Couple set up pizza stand at Taman Jurong Food Center to offer autistic son a job – Mothership.SG
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“This business is created for future generations,” businessman and now peddler Henry Teong, 56, tells me.
He primarily refers to his 16-year-old son, Jonus, who has autism.
Fearing that their son might struggle to find a job in the future, Henry and his wife, Mylène, 54, set up a hawker stall selling Neapolitan-style pizzas at Taman Jurong Market and Food Center in February of This year.
Jonus, who is non-verbal, is currently studying at a Special Education School (SPED) in Yishun. He will graduate in two years.
His parents say the roadmap for him after graduation is unclear, as companies that hire people with autism can have long waiting lists.
“It’s not easy for him to find a job,” shares Mylène, housewife and main carer for Jonus.
“We have to think about what happens when we get older… (and we can’t just) depend on his older brother.”
“So we thought, why not start our own business and (include it)?” remembers Henry.
“Jonus loves pizza,” says Mylène, “and we thought it was easier to get him involved in something he’s already interested in.”
In fact, he’s their taster, and every pizza on the menu has his seal of approval.
The initial idea of selling pizza came during Covid, when the couple had plenty of time to research how feasible it would be.
The booth’s pizza oven, custom designed by an Italian chef, was a gift from Mylène’s Italian friend.
It’s also small enough to fit in a peddler’s stand.
That said, finding the perfect pizza dough formula was a challenge, Henry says.
Drawing on his background in the chemical industry, he painstakingly refined the process to account for Singapore’s climate and also honed his pizza stretching skills.
“I made a pizza a week for about a year,” laughs Henry.
Mylène, meanwhile, takes care of the pizza sauce, and has personalized it with a blend of house spices.
The couple decides to open a pizzeria in a hawker center because it is not common to find pizzas in this setting.
He thought this would increase the stand’s appeal, as pizza is usually sold in restaurants.
“We could sell traditional hawker food, but we think it appeals to the taste buds of young people in Singapore,” says Henry.
Gradually introduce Jonus into the company
Although this shop was created with Jonus in mind, Henry and Mylène admit that bringing Jonus into the business will be a long, step-by-step process.
Indeed, children with special needs like Jonus will need a long time to adapt and learn new skills, notes Henry.
They started by training Jonus to fold pizza boxes for the stand, and he now takes about 14 seconds per box.
The next step, Henry hopes, is to teach him how to make dough.
After that, he could move on to assembling pizzas or even cashiering.
For now, Jonus’ parents bring him to the box once a week to familiarize him with the environment.
This is easier said than done as Jonus is extremely sensitive to noise and can be temperamental.
During our interview, a nearby bird starts screeching continuously, causing Jonus to groan in frustration.
Mylène approaches to calm him down and let him know that they will be going home soon, while Henry hunts the offending bird.
Previously, Jonus’ outbursts could be triggered by the sound of children crying, but he has since overcome this.
Obviously, Jonus won’t be able to handle customers anytime soon, as he still isn’t comfortable with too many people around him, but his parents hope he can eventually.
“We will (monitor) his progress over these two years, and see if he is able to do it,” shares Mylène, “But I believe he can do it.”
By exposing him to the business, Henry and Mylène also hope the experience can help Jonus visualize where the money is coming from and help him become more independent.
“We (want) to show him that if you want to get something, you have to work to earn money”, explains Mylène.
Sell 300 pizzas per week
The couple successfully bid for the Taman Jurong Market and Food Center stall in December 2022, after months of trying.
Although it was a long drive from their home in Pasir Ris, Henry felt the relatively quiet neighborhood made it a suitable place to bring Jonus.
They also pay a relatively affordable rent of S$2,000 per month.
Currently the stand is open from 6-9pm Thursday-Saturday, selling 300 pizzas a week.
The grateful couple say this is only possible with the help of their families.
Benjamin, Henry Sebastian’s nephew, and siblings from both sides helped serve customers at the booth.
On WhatsApp, their families discuss the recipes and give their thoughts on how to make the workflow more efficient.
Thanks to their contribution, Henry, the only chef at the stand, was able to reduce the preparation time for each pizza to two minutes.
Three months into the peddling business, the couple acknowledged that despite a thorough planning process, the reality can be difficult.
But they are grateful for the support of their loved ones and of Jonus for being “an understanding child”.
When Jonus sees that his parents are busy, he refrains from disturbing them, but rather makes his needs known afterwards, shares Mylène.
Henry adds that it has been a good learning experience for his family, although he never thought he and his wife would start a peddling business at that age.
Henry’s pizzas are priced at $15 or less.
The crust is soft and chewy, and there’s a nice char on it too. I see the resemblance to a wood-fired pizza.
Henry tells us that he receives a range of clients, from the youngest to the oldest.
The flavor most appreciated by customers? Pepperoni.
Unsurprisingly, it’s also Jonus’ favorite.
In the future, Henry hopes to invest the proceeds from the stand in assistive technology that will make the work of autistic staff, not just Jonus, easier.
These include simplified point-of-sale displays and contactless payment systems such as self-ordering kiosks.
These plans, of course, depend on the stand’s durability, which Henry hopes to assess after a year.
Address: 168 Neapolitan Style Pizza, 3 Yung Sheng Road, #03-168, S618499
Business hours : 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., Thursday to Saturday
Top image by Sheryl Seah.