SINGAPORE — Even before you see Dish The Fish, you’d be surprised to hear the choice of music from its radio: The ending notes of a bossa nova version of Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off trail off before a tune from indie favourite, Jose Gonzalez, comes on. Wait, are we talking about a fishmonger stall in Beo Crescent?
The music would have proven more disconcerting if not for the fact that the set-up for Dish The Fish looks like it could be something right out of Seattle’s Pike Place or a Japanese supermarket. The stall boasts a sleek sign with a teal backdrop, wooden-panelled walls, glass casing and impossibly fresh seafood such as turbot and mussels from New Zealand, alongside local catch such as your typical threadfin and Asian whiting.
The fishmonger at the centre of it all is 32-year-old Jeffrey Tan. “I started Dish The Fish last September, but it was a business that I’ve been planning for two years,” said Tan, who gave up his cushy job in business IT and took a 60 per cent pay cut to brave it as a fishmonger with the help and support of his wife. “The idea for it actually came about when I did my university exchange programme in the United States. I was in Orlando and Boston, and saw how different the fish industry is. The market is so clean, the fish nicely displayed and consumers are happy to be in a market. I thought to myself, ‘Why can’t a fish stall in Singapore be like this? This is what a wet-market experience can be like’,” Tan explained.
Tan’s connection to the trade runs deeper than that. He grew up in Jurong Fishery Port as his father and grandfather used to run a wholesale fish business. After his father died, when Tan was six years old, the business was passed to his relatives.
“I guess the fish business is in my blood. I saw fresh fish every day when I was young, and my taste buds have become so sensitised to the taste and freshness of fish,” shared Tan. “I learnt to descale and clean a fish when I was 16. My brother, who is 12 years older than me, also started a fish stall 20 years ago and I helped him whenever I could.”
NEW WAYS, OLD TOUCH
Even while he was working as a consultant, Tan began a Facebook business to take small orders and deliveries. But he always knew he wanted to be in a wet market to “retain the tradition and show that a fish stall can be clean and appealing”.
Tan has also upgraded several aspects of the business — from using a cloud system on an=
iPad for his point of sales, to vacuum-packing the fish with ingredients such as ginger, spring onions and fermented soy beans in heat-proof bags for the convenience of customers. “Many customers like to ask how they can cook a particular fish. This way, they need only put the bag in boiling water,” noted Tan.
Besides produce, Tan sells condiments more commonly seen in a deli, such as sunflower oil with white truffle flavour, and harnesses tools such as Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp to keep customers in the loop. Much of his fish stocks are reserved even before they make it to the market.
But there are things that still need to be done the old-fashioned way. For instance, he has to wake up at 12.30am to make his way to Jurong Fishery Port before 2am to ensure he gets the best produce every Tuesday and Saturday. And he spends the rest of the morning descaling the fish and prepping for the rest of the day. When the shop opens, Tan is a rock star. He banters candidly with customers in fluent Teochew, Hokkien, Cantonese and Malay while cleaning their fish in double-quick time. He even knows their names and preferences, and they in turn, are happy just standing around to chat with him.
Tan admits the industry is hard, but it has been fulfilling. “I enjoy the rapport and relationship with customers. More importantly, I want to rebrand the trade and show that it’s viable for young people,” said Tan, who plans to start an apprentice programme eventually if he has the opportunity.
“Our current vendors in the markets are mostly in their 60s and 70s. The replacement rate is not high,” he pointed out. “We should feel confident about our Asian wet markets and find new ways to innovate to be relevant. It would be sad if we were to lose this wet-market culture.”
Dish The Fish is located at #01-19, 38A Beo Crescent Market. For more information, visit http://www.dishthefish.com.sg