Poor business forces stall vendors out of Pioneer Food Court

15 Oct 2018

By Matthew Loh

The stall selling Thai food is one of six stalls at Pioneer Hall still in operation.

Students visiting Pioneer Food Court may soon have fewer stalls to choose from as poor business forces more stall owners to pack up just a year after the canteen reopened.

While there were nine stalls at first, four of them — which sold Malay food, beef noodles, local delights and Western food — shut down or were replaced within six months of the canteen’s reopening in September last year.

The owners of two more stalls tell the Nanyang Chronicle they may follow suit if business does not improve. The drinks stall and Korean food stall owners said they have been losing money since last year and will have to shut down if business remains poor for the next one to two months.

This will leave the food court with only four stalls.

The canteen was taken over by a new operator FoodHaven after closing temporarily in May 2017.

While stall owners said the number of customers improved slightly after FoodHaven took over, some vendors said the increase has still not been enough for them to break-even.

Thin traffic

Drink stall owner How Kum Yeng, 58, said business did not improve as much as he had anticipated when the canteen first resumed operations.

“I used to have around 300 to 400 customers a day (before the canteen closed). After the reopening I thought that things would be better, but I still only see about 500 customers a day,” he said, estimating that he needs at least 700 daily customers to break-even.

Similarly, Korean food stall owner Amy Khoo, 52, said she had expected a daily flow of 300 to 400 customers, but barely receives half of that even on a good sales day.

She added that business was even tougher during the school holidays because fewer students were staying on campus. If sales does not pick up, Ms Khoo said she is reluctant to endure further losses during the upcoming December break.

Mr Sean Tay, 27, the director of FoodHaven, said that based on the student capacity of the Pioneer and Crescent Halls of Residence, they had initially estimated a daily visitor count of 2,000.

The NTU Undergraduate Housing website states that Pioneer and Crescent Halls have a combined capacity of 1,250 residents.

“We noticed from the start that the student numbers were quite off from what we had expected. Many of our stalls were unable to sustain their businesses and had to close down,” said Mr Tay.

He added that the fewer number of customers may have been because FoodHaven was not allowed to advertise its reopening by putting banners outside its premises, as per regulations by NTU’s Leasing Department.

Nevertheless, vendors from the Thai food stall and yong tau foo stall said they have no plans to leave Pioneer Food Court as their losses are not too significant.

Ms Crystal Lee, 42, an employee at the Thai food stall, said that while business was especially poor during school holidays, the daily flow of about 250 customers during the semester is enough for them to break-even.

Students concerned

Some residents the Nanyang Chronicle spoke to said that the lack of variety at the food court makes it an unpopular choice.

Jim Quek, 22, a resident of Crescent Hall, said he patronises the canteen purely out of convenience as it is nearby.

“I consciously limit the amount of times I eat there, even though it’s troublesome to go to another canteen. If not, I will get sick of eating the same food every day,” said the second-year School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering student.

Another Crescent Hall resident Desmond Huang, 24, a final-year School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering student, said he is worried that the departure of more stalls will worsen business in the canteen and cause other stall owners to leave, further narrowing the range of food choices.

FoodHaven director Mr Tay said: “Our priority now is to fill up the empty stalls, which will hopefully attract more students to the canteen.”