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A former cai png stall owner who screwed up badly recounts his personal trials and tribulations

Updated: Apr 12, 2020

To begin, a little about myself… My parents used to own a cai png stall. But I pretty much destroyed everything and I’ve been reprimanding myself ever since.

Here's my long story…

When I was still studying in primary and secondary school, I would spend most of my time at the coffeeshop where my parents ran their cai png stall. My mom, a brilliant cook, obviously did all the cooking; my dad, on the other hand, was in charge of serving customers and cashiering duties. He also took care of all accounting related affairs and filed the stall's annual tax returns.

To those who are wondering, running a cai png store can be a rather lucrative business, that being said it very much depends on the size of its customer base as well as variety of items folks routinely order. Typical 2+1 meals will net you about $0.30-0.50 or so profit-wise. Different vegetables yield different margins. For example, the cost of procuring sweet potato leaves is cheaper than that of kangkong. Unsurprisingly selling meat, and of course, fish dishes (usually dory is served) do bump up your bottom line significantly. Take note though quite a fair bit of preparation time is involved as far as fish is concerned– imagine having to debone, slice and cook them. Hence more often than not my parents feel inclined to procure deboned ones from wholesalers; they may cost a little extra no doubt, but a hell lot of time is saved in the kitchen.

Anyways, my family's cai png business fared pretty well since it was strategically located near bustling office and residential districts. Blue-collar workers usually ordered 2+1 set meals; white-collar workers typically opted for 3+1 set meals.

Additional reasons as to why our cai png business was profitable back then, as mentioned earlier, were my mom being a great cook – therefore her food was always top-notch and consistently tasty, not forgetting my father who was an extraordinary marketer and maestro at socializing. Introduce a stranger to him and they could end up becoming best pals chatting for hours. Because he was able to converse with others so darn well, customers could be quite easily coaxed into choosing the more expensive dishes or ordering greater quantities. He was indeed THAT good.

Those days we could afford to live in a landed property at Tanah Merah. My father drove a Mercedes Benz and we owned a separate van used for collecting groceries. In case you were wondering, yes, we purchased all them ingredients directly from the Pasir Panjang wholesale centre. We reckoned it was a lot cheaper than having to get our stuff from contracted suppliers who might further impose hefty delivery fees on top of things. My parents would therefore drive the van to Pasir Panjang every morning around 7-8am, then proceed forth to open the stall for business.

We would be closed on Fridays. Now you may ask, “What? Why Friday? Why not Sunday or Monday?” Because families usually eat out on weekends; and on weekdays (Mon-Thurs) since its business as usual for most we could expect plenty of blue and white collar workers during lunch and dinner hours. But on Friday, many rather ‘pig out’ elsewhere or savour heavier fare like western cuisine. Just to add, during most public holidays we remained opened (e.g: Hari Raya, Deepavali, Labour Day and so on). However we will definitely shutter during Chinese New Year's eve and the following 8 days.

Life was awesome back then. We were well-off. Me, being the only child in the family, received plenty of love and attention from my parents - put it simply I was utterly spoilt by them. They bought me whatever I wanted; When I was studying in a polytechnic, they gave me debit and credit cards for my personal use. I never thought twice about splurging on branded goods and thoroughly pampering my junior college girlfriend (we met at the library while I was doing research there btw). We frequently engaged in heavenly sex romps too - after all she was a libidinous nymph with one really hot, petite sexy body. During her school holidays, we even secretly vacationed in France.

Upon graduation, I did not feel the need to further my studies since I could just take over my parents' business. Deep down I harboured grand expansion plans, which included fulfilling franchising ambitions. Then again, everything had to be put on hold since I was called up for national service.

Fast forward one day, when I was in the army, my officer gave me the bad news… my father had passed away. I later learnt from my mom that he suffered a heart-attack when he went to the stall one early morning to get some accounting work done. He was only discovered lying unconscious on the floor after sometime by another stall owner. Sadly he didn’t pull through… I was just 1 month away from fully discharging my NS obligations. I expended all my compassionate leave alongside normal leave allowances until I ORD-ed just to care for my mom. She was so distraught by my father’s death she ended up being bedridden for weeks. Our stall remained closed for about 2 months in the meanwhile.

She finally found the strength to reopen the store for business. I would drive the van every morning to procure supplies from the Pasir Panjang wholesale centre and subsequently deliver them to the stall. On multiple occasions I witnessed my mom crying whilst cooking, so I would go over to hug and console her… I really loved my mom. She’s a very strong woman. At this point, I was so busy assisting her any residual thoughts of going for further studies went right out the window.

We later decided to hire a helper serve customers and perform cashiering duties. Earnings dipped by about 30% as our family business had lost its left arm – my father – whose oratory and persuasion skills were pertinent to securing a loyal customer base.

Naturally, I had little time for my girlfriend. She was now studying at NUS; we met lesser and lesser. She always complained that I’ve changed and all. Truth is, I was just too busy helping my mom and caring for her. By then we had trouble with our helper as we caught him stealing red-handed from the cash box after secretly installing a hidden IP camera. Afterwards he admitted to having pocketed about 20K over the past few months. He promised to return all stolen monies and requested a day's leave so he could arrange with his family to have the necessary funds wired to his bank account. Naively, we agreed. However, he fled Singapore the very next day. The investigating officer at the police station informed us unless he returns, chances of recovering what was lost were slim.

Left with little choice, the two of us took it upon ourselves to operate the stall. My mom grew increasingly weary as the days passed.

Then one day… she passed on. Perhaps it was due to all the grief and exhausting work… she finally collapsed in the kitchen. Mirroring my father's unfortunate demise, it happened early in the morning. This time, however, she was found by the beverage-serving uncle, sadly doctors couldn't save her due to severe internal injuries already suffered. An autopsy conducted revealed a brain hemorrhage had arose, possibly because she slipped and fell, knocking the side of her head against the stove.

I recalled crying from morning till night for a week. I missed my mom (and dad), at the same time was apprehensive about taking over the cai png stall single-handedly. Not only did I not possess passable oratory and socializing skills, I also didn't know how to cook.

Worst of all? My girlfriend broke up with me. She claimed that I neglected her, somehow though I suspected she did so because she became aware of my family’s financial woes. What’s crazier was she snagging a new boyfriend (a university classmate of hers who’s buff, good-looking and rich) barely 2 months later. Honestly I don't ever wish to know if I was cuckolded; prior to breaking up lots of photos of them together were posted online.

I fell into depression and the store was closed for 3 months (mind you rent continues to be incurred during this period) . Things became so bad my uncle (father’s brother) had to step in to settle some of the paperwork on my behalf, such as informing the landlord that the stall's tenancy agreement will henceforth bear my name; distribution of my parent’s existing assets, so on and so forth.

When I felt better I decided to attempt salvaging my family’s cai png stall by hiring a Malaysian chef. You could hire a chef from mainland China for far cheaper, but I wasn't willing to take the risk since I desperately needed a GOOD chef. As a result I ended up paying about 25% more. Additionally I took on a rather pretty-looking bilingual Malaysian girl fluent in both English and Chinese to perform serving and cashiering duties- all these in hopes of reviving the business.

Unfortunately, owing to earlier months of inactivity, the stall had lost many regulars, in part probably because they might have erroneously assumed we were gone for good. Or perhaps the food no longer tasted as great as it used to. It eventually got so bad 80% of dishes remained unsold at the end of the day. In light of this I instructed my workers to give out food for free an hour before closing each day. Well guess what? Singaporeans' ugly kiasu-ness went on full display… many people would choose NOT to order from my stall during normal operating hours, preferring instead to scramble for free handouts at the end of the day - ironically that’s when we enjoyed "brisk business".

To counter this, I had my chef cook smaller portions and of course, we ceased giving out free food.

Suddenly a brilliant idea struck: I could offer any 3 items + rice at a fixed price of $2.50. Hey that would surely attract more new customers.

Sigh, guess what? Majority of patrons would only opt for the more expensive fish and meat items. In the end, our leftovers comprised mainly vegetables.

Never mind, I shall tweak my strategy. Any set meal purchased (2+1, 3+1 or 4+1) will entitle the customer to a free drink at the drinks stall. At the end of every week, I would reimburse the drink stalls for the amount of drinks redeemed accordingly.

Yep, as you would expect, I got outsmarted yet again. This time most customers would go for the 2+1 set meal; fyi I was making a loss for every 2+1 set meal sold. How's that? Well, originally without dangling the free drink deal, I could earn $0.30-$0.50 per 2+1 meal set. Now factor in a cup of kopi or can drink which cost about $0.80 back then, you do the math.

That’s not the worst part… since a customer only needed to produce a receipt to redeem their choice of drink, some sneaky bastards would reuse that single receipt by handing it over to family members or friends who would come along on another day. At the end of each week when I tallied the number of drinks redeemed and customers who purchased our food… there would be a perplexing n-fold discrepancy. For example, 100 customers bought from our stall, yet 200 redemptions occurred. Nuts ain't it???

The whole situation worsened so much I was making a loss of 20K every month. The losses weren't static btw, bit by bit they started inching upwards, causing me many sleepless nights.

By then, my stall's lease was expiring shortly. My landlord dealt me the final death blow, informing me I would have to fork out an additional 15% on top of the current monthly tenancy amount paid should I decide to proceed with a contract renewal, "citing" market demand and the ongoing property boom as convenient excuses for the astronomical raises levied.

I implored the man to reconsider on account of my late parents' longstanding amiable relations with him. He rejected me outright, saying: "No. If you are not agreeable to the new terms and conditions, pack up and move out. I have no lack of suitors waiting to take over."

With a heavy heart I decided to call it quits. I practically wrecked my parents' once successful business; regret shall haunt me till the day I go six feet under.

Later, over the years, I embarked on several other business ventures and investments, but they all failed spectacularly. Eventually I resorted to selling off my parents' landed property to finance outstanding debts. That would be my biggest mistake committed therein; I was only 25 years old then and unmarried, therefore I wasn't eligible to purchase a HDB flat. In the end I rented a room someplace (not house, ROOM) for $800 a month.

I’m now 27 with barely 100K left in my bank account. I haven't been able to secure proper employment since my various business ventures failed.

Get real: no one wants to hire a 27 year old polytechnic graduate with ZERO work experience to speak of. The only option left: be a private hire driver for GRAB. Seriously I can't fathom the thought of it... having to cough up money for room rental, car rental etc.....arrrgh.

There you go, the unfortunate tale of a son of cai png stall owners who went from riches to rags. When well-to-do individuals fall, they could bleed real bad like I did. Being the only child, I have no one to turn to when I am truly down and out - trying my darndest right now to stay optimistic and live one day at a time. If it is not too much to ask, please do say a prayer for me. Thanks and peace out.

#SME #fustrated #failedbusiness #TheSingaporeDream #finances #debt #hawker #secondchance #jobless #privatehirevehicle #jobmarket #depression

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