but that’s what keeps the tough going; we speak to mother and son to find out about the future of a business that’s been more than 30 years in the making.

Can you briefly describe what you were doing before this?

Zhi Jie (Z): I worked at a bank for three years, handling personal loans. I did sales, so there was a lot of interaction with customers and cold calls. I was office-bound so I didn’t go out to meet clients; the difference here is that I meet customers face to face. My previous job was more relaxed and comfortable; you’re dressed nicely in an air-conditioned environment. Hawker life is definitely tougher, sweatier, smellier, and stickier. But the so-called ‘sales talk’ helps a lot in my current job.

Mdm Neo (N): Before this? I was very young, leh. I worked in some electronics factory. I actually joined this line because of my husband. He was doing this business when I met him. He learnt the original recipe in Malaysia, then made some improvements of his own. I started to learn the ropes, and took over when he stopped. If I wasn’t doing this I might go back to working for others. I don’t think I’d start my own business because I have no idea how to.

Why did you choose to leave your previous job to help out at the stall, instead of just hiring another helper?

Z: After I quit my job, I took a two month break. I wanted to set up my own business, but I had no idea what I wanted to do. My best friend suggested that since my mom already owns a business, why not go into it? I just decided to give it a try! I came over to Jurong to help out and after a week I wondered: how did my mother single-handedly manage the whole shop? I started thinking that this is really very tough, especially for her. That was actually the main reason why I came on board—I want to take over the whole business and let her retire.

Do you plan on doing this for the rest of your life? What else have you planned for the future?

Z: Yes. I actually plan to work on some other F&B stuff in the future, but my main job will still be this business. Before this, I was the kind of guy who didn’t even enter the kitchen. The only thing I could make was fried eggs or Maggie mee (laughs). But ever since I started cooking, I’ve come to love it. It’s quite enjoyable and fun. Whenever customers come up to me and compliment my food, that gives me a sense of satisfaction.

How do you feel about your son’s decision to help out and eventually take over this family business?

N: When he said he wanted to learn, I initially didn’t consent to it and just kept quiet. I thought: he’s still young, why would he want to work as a hawker? He was doing fine at the bank. Then one day he told me that he resigned from his job, and really wanted to learn. At the start, he just watched how I ran the business, helping to serve tables and take orders. When he had free time, he’d watch how I prepare all the dishes. When he first started out at the Yishun stall, he couldn’t eat or sleep well. It’s really very stressful. Because I’m here in Jurong, there’s nobody for him to rely on if he has any problems. He just went ahead and ran the shop. Today, he’s doing okay; he even claims that he’s faster than me! (laughs) All things considered, though, for a young man coming out from a banking job, knowing how to fry fish and vegetables is already quite a feat.

We understand that you’ve expanded to Yishun—how has the management of stalls changed since the expansion?

Z: I have to teach my servers and cook what to do, and how to manage the shop. One of my servers—who’s actually my primary school friend—is planning to take on a franchise for the stall, so I have to teach him everything. My mom still handles this Jurong stall. I actually just told her that she can consider closing it down to concentrate on the Yishun side, so she can just retire and stay at home! However, it seems like she still wants to work.

What do you think about the next generation of hawkers?

N: I just wish that this generation will be able to perform better than us old-timers. Nowadays, there’re a lot of young entrepreneurs, especially at Yishun. There’re a lot of new stalls with new dishes. I hope they can preserve the hawker tradition, because if we all retire and nobody continues, all of this will disappear. That’s why the government has been giving incentives to youngsters. But it still depends on their interest, like my son.

Z: Another reason for this could be because one youngster came out to be a hawker, did some marketing and became a hit, so the others who have seen that success want to follow suit.

N: Youngsters in this business will most likely pale in comparison against the older generation. The cooking style is all different.

Z: (cuts in) It’s hard to tell, lah. (Mdm Neo exclaims in shock) They might be better for all you know!

N: Maybe, since they like to innovate, and are more nimble as well.

In the day, this stall in Jurong East sells noodles—why did you choose to co-share a stall with someone else instead of just renting a stall to open throughout the day?

N: Nobody wants to eat BBQ stingray in the morning or afternoon, so we only operate at night.

Z: (to Mdm Neo) You have to say why you chose this stall at the start! We were looking for a stall near to our home. Coincidentally, this owner wanted to rent out the stall, and it just so happened that our operating times fit in nicely with each other.

What are some of your fondest memories of the stall?

Z: When I was in primary and secondary school, I used to help out at the Woodlands stall. My mom used to be there, and I would help to serve food to customers every day or every weekend. When you’re young and you do such things, it’s quite a fun but scary experience. I remember once, when I was seven or eight years old, I dropped the hotplate while serving it. I was so scared that I left the hotplate, ran to my mom and asked her, “怎么办, 怎么办?”(“What to do, what to do?”). She came over to help me clean up the mess.

You have two other stalls in Singapore—how do you maintain quality between all three stalls?

Z: The stall in Whampoa is managed by my third uncle, while the Woodlands stall is managed by my sixth uncle. Both of them have been working for us for about 20 years. They pretty much do everything on their own, with the exception of the sambal and chinchalok (fermented shrimp sauce).

N: At the start, they’d come over to learn how to prepare the dish. The most important thing is still the sambal, so we have to supply that to them, along with the chinchalok.

How has the menu changed?

N: Originally we strictly sold seafood only, but I added vegetables and egg dishes afterwards. Our customers would ask if we made other dishes, because they wanted to order a whole set from us. I had to try and learn how to make these other dishes, and when I started selling them, I was afraid they wouldn’t be well-received by customers, so I only sold them on weekdays. I didn’t dare sell them on weekends and public holidays where there’s a bigger crowd! (laughs) The weekday crowd became a trial run and I eventually put the dishes up on the menu.

How many kilograms of BBQ Stingray do you sell in a day?

Z: Over here, probably about 20kg on normal days, right?

N: We sell more on weekends, maybe about 30kg.

Z: In Yishun, we’d sell 25–30kg on weekdays. The most I’ve sold on a weekend was about 45 to 50kg. I think it has to do with our short operating times. On both sides, we start at about 5pm, and open only for about 4 to 5 hours. The only difference is that over at Yishun we have two cooks, so we can push orders out faster. It’s non-stop. Over here there’s only one cook, so no matter how many orders we receive, we can only go that fast.

What were some of the challenges you faced with maintaining this stall over the years?

N: The economy has been quite bad these few years, so that affected our business quite a bit. Compared to the past decades when business was good, the crowd has really dwindled. Sometimes it can get quite stressful—for a week we’d get little to no customers for two or three days and I’d start to worry. Our food isn’t cheap, compared to those meals that cost three to four dollars. Working adults aren’t willing to spare the money to eat our food. We can only rely on the crowds from the weekends or holidays, where people come with their families. They can order up to $60 worth of food, but on normal days we sell only one dish at a time. 

What makes your stall stand out from the other BBQ stalls?

N: Our food is out of this world. When we started out here, there were only about one or two other stalls doing the same business. But even then, our stall was more popular. We go around to eat at other BBQ food stalls, and I still feel that ours is better. I can very confidently tell you that our sambal is definitely more delicious than the others. I think my husband’s sambal back in the days is still better than what I make today. The way we prepare and cook our dishes is also different from the others. Other stalls cook the stingray together with the banana leaf, resulting in a charred leaf. Ours stays green and beautiful.

What do you think is most important to keeping a business alive for so long?

N: In this line of business, it would be the food. The quality must be maintained. Don’t cut corners and shortchange anything. If you’re just playing around, “anyhow cook” when you don’t have the mood for it, then nothing much can be said about it. You need to prepare every dish from the heart. Think of it this way: “My customer ordered this dish; I want to make sure that he/she enjoys it.” When the customer finishes the food and compliments it, that gives us satisfaction. Us hawkers are afraid of seeing unfinished dishes. We’ll start wondering why it was unfinished; it can be quite stressful! But if we see the plates cleaned out, we’ll be very happy.

How different are the customers today compared to those from 30 years ago?

N: Wah! I don’t really know how to answer this. It used to be so much better last time.

Z: 30 years ago, BBQ Sambal Stingray was something new in the market. Nobody had done it before, so everyone wanted to try it. Now these stalls are everywhere, and you go to places like Chomp Chomp and Newton Food Centre where the prices are very irregular—you will definitely kena tai (“get ripped off”). It creates a bad impression around this business, but in terms of attitude, customers overall have been quite nice.

What are your plans for the business? What will you change or keep?

Z: I’d add more variety of food—stuff like gong gong (conches), or cockles. But everything else will still remain the same as when we started 35 years ago. We’ve been around since 1982; although we did not have a registered company as proof, I think we were probably the first or second in Singapore to run this type of business.

Mdm Neo, what are your retirement plans?

N: Sit at home, shake leg. (Singlish for ‘relax’) (laughs) Work is too tiring, imagine just sitting at home and thinking, “Wah, I’m not working today, I don’t feel any stress!” Or, if I can still walk, I’d go on a holiday. Hawkers don’t really go on holidays, because once you leave the country, you have to stop your business. I’ve only been to a couple of countries.

Z: We do go overseas on holiday trips, but very rarely. The only time that we go overseas is when they clean the hawker centre and close it for three to four days.

This industry has demanding hours. Aside from running the stall, do you engage in other activities outside of work?

Z: Nothing!

N: Mostly it’s resting.

Z: Okay, lah, besides resting, I’d research about marketing and think about how to let more people know about us. I also take photos to post on social media and manage the Facebook page of the business as well.

Zhijie, as the future owner, what challenges do you foresee in maintaining and expanding the business?

Z: The toughest thing is maintaining the standard of the food. Other than that, manpower is a big issue. Finding a server can be quite tough, because you need to find someone you can trust with your money, and for cooks, you need someone who can ensure food quality. That is actually what I am experiencing now, as I’m always shorthanded on the weekends. That applies to the expansion of the business as well, because I’ll need to find someone whom I can trust to manage my current stall, before I can move on to the new shop. 

Jiao Cai Hotplate BBQ
Yuhua Village Food Centre
254 Jurong East Street 24 #01-24, Singapore 600254
Opening Hours: 5.00PM to 10.00PM daily, closed on Tuesdays.

Yishun Park Hawker Centre
51 Yishun avenue 11 #01-39, Singapore 768867
Opening Hours: 4.00PM to 10.00PM daily.

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