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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

Snack food wagon is last van standing

Sole operator left from 2003 scheme has survived by building a reputation.
The Straits Times - November 12, 2012
By: Jessica Lim
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Snack food wagon is last van standing Customer Tim Paterson, 45, ordering food from Mr Jimmy Peh at his food wagon. Mr Peh says providing power points and sheltered spaces would help food vans like his to survive. -- PHOTO: MARK CHEONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

NINE years on, Mr Jimmy Peh continues to operate his food van at a carpark in Kallang Road.

His van - PehSnack Food Wagon - is the last one standing among 33 allowed by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) to sell pre-cooked food under its Mobile Food Van scheme in 2003.

The rules: operate from 7am to 10.30am daily in carparks in five sites - Angullia Park, North Bridge Road, Orchard Road, Queen Street and Kallang Road.

Of the 33 vans, four did not even start business while the rest have since shut down.

A trial in 2003 by the National Parks Board (NParks) to allow food wagons in Bukit Batok and Changi Beach parks did not take off either. It was discontinued in 2004.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) said there are another three food vans operating in Marina Promenade and Marsiling. Operators can apply for a licence directly with NEA.

But awareness of the food van business model has now perked up after NParks told The Straits Times last week that it is conducting a feasibility study on bringing the dining option back. It has not confirmed any park locations.

Success and survival will depend on "building up a reputation", said Mr Peh, 60, who parks his van across two designated spaces at a carpark near the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority of Singapore building.

When he started in 2003, there were four other rivals selling similar pre-packaged items like curry puffs, fried carrot cake, fried beehoon and bottled drinks. They quit gradually over the years.

In the first two years, the former deliveryman served about 30 customers a day. With razor-thin profits and expenses running up to about $1,200 a month, including $300 for rent, he lost money, he said.

What kept him going was his investment of $56,000 in buying and converting a van into a food wagon to meet NEA rules.

Things improved after two years. "People started asking me if I could drive my van to other locations," said Mr Peh, who operates the business on weekdays and turns a profit of about $1,500 a month. He has since made food runs to shipyards in Jurong, offices with canteens being renovated and old folk's homes.

Mr Peh said the authorities could make it easier for food vans to survive such as by providing power points and sheltered spaces and marketing the project. Subsidies could also be extended during the first few years.

"It is sometimes very hot here and when it is raining, we can't operate," he added.

"On some days, there are cars parked in my designated spaces. Maybe it would be good if they could mark our spaces in red."

The URA has stopped issuing new permits under the Mobile Food Van scheme. Given the low interest, it decided to just renew permits for existing operators, said a spokesman. "If there is market interest to bring back the scheme, we will be happy to take a look with interested parties."

NParks' feasibility study has prompted Mr Leon Tay, 35, owner of two cafes in the city, to approach it for a discussion.

He said: "Power supply, a fresh water source and drainage points will be needed, especially if full-fledged cooking is allowed."

NEA regulations allow cooking and preparation of food in the vehicle "if appropriate facilities and appliances" are provided.

Mr Tay, who did not want to name his company, is keen to set up shop in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio, East Coast and Labrador parks.

Other restaurant operators interested in rolling out food trucks include Salad Stop! and Makansutra.

Ms Wang Mei Fang, a National University of Singapore postgraduate student in her 30s who bought fried noodles at PehSnack Food Wagon, said: "It would be good to have more of such trucks. It's good to support home-grown businesses and it's so convenient. There is just so much potential for this to really take off."

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