Appetite killer: Singaporeans' views on value of local food

After 57 years in the business, Nasi Padang River Valley decided to close its doors on 28 March, citing a lack of manpower, rental and food costs (Photo: HungryGoWhere / Nasi Padang River Valley)

Some Singaporeans reacted with grave consternation over the recent news that the iconic Nasi Padang River Valley eatery along Zion Road would be closing down 28 March.

The food shop, which has operating since 1957, announced that it was closing because of reasons such as rising rents, manpower challenges and a gradual decline in customers.

Industry observers are lamenting this impending loss and how it will damage Singapore's culinary heritage, laying much of the blame on greedy landlords who have raised commercial rent prices to sky-high levels over the past few years.

Nasi Padang River Valley is now paying $11,000 a month in rent, compared to $8,300 a month when they first rented the shophouse 10 years ago. This is a more-than-30-per-cent increase.

Yet, maddeningly, this has become a common scenario.

Others also pointed to tightened labour laws that have dried up supply of manpower, especially in the F&B sector, while some argued that rising ingredient costs are putting a huge dent in the margins for food businesses.

PRICING

They are all valid arguments, yes. But what struck me most, however, was this comment made by Nasi Padang River Valley co-owner Hariz Pua in a news report:

"Many people tell us that paying $7 to $8 for a plate of nasi padang is too expensive in comparison to other stalls. But they don't consider the fact that we use fresh ingredients every day, which costs more, while other hawkers use frozen food."

To pay $7 or $8 for a plate of nasi padang, where you get to pick dishes from a selection of meat and seafood options, would be considered hard to stomach even for a serious foodie.

How did we even get to this stage where a plate of nasi padang – one of the more ubiquitous local comfort foods – has to cost as much, if not more than a McDonald's Happy Meal?

So perhaps it's no surprise that Nasi Padang River Valley has been seeing a drop in its customers since its heyday where it sold more than 500 plates a day. Reportedly, 300 plates a day these days would be considered "decent business".

A FAST-FOOD NATION?

Or are we really not willing to pay more for freshly cooked food and prefer cheap fast food?

For me, more telling is the second half of the co-owner’s comment, where he argues on why the shop charges more compared to other nasi padang stalls: They use quality ingredients.

It almost sounds as though he was lamenting that too few Singaporeans these days recognise and value quality.

Food writer Dr Leslie Tay, who first broke the news that Nasi Padang River Valley was closing down, made this astute observation, and I paraphrase, that people seem to be more willing to pay $15 for prepackaged, factory-made Japanese bento boxes than quality, painstakingly-prepared, authentic homemade cuisine.

While I support the call that Singapore hawker food should continue to be affordable for the masses, perhaps we have been undervaluing – and underpricing – our traditional cuisines for far too long now.

Even Damian D'Silva, chef and proprietor of Immigrants Gastrobar – which serves many Eurasian and Peranakan favourites, some which are in danger of dying out – revealed to The Australian newspaper that if he had to open another restaurant, he would rather do it outside Singapore "where people would appreciate the story there is to tell, and the authenticity of the dishes," and "where people are willing to pay more".

Whenever I travel overseas, I used to be shocked by and would laugh at the ridiculously high prices charged by restaurants in first-world cities such as Melbourne, Tokyo, Copenhagen, or San Francisco selling Singapore-type fare – US$15 (S$19) for a roti prata set with two pieces of pratas and a curry? How crazy is that?

Not any more. Perhaps that's truly indicative of the value of how others see Singapore cuisine, and how little we truly appreciate it, and are willing to pay for it.

Read related article: Closing of foodcourt chain Banquet point to problems in F&B industry

Daniel Goh is a former public relations manager who switched to become a hawker. He opened up The Good Beer Company in Chinatown Complex in 2011.

(The views and opinions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of inSing.com and SingTel Digital Media Ptd Ltd.)



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