What Hawker Food Stalls Can Teach Us About Niching
Make it easy for customers to choose
Our shirts cling to our overheated, sticky bodies uncomfortably.
We hold our noses to the strong stench of rotten food and stray animal piss wafting to us from the huge drains.
We shudder to think about falling into those drains — even as our eyes roll back in ecstasy at every scrumptious bite of satay, laksa, and Hainanese chicken rice.
My best memories of Malaysia are about family and food. Street food.
Family bonding happens on every trip as we leave the comfort of air-conditioned condominiums and cars to sweat it out for our favorite Malaysian street food. We head to Kajang for satay. Penang for laksa. Petaling St for wonton noodles.
Certain hawker stalls have achieved celebrity status making only one dish. You’ll know who they are instantly by the line of red-faced people furiously fanning themselves as they wait in hungry anticipation for a table.
These hawker stalls are so different from how we do business in western countries.
In western countries, we strategize and worry about business. We’re careful not to pigeonhole our marketing. We have a bad case of FOMO (fear of missing out).
We don’t begin because we’ve already run tens of businesses in our minds — and decided each one isn’t suitable long-term: It won’t generate enough business. Won’t give us economies of scale. It’s too risky depending on a single product or market… the list goes on.
We’re put off by how hard it is to run a business with large companies always looming in the background. A threat to our chances of surviving.
We’re afraid to niche because we don’t want to miss out on customers. We want everyone.
Yet we appeal to no-one.
Chris Anderson, Author of The Long Tail explains:
“Increasingly, the mass marketing is turning into a mass of niches.”
Hawker stalls seem so unsophisticated. Yet they give us important insights into what makes a sustainable, strong small business.
8 Reasons hawker food stalls thrive in Malaysia
1. They stick to what works
They focus on old recipes often handed down from generations before them. Secret ingredients and methods that impart unique flavor, texture, color, taste.
The little things make the difference. And the locals know and appreciate the little things. The Asian culture revolves around food and they will travel for what they love and joyfully blab to the world about scrumptious food.
Hawker stall owners keep doing what draws in the crowds. Malaysians are pragmatic people, they focus less on ‘doing what you love’ — rather on ‘doing what makes money’.
2. Less is more
Hawker store owners would rather specialize and be renown for 1 spectacular dish, than cook a lot of dishes that are just ok. They’re not concerned about being everything to everyone.
They watch their customer with eagle eyes with only a side glance at the competition. Yet it’s more than that.
It’s about pride. It’s about fulfillment. It’s about pleasure — the pleasure of creating the perfect har mee, laksa, or chendol — and seeing the contentment on their customer’s face. The light in their eyes that confirms they’ll be back.
You see, it’s not about everyone coming back. It’s about the right customer coming back. And telling their friends about it.
“The leader is one who, out of the clutter, brings simplicity” — Albert Einstein
3. Strong relationships
Niche hawker stalls don’t see specialization as a risk that they’re putting all their proverbial eggs in one basket. To them, the risk is doing too much and not doing any of it exceptionally.
What draws customers in?
Choosing to slow cook satay over charcoal in full view, with their family’s secret 8-hour marinade. Lovingly cooking the accompanying rich, flavorsome sauce from freshly roasted peanuts, dried chili, and shallots.
Having a regular’s dish ready before they arrive. Easily carrying on conversations from yesterdays. Adding a few extra satay sticks or a bigger bowl of sauce than usual. Accommodating special requests.
These are the little extras that nurture relationships — so locals return — and tourists include them on their Places To Eat in Malaysia list.
4. They’re used to plenty of competition
In the west, less competition is a benefit of niching. It’s the opposite for Malaysian hawker stalls.
In Malaysia, once an area is known for doing something well, a whole lot of stalls pop up. Hawker store owners have entrepreneur genes.
When they see an idea run successfully, they dive right in and copy the hell out of it in the hopes of making a shitload of profit.
Popular stalls face an overwhelming amount of competition. Yet they’re far too busy to worry about that.
They’re experts in getting people in and out quickly, serving up to-die-for signature dishes. Hundreds of times a day. Thousands of times a week.
They are consistent with the quality of their food and the reliability of their service.
“Complexity is your enemy. Any fool can make something complicated. It is hard to keep things simple.” — Richard Branson
5. Word of mouth is powerful
Many of us can live and thrive in communities — without ever leaving our desks.
Hawker stall owners live and thrive with real, breathing, ravenous, drooling customers — and their friends and family, who drop in, daily, or weekly. Websites are seen as an option rather than a necessity.
It typically costs more to cook at home than it does to eat out in Malaysia. So even if families decide to eat at home, they’ve usually grabbed take out from their favorite ‘Uncle’ or ‘Aunty’. They’re loyal.
They leave work stresses for precious dinners with family where they chat about how to get little Alisha more high distinctions in school.
They exchange bad jokes and good-natured chit chat with stall owners about the latest political shenanigans and how the new owners have screwed up the previously thriving nasi goreng business across the road.
6. They ooze personality
Hawker stores are loud and proud. Out in the open, their advertising is their huge fiery wok flinging 20 ingredients sky high to land steamy hot on a plate, ready to serve.
Their advertising is pouring teh tarik (hot, sweet, milky tea) from one cup to another as if playing the accordion.
Their advertising is skillfully kneading, stretching, coercing dough into smooth, silky pieces that transform into warm, crispy, pancakes of goodness ready to soak up the luscious gravy in a warm chicken curry or beef rendang.
Customers are drawn to the flair, smells, stories, and personalities of hawker stores as strongly as women to a chocolate buffet.
My experience with niching
“No niche is too small if it’s yours” — Seth Godin
I used to think it was better to have a wide range of experiences and skills, than to specialize.
For example, working in online communications for the past decade, I help businesses plan and use a range of online channels to grow their businesses.
This was great when working for large organizations. Then I started running a small business. And it was only when I joined a local networking group for a year that I discovered a few valuable insights.
- People don’t understand what you do unless you niche
- People have no idea how to refer business to you if they don’t get what you do (even if they really want to refer to you)
- People don’t remember much of what you say about your business in your 30-second pitch (they’re too tired, too worried, too preoccupied)
Over the year, I refined my weekly spiel based on the looks on people’s faces, their questions (or lack of), and the amount, and types of referrals I received.
Instead of saying I ‘manage communications online’, I started saying I was an ‘online marketing consultant’. Because they understood the term ‘marketing’ more than ‘communications’.
Then, to make it simpler, I started saying I was a ‘copywriter’. I loved writing, so why not be a copywriter. And so I was.
So instead of talking about social media strategies, email marketing, and how to make websites user-friendly, I talked about writing.
Then when they started asking me about how to copyright (true story) I started simply calling myself a ‘writer’.
They got that.
So I stuck to the term. My niche was writing online to help small businesses get leads and conversions. Like hawker store owners, I learned:
- You can’t do everything well as a small business so it’s better to niche
- There’s more satisfaction and growth in deep learning
- You build stronger relationships, loyalty, and long-term business opportunities when people understand who you are — and how you can help them
- You can be more creative and thoughtful in how you serve your customers (you know exactly who they are, what their day is like, their worries, and what they really want)
- You don’t have to worry about the competition: they’re too busy trying to do everything
Richard Branson was spot on:
“Complexity is your enemy. Any fool can make something complicated. It is hard to keep things simple.”
Summary: What hawker food stalls can teach us about niching
In western countries, many of us are afraid to niche for fear of missing out.
Malaysian hawker food stalls show us that niching is a recipe that can work brilliantly when the right ingredients and method are used.
They show us that you don’t have to overanalyze service marketing and brand loyalty to master both.
They stick to what works with a less-is-more attitude, blowing away the competition by treating their loyal customers with such VIP treatment and unique flair that their customers can’t help but spread the love and return for more.
When we use the hawker food stall approach to our own small businesses, our customers will be grateful for making their purchasing decisions easier.
Be what you need to be, to be understood by your customer.
“That’s been one of my mantras — focus & simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex; you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.” — Steve Jobs