FEATURE: Hawker centres are Uber cool
By Bryna Singh
30 October 2016

SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/ANN) - UberEats Singapore general manager Evan Graj gets a second chance in the food delivery industry after his own business failed. 

Frustrated that his favourite local restaurants in London could not deliver food to his apartment, American Evan Graj decided to start his own restaurant delivery service in 2011.

"I came up with the idea literally to solve my own problem," says the 40-year-old, who is now the general manager of food delivery service UberEats Singapore. "I thought: 'If I want this, I'm sure everyone would want this.'"

Within three years, his start-up, Dine In, had close to 1,000 restaurants in London and hundreds of drivers on board.

At the height of its success, it was delivering food in four regions in Britain: London, Kingston, Brighton and Leeds.

Graj was a stockbroker in a bank before he set up Dine In.

It seemed poised for greater things, but the company ran into funding problems in 2014. Its failure to secure more capital to take the business forward saw Dine In almost get acquired by another company last year.

The deal was abruptly aborted and Dine In folded in August last year.

Winding up the business was "devastating", says Graj, who was born in the United States and is of Polish descent.

"It was very, very tough. Was it disappointing? Of course it was. There were so many people who believed in me, in us, and who had invested in the company."

Crushed, he left London with his wife Irina, a 31-year-old Russian dermatologist. The couple, who have no children, then spent seven months travelling.

There was "no way" he could have gone through the whole experience without his wife's support, Graj says. But he was not done with the food delivery business yet.

He was approached by Michael Brown, the Asia regional general manager of global ride-hailing giant Uber, who offered him his current role at UberEats Singapore.

He visited Singapore for the first time in May — the month the service was launched here —and moved here in July with his wife.

As general manager, his responsibilities include driving growth and coming up with strategies to get as many restaurant and delivery partners on board as possible.

Earlier this month, UberEats introduced bicycles as a delivery mode. Graj reveals that tests are ongoing for other vehicle classes and new initiatives that will soon be rolled out.

He is eager to taste success here. "Dine In was a great learning experience and now I have a second chance," he says. "When entrepreneurs fail, they come back brighter, better and faster. They won't make the same mistakes."

While he has called Singapore home for only three months, Graj talks about food here like a local, rattling off dining recommendations across price points.

"The food culture here is amazing. I love being a part of it," he says.

What dish reminds you of your childhood?

Polish people have a special dish called pierogi. It's the Polish version of a dumpling. I have so many memories of making it in my grandmother's home when I was little.

A classic pierogi is stuffed with potato and cheese, but because I'm allergic to cheese, I make mine with potato and onion instead. It is eaten with apple sauce.

Yes, sweet and savoury flavours go together in this dish.

What is comfort food for you?

Cookies. The classic, standard chocolate chip cookies. I like them crispy around the edges and puffy in the middle because I like dunking them in milk and having the middle soak up the milk.

Have your food preferences changed over the years?

I became a vegetarian when I was 16 because of a girl I was dating. But because I was allergic to cheese, I became vegan soon after.

After I broke my left elbow in a motorcycle accident a few years later, my then-girlfriend suggested I eat fish and protein to help with the healing process. I discovered sushi and became pescatarian.

When working in London, I was enticed by the Sunday roasts that the local gastropubs offered and have been an omnivore since.

For weekend dates, where do you and Irina like to go to eat?

We've been to Thai street food restaurant Long Chim at Marina Bay Sands several times now.

The food's done really well, with the perfect balance of sweet and sour flavours. The place has a buzzy vibe and a great view.

What are some of your favourite local dishes so far?

One is chilli crab. I love using the bread (mantou) to mop up the sauce — that's the best part.

I've also had Bee Kee Truffle Wanton Mee from Golden Shoe Food Centre. It's so good, I love it.

Another great hawker stall is Tian Tian chicken rice at Maxwell Food Centre. I find that the chilli sauce goes together with the chicken rice in the same way you can't separate kimchi from bibimbap.

You sound like you can take spicy food well. Can you?

Yes, it's hard to out-spice me. I started trying Indian food when I was vegetarian — that was during my teenage years. I would draw the line, however, at spicy chicken wings that use the Naga Jolokia (Ghost Chilli) in their sauce.

What are some of your favourite home-cooked dishes?

Two dishes I like to do are pan-seared scallops with asparagus and pan-fried salmon seasoned simply with salt and pepper.

For breakfast, I like to make smoked salmon with enoki mushrooms, seasoned with garlic and olive oil.

Irina does great salads, such as a Waldorf with caramelised walnuts and sliced pear.

Since you love eating, do you enjoy buffets?

I don't really go to buffets because I don't like the concept of food that is made in advance for you.

That said, I love the buffet dinner at The Clifford Pier at Fullerton Bay Hotel. Why? It had oysters.

Never put me in a buffet with oysters. They will lose money. I think I had about 30 oysters that night.

You seem like a fast-paced person. Do you enjoy your meals fast or slow?

I like slow meals. I love throwing dinner parties and having people spend time around the dining table - eating, talking, exchanging seats and eating some more.

What has impressed you about Singapore's food culture?

I had heard a lot about all the food offerings before coming here.

For a small city, there are immense options for food across all price points at any time of the day. There is always something to feed your desires.

Is the hawker centre a new concept to you, since you have been based largely in New York and London?

Yes, it's totally new. The closest thing New York has are street food markets, but those are not permanent.

The hawker centre, to me, is like a local kitchen, where you can get things cheaper than if you were to buy the ingredients yourself.

I mean, $5 for a bowl of soup? You can't beat that. It's brilliant.

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