Singapore's humble hawker centers—open-air markets filled with food stalls, each one specializing in a particular dish or cuisine—produce what is arguably the tastiest (and cheapest) food in the country. And according to The Layover host and frequent Singapore visitor Anthony Bourdain, American entrepreneurs would be wise to study their business model.
"Food courts in America are bad things—owned by no one, with food that comes from nowhere," Bourdain said at a recent media lunch in New York City, sponsored by the Singapore Tourism Board. He contrasted chain-heavy U.S. food court denizens with the Singaporean version: largely mom-and-pop operations that do one thing really well, whether it's laksa, nasi goreng, satay, or ice kachang. The stalls are tightly regulated, subsidized, and have relatively low overhead costs, which make it possible for small business owners to thrive.
"This is an example to emulate and a paradise to me," says Bourdain. "Imagine knocking off for lunch and choosing from 20 or 30 specialists for cheap, healthy, real fast food, which even at its worst, is far better than the options we have here."
Last winter, I went on a tour of the hawker markets in Singapore with chef and restaurateur Willin Low, 39. A former corporate attorney, he opened his first eatery, Wild Rocket in 2005, armed with little more than his own savings and a copy of Running a Restaurant for Dummies. Since then, Low has built a mini-empire that includes two other restaurants, two bars, TV appearances on Top Chef and The Martha Stewart Show, and an intensely loyal staff (he makes it a point to hire former inmates who want to work in the restaurant industry).
And he still maintains that some of the best food in Singapore can be found at the hawker markets. “Because the government has subsidized a lot of the rent, operations costs are low,” he says. “Good hawkers are willing to work hard and get reasonable returns."
One example is Roxy Laksa in the East Coast Lagoon Food Village. Rich and flavorful, the coconut curry soup we sampled was bursting with shrimp, fresh noodles, laksa leaves and lemongrass—ridiculously high quality for a meal that cost $3. The stall has been at this location since 1978, and the owner Mike Lim, uses the same recipe that his grandfather perfected.
“When you do something for 30 years, it’s gonna be good,” Low says. “And if it’s not, no one will go there—Singaporeans have very high standards for finding the best of everything.”
And as we tasted everything from chicken satay to Hokkien prawn noodles to curry puffs and Hainanese chicken rice—each dish more delicious than the last—Bourdain comparing hawker centers to paradise didn't seem to be an exaggeration at all.