'While I can still afford to fail': First-class honours graduate becomes a hawker

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Tan Jun Yuan

By Shaun Poon

At an age where most university graduates are just starting to build their careers, 27-year-old Tan Jun Yuan left his reliable job as a product manager to work as a hawker 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.

To be sure, Jun Yuan’s choice to become a hawker is not for want of other job opportunities. With a degree in management with first class honours from the University of Manchester, his occupation belies his capabilities. While his shift in career goes against the grain, Jun Yuan credits his mother’s excellent cooking as his driving force.

“I’ve always enjoyed eating my mom’s Bak Kut Teh(pork ribs in peppery herbal soup) over the weekends,” he says. Together with his mother, he sells Bak Kut Teh in a coffee shop at Block 177 Toa Payoh Central. Shuffling about as he tends to the bustling store, he takes orders switching between Mandarin and English. One middle-aged lady orders takeaway with her woefully undersized foil bag and Jun Yuan uses different containers to let the lady best carry everything without spilling the precious soup. When an elderly man comes to have a taste after reading recent reviews of the Bak Kut Teh, the store has run out of meat, but Jun Yuan lets him have a taste of the soup so his trip from a faraway part of Singapore is not in vain. Preparing food over the steaming pots of soup, there is something impeccably Singaporean about the young son taking on orders with keen confidence and charm alongside his mother.

Within the family, there was always talk about setting up more outlets, says Jun Yuan. “It was always wishful thinking… but I thought why not make (my mother’s) wish come true, and just for the fun of it,” he adds. A budding entrepreneur, Jun Yuan had previously set up an events company after his graduation which had a turnover of about $50,000 during its 2-month operation. He went on to work in two technology companies for over a year, his entrepreneurship impulses constantly nagging at him. “When I was in a job I was always pretty restless,” he explains.

“A lot of people think it is crazy, it’s very difficult, actually it really isn’t. Because at the end of the day, if you fail it’s just one year of your life, half a year of your life,” Jun Yuan elaborates. He says that young people should take risks before they grow up and become tied down by family commitments. “In the grand scheme of things half a year is nothing at this point of my life,” he adds.

Hawker Tan Jun Yuan

From the looks of his roaring business right now, the gamble has paid off, at least for the moment. Jun Yuan reveals that he sells out by 7pm every night although the store is open till 8pm. As I interview him it is 6pm on a weekday and there is a constant stream of customers,  and he sells his last bowl around 6:30. A group of office workers comes and stares as him, probably drawn by positive reviews his store has received. “They’ve come to look at Ah Meng in the zoo,” he jokes.

That’s not to say that his education went to waste though, as it had a role in his current business. “I think in terms of expansion, in terms of growing… I see pricing as a strategy, a game,” Jun Yuan says. He applied some of his business skills from university in creating a value set to go with Bak Kut Teh and created some publicity for the store. “I think it’s the education that thought me how to do it, and a lot of it (comes from) experience, and I couldn’t have done it without my mom” he adds.

Jun Yuan is excited by new ventures, and feels motivated by the possibility of expanding his mother’s business. With his previous job as a product manager at Trek, he was drawn to the innovative firm which is known for its invention of the thumb drive. Regardless of how these possible future expansions pan out, he will have the support from his fun-loving friends.