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The 3-hour queue for $1 chicken

The Hawker Market in Singapore is a famed foodie destination, but after a 3 hour queue in 36-degree, 92%Ф heat, Ian Jindal hallucinates about lessons for retail from a $1 Michelin-starred meal.

Singapore is a city of contrasts: a modern melting-pot megalopolis cheek-by-jowl with ethnic quarters, where the reminders of a colonial, trading past rub against a massive land reclamation programme that’s seen its size increase by 23% since independence. Singapore is very much a ‘hub’ city-country, where people from around the region travel, return, trade and invest – all bound together with a single passion: food.

One feature of Singapore’s food landscape is the Hawker Centres, where permanent stalls sell inexpensive food, next to transport and housing centres. These are vibrant, functional, social places where a region’s culinary variety is on full show. Time-pressured people grabbing a cheap meal sit on communal seating next to those choosing to while away an afternoon in chat and socialising.

While chairing the APAC leg of last year’s Millennial20-20 conference, I arranged with one of the speakers to visit a city phenomenon: the Michelin-starred Hawker stand – Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle.

The stand was awarded a full Michelin star in 2016, both as a move to diversifying the coveted rating, but also (as the standard says) for “very good cooking in its category”. Since then, queues of 3 hours have become the norm. Interestingly, the owner, Chan Hong Meng, has not increased prices. His main concession to fame has been to increase production to 180 marinaded chicken a day, up from the 150 before the award.

I had initially intended to simply look at the crowd and pass ironic comment on the length. However a text from Pep Torres, the charismatic founder of the Museum of Ideas and Invention, Barcelona, saying “I’m in the queue” turned me from observer into a participant.

So, to be clear: the market was full of stalls from which wonderful sights and smells emanated. The heat was sapping and the queue just did not move. Had I been on my own I would have left, but great conversation and a certain ironic perspective on our queuing maintained morale. During such slow progress little targets become important: count the minutes to the corner; how many floor tiles between here and the oh-so-attractive fan; how many people would give up and leave the queue… Most of the conversation however was anticipating just how wonderful the chicken rice (never say ‘chicken and rice’, apparently!) would taste… That led onto a discussion about simplicity, consistency and perfection: the joy in a simple thing done exceptionally well.

After the best cold beer of my life we finally made it to the front and got our chicken rice. 3 hours, 10 minutes. US$1.

How did it taste? Succulent. Was it worth a dollar? Yes. Was it worth the 3 hours? Once, certainly, but not on a weekly basis!

As we picked over the bones of the chicken we reflected on the role of experience within retail. The cost of the chicken was irrelevant compared to its value as an experience. Increasingly the role of the pre-purchase experience (and post-purchase brand relationship) is of greater importance than price alone. We enjoyed the sense of common endeavour and experience of the queue and discussion with the small, expert team at the stall. I wouldn’t say that we bonded as a ‘community’ but we certainly shared an experience.

The amplifying role of recommendation and sharing was important. While the Michelin star certainly attracts the braver foodies and the curious, their sharing extends the attraction of the experience beyond the red-book-clutching tribes.

Finally, we were awed by Mr Hang’s authenticity and dedication. No price increase, a continued personal role in cooking, and a focus upon consistent quality… This is no fly-by-night build-and-flip notion, but rather a just (and unsought) award for fundamental skills and delivery.

A brand can be seen as a function of its promises, the experiences it creates and the memories it sustains. Equally, consumers seek authentic experiences that have more substance than top-down marketing. On those bases we have a lot to learn from a $1 chicken rice.

APAC is on 25/26 October in Singapore’s spectacular Artscience Museum.

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