• Shanice Lim left a Michelin-starred restaurant to run a hawker stall in Singapore.
  • Lim’s father invested around $25,000 to help get her business started.
  • She said quitting haute cuisine was worth it to be her own boss.

Shanice Lim’s first job had her working 16-hour days four times a week.

She was 23 and had just graduated from the Culinary Institute of America’s Singapore campus. The job she had landed was at Zen, one of just three of the city-state’s three-star Michelin restaurants.

It appeared as though Lim had quickly achieved her childhood dream. She had long wanted to be a chef, just like her grandmother, who had taught her to cook classic Singaporean dishes while growing up.

Lim’s grandmother once ran a stall in a hawker center — an open-air food court, popular for dining in Singapore — where she served hundreds of hungry locals for just a few dollars a plate.

At Zen, Lim traded her favorite comfort food for Japanese-inspired European haute cuisine. There, she was part of a brigade of chefs who strived for perfection. The restaurant’s fixed dinner menu starts at 580 Singapore dollars, or $435.

“I learned that discipline is the most important thing in fine dining, there’s a lot of focus involved, and we can’t mess things up. There’s a lot of pressure,” Lim told Business Insider.

Lim’s nasi lemak incorporates different types of vegetables and sides. Foto: Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider

Swapped fine dining kitchen for hawker life

Despite her early success, Lim realized that it wasn’t for her. Less than two years after starting, she quit. She decided to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps and run her own hawker stall.

“I wanted to do something that’s not fine dining,” Lim said.

“I challenged myself to learn as much as I can in the one and a half years I worked at Zen. It was like training for me, we didn’t do the same thing every day,” she continued.

In May 2023, Lim opened up a stall serving nasi lemak — a Malay coconut rice dish served with side dishes like fried chicken, dried anchovies, otah, or spiced fish cake, and sambal, a sweet, spicy chili sauce.The stall is located in a kopitiam in eastern Singapore, a type of food court in the city-state that’s similar to a hawker center but often with fewer stalls. Surrounded by blocks of public housing and wet markets, it was a world away from the glitzy, towering skyscrapers and million-dollar shophouses that surrounded Zen downtown.

Lim named her stall “So Lemak,” a flavor descriptor unique to Malay cuisine. According to local food historian Khir Johari, lemak is used to describe the richness and creaminess of coconut milk — a key ingredient in nasi lemak.

Lim’s hawker stall in Bedok is popular among people of all ages. Foto: Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider

Taking the risk in a dying trade

Hawker centers — and kopitiams — are the heart of Singapore’s local food culture. There are 118 markets and hawker centers across the country, where thousands of vendors compete for the millions of people looking to eat cheap, delicious food. In addition, 776 kopitiams operate in Singapore.In the world’s most expensive city, food stalls — in both hawker centers and kopitiams — are one of the cheapest food businesses to start up. Local food critic and serial hawker entrepreneur KF Seetoh told BI vendors need to spend only between SG$15,000 and SG$20,000, on average, to get a stall up and running. This includes kitchen equipment, a two-month rental deposit, the license to run a hawker, and the bidding fee to rent a space from the National Environmental Agency. Unlike hawker centers, kopitiams aren’t overseen by the NEA.

Still, it’s a dying trade, with many stalls shuttering every year. It’s also a tough business, with long hours and slim profits, Seetoh, who owns the famed hawker centers Makansutra in downtown Singapore and Urban Hawker in New York City, said.

Several different components make up nasi lemak, including local meat and vegetables. Foto: Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider

“There’s no guarantee you will succeed. People have failed. That’s the reality. If you don’t do your homework well, you don’t study your menu, you will fall very fast,” Seetoh added.

No official data has been released on how many hawker stalls have closed in recent years. But the number of hawker stalls has remained stagnant. In 2014, there were 13,537 stalls registered with the NEA, 147 stalls more than in 2022, per data by the Singapore Food Agency.

It was a risk Lim was willing to take

Lim said her family believed in her, and her father invested SG$35,000 into her stall — with one condition.

“From then on, I had to run everything myself,” Lim said. It cost her double the average to open up her stall, as she had opted for a larger space in a busy location — which meant rent cost more. But she was confident she could make the money back in a few months.

It wasn’t that easy in the beginning. Lim said she was selling just 50 to 75 plates of nasi lemak a day, and having to cook all the ingredients of the dish herself was a daunting task. Once, she said, she had to marinate some 132 pounds of chicken wings. And making enough money to pay off the rent — which costs her SG$6,500 a month — also played on her mind.

“Lemak” is a Malay word used to describe a creamy taste that’s usually derived from coconut milk. Foto: Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider

She felt close to burnout

Unlike the state-of-the-art, air-conditioned kitchens found in fine dining restaurants, hawker stalls have a fan at best. And in Singapore, where the temperature hovers around 90 degrees Fahrenheit all year round, Lim said it took a while for her to adapt to the new environment.

“Every day, in and out, I just worked. I was mentally and physically tired and so stressed over wanting to grow my business,” Lim said, adding that her father and sister helped her pack the food and run the cashier in the first few months while she cooked the dishes.

“Working in a restaurant, I didn’t really sweat. But in a hawker, it was so hot I fell sick once a month, I realized I had to take care of my body, especially when I was still a one-man show,” she continued.

Some 10 months after her stall first opened, Lim said she’s hired two staff and sells 300 plates of nasi lemak on busy days. Now, she’s close to breaking even, she said.

nasi lemak stall in singapore Foto: Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider

Lim said her efforts have paid off and that she now has a base of customers who don't hesitate to pay SG$5 for her nasi lemak. As the dish can cost as little as SG$3 at many stalls in the city-state, some people were skeptical of the price, Lim said. But Lim said she believes her version will eventually win them over.

Local food content creator Elizabeth Chan visited Lim's stall a month ago and told BI she and her friends were impressed at how tasty the nasi lemak was.

"It's been a while since I had such fragrant coconut rice," Chan, who was featured on Netflix's series Food Tales, said.

"The chicken wing was really good too. Was very crispy, and you could taste the shrimp," she added, referring to har cheong gai, the fermented shrimp paste that Lim uses to marinate the chicken wings. The paste tastes slightly pungent, savory, and salty.

Lim serves nasi lemak, a Singaporean dish, with a twist. Foto: Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider

Being her own boss kept her going

Many vendors are retiring from the hawker business. Few young people want to join the industry. But Lim said she wasn't dissuaded and still dreams of opening more stalls across Singapore in the future.

"The hawker culture is dying. I wanted to put my brand out there so everyone could have good nasi lemak," Lim said. "It isn't for everyone. There isn't much money to be made running a hawker stall. It's challenging."

What keeps Lim going in a vanishing trade is simply forging her own path — without anyone telling her what to do.

"I wanted to be my own boss," Lim said.

"I believe my efforts will reward me, that's the good thing about running my own business," she added.

Read the original article on Business Insider