One of my favourite Singaporean foods is the classic eggs and toast breakfast. Two soft-boiled egg heated to just slightly runny, served with soy sauce and a dash of pepper, paired with kaya and butter toasts and a cup of thick local coffee that my parents’ parents drank. It’s perfect.
There used to be only one kind of establishment that served these breakfasts, known affectionately by locals as the hawker center (in English) or kopitiam, in Singlish-Hokkien. The eggs are boiled and fished out of their hot metal tubs by the stall owner, and you’d have to crack open the eggs yourself.
Recently, about 6-8 years ago, a classier kind of establishment has begun springing up all across Singapore and are now dominated by two big chains, Ya Kun and Toast Box. They serve eggs without the shell, and even promise to swap them whenever you requested to! It’s every egg connoisseur’s dream come true.
The price difference between these two places is big enough to create a clear division among Singaporeans though not to any devastating effect. We still enjoy our classic breakfast, be it in a humble hawker or a classy sort-of restaurant. It’s all good.
But recently I found a third in-between place that cracked the eggs and priced somewhere in the middle. I work near this place and have it almost every morning. It’s great, but I started noticing a tinge of unhappiness in the eyes of the person who makes these for me everyday. So I did what every normal person would do – I made a guess.
Here’s what I think is the reason: there’s a misalignment in incentives.
The stall assistant makes these eggs and normally in these settings, he wouldn’t need to crack the eggs. Just serve them up with their shells intact, and the customer is supposed to do the sticky work of pouring the gooey stuff out onto their plate. Now he has to, and that would be fine if he was paid extra to do it. It is, after all, quite annoying to have egg white sticking to your skin and to have to replace eggs with broken yolks.
That’s most likely not the case though. The stall owner keeps the bulk of the midway price hike and pays his workers the same amount. All that work, day in and out, with nothing more to be had. No wonder they’re always serving my breakfast with complimentary sideway glances.
As a consumer, what would I do even if I knew this to be factual? Nothing. Truth be told, I’ll continue to eat the same thing and accept that I’m partially the source of their displeasure.
But what can the stall owner do? Plenty, I think, to align the incentives. This stall owner must be selling his “innovative” breakfast to quite a lot of people to stir up emotions at 8am in the morning, and I think there’s a business case to pay his employees just slightly more than the typical kopitiam does. Happier employees, happier self-fashioned egg connoisseur, more business.
And there you have it, another wild conjecture written in a kopitiam.