Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Illegal food hawkers a bane to restaurants

I HAD just finished dinner at one of the restaurants at a newly opened business area in Wangsa Maju when the owner dropped by my table for a chat.

What started as an enquiry about his food quality trailed off to a 15-minute discussion about illegal traders that have sprouted down his street and how their presence was beginning to bother him and other shop owners.

I said I was surprised he should have minded since I have always thought that any business would welcome a little competition.

The food business could certainly do with variety.

Any food haven worth its name should be one that has almost everything within walking distance and I have not seen one that failed because of variety, yet.

Those that offer the best prices, tastiest fare and the fastest and around-the-clock service have always done well.

I said to the restaurant operator that he should not worry about his competitors but concentrate on his cooking and on keeping his prices reasonable instead. He replied that I had misunderstood him. He had no problem with competition with those operating legitimately in the area.

The ones he was concerned about were those that appeared at sunset, operating on road islands, pavements, alleys and car parks from makeshift stalls. He explained that while he had to contend with the taxes, business licences, and stiff rental, the highly mobile roadside traders operate on very low investments, save for makeshift stalls, bins to transport water for their cooking, tables and chairs, and a portable generator to light up their trading areas.

He added that some traders who encroached onto parking lots to be near popular restaurants were not only depriving visitors of parking space but were also obstructing the traffic. Traffic woes aside, he also questioned the hygiene level at these stalls.

His complaints were nothing new. Visit any new booming business areas and you will find a familiar sight -- makeshift stalls of all shapes and sizes coming up to tap into the growing traffic.

Fewer in the city centre but common in the outskirts, these traders start small but eventually grow in numbers until they become a permanent feature. And in their wake, they leave a host of problems behind including litter, leftovers, rats and traffic obstruction.

When local councils are forced to move these trading colonies because they have become unmanageable and have turned into eyesores instead of sight for sore eyes, the issue becomes an emotional tussle.

The authorities have to tread a fine line between their responsibilities to ratepayers and compassion towards the little man-in-the-street trying to eke out a living.

And when the tug-of-war begins, it doesn't take much guessing on who will end up looking like the bad guy.

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