Javier Ng, who owns Gu Zhao Wei economic rice, works up to 14 hours a day but does not regret the decision to follow his father's footsteps.
As a young boy, Javier Ng would regularly help out at his dad’s economic rice stall, often doing the miscellaneous work such as washing the dishes.
Subconsciously, that slowly helped him to fall in love with the idea of running his own cai png (economic rice) stall.
So instead of entering university after serving National Service like many young men in Singapore, the 28-year-old started his own cai png stall in 2017 instead.
The owner of Gu Zhao Wei economic rice stall shared with Youthopia: “I was travelling to different countries over a two to three-year period, and during that time, I was pondering whether to study or pursue a career out of running a cai png stall.
“University sounded very mainstream as everyone does it. To be honest, I didn’t do well for my A-Levels. I thought if I were to pursue a degree from a private university, I could do it any time I wanted.”
Javier added that “the rest is history”. With a wide grin on his face, it is easy to tell he is glad to have made the right decision.
In the span of three years, the affable youth has done well enough to set up a second stall in Yishun. His first stall, in Choa Chu Kang, is manned by a worker he trusts completely, having worked with him since the very beginning. In fact, the worker worked under Javier’s dad previously.
His second stall, in Yishun, is tended by him and another worker. Make no mistake though, Javier still does most of the work, at times working up to 14 hours a day.
“On a regular day, the working hours for me are from 8am till 9pm or 10pm. Towards the end of the day when I get tired, I’ll work at a slower pace. It’s really tough,” admitted Javier, who estimates that he does about 70 per cent of the work at the stall.
“I’ll start preparations for the day early in the morning. I’ll wash and cut vegetables and cook my dishes from about 9am. In the afternoon [after lunch hours are over], I’ll wash the plates on my own. When I’m done around 3pm, I’ll start preparations for dinner.
“It’s the same every day. I’ll cut, cook, wash, cook and wash again.”
His parents did warn him of this though, Javier candidly shared. They called him “crazy” (his words, not ours) and warned him that he wouldn’t have time to get a girlfriend or play his favourite sport, football.
More importantly, they were also concerned for his health too; Javier had gotten a lung puncture before and his parents were worried that his health might worsen if he inhaled smoke in the stall every day.
“They were strongly against it and hoped I would pursue other cuisines. Previously, I spent a month in Thailand learning Thai cuisine. So they asked me to go for that instead, but I decided to stick with cai png because you can’t go wrong with it,” said Javier.
As an owner of a cai png stall, Javier has to prepare up to 35 dishes each day. When asked how he is able to remember the recipes for all the dishes, he answered that it’s down to “muscle memory”.
When he was learning the trade from his father, he wrote down notes on his phone and referred to it whenever he was cooking. But gradually, the recipes were etched into his mind as he prepared the same dishes every day.
Are there any trade secrets, then?
While Javier adamantly said no, he did share that the reason a cai png stall is able to sell dishes at a cheaper price than a zi char stall is because of the different grades of the ingredients used.
“There are different kinds of grading to vegetables for example. Zi char stalls charge a higher price because they use a higher grade of vegetables. It’s quite hard if you don’t know much about the different grades, because you can’t really tell from one look,” he said.
“Like minced pork, there can be grade A and B. Grade A is better to use to make meatball, because it tastes better. Grade B is for you to do a normal stir fried mince meat dish.”
Of course, Javier also hopes for customers to be more understanding towards him. He shared that some have questioned why he doesn’t smile while serving them, not knowing that at times he feels tired after working long hours for a prolonged period.
He also wishes there would not be troublemakers at all, particularly those who compare prices incessantly. Such instances occur at least once or twice each day.
“Things aren’t getting any cheaper these days. Nowadays, workers demand for a higher wage, and when you hire a Malaysian… you have to pay the levy too. From a stall owner’s point of view, it costs about $3,000 per month or each worker.
“To upkeep a stall, you will need a five-digit sum every month. It’s not easy, because nowadays, rental is pretty expensive too,” said Javier, who added that there are months when he does not get to earn any personal income.
“There are definitely months when I make losses as well, such as Chinese New Year, because I have to pay bonuses out to my workers while operating on a lesser number of days. With times like these (COVID-19 pandemic), it’s a little bit hard as well.”
The most he had lost in a month was about $15,000. That came in the first month of opening his first store. In other bad months he would lose a few thousand dollars.
Still, Javier has dreams of growth. He hopes to be able to expand to a third and fourth stall, eventually dreaming of becoming as big as Chang Cheng Chinese Vegetables Rice, which runs multiple stalls throughout Singapore, along with other spinoff brands.
Whether he can get there remains to be seen, but he has learnt a big lesson over the past three years of running his Gu Zhao Wei cai png stalls – one that he uses to motivate himself to keep going.
He said: “It hasn’t been an easy three years… During the first anniversary, I was like, ‘365 days went past so fast’. I was glad I survived the first year, because half way through, I wanted to give it up.
“There were times when I wanted to hug my pillow and cry. But I just kept pushing myself every time. You know, as the saying goes, tough times don’t last, tough people do, so I’ll just keep pushing.”
Visit Javier’s Gu Zhao Wei cai png stalls at Keat Hong Market, 253 Choa Chu Kang Ave 1, or at 795 Yishun Ring Road.
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