A couple sets up a pizza stand at Taman Jurong Food Center to provide a job for an autistic son – Mothership.SG
Follow us on Telegram for the latest updates: https://t.me/mothershipsg
“This business is created for generations to come,” now entrepreneur and peddler Henry Teong, 56, tells me.
He’s mainly referring to his 16-year-old son, Jonos, who has autism.
Concerned that their son might have trouble finding work in the future, Henry and his wife Melinne, 54, set up a hawker stall selling Neapolitan-style pizza at Taman Jurong Market and Food Center in February this year.
Junos, who is non-verbal, is currently studying at the School of Special Education (SPED) in Yishun. He will graduate in two years.
His parents feel the roadmap for him after graduation is unclear, given that companies that hire people with autism can have long waiting lists.
“It’s not easy for him to find work,” shares Mellen, a housewife and primary caregiver for Junos.
“We have to think about what happens when we get old… (and we can’t just) count on his older brother.”
“So we thought, why not start our own business and (incorporate it)?” Henry remembers.
“Junos loves pizza,” Mellen explains, “and we figured it was easier to get him into something that actually interested him.”
In fact, it’s their designated taste lab, and all of the pizzas offered on the menu carry their seal of approval.
The initial idea of selling pizza came during Covid, when the couple had plenty of time to research how feasible it was.
The kiosk’s pizza oven, custom-built by a chef in Italy, was a gift from Mylene’s Italian friend.
It’s also small enough to fit in a hawker booth.
However, finding the perfect formula for pizza dough has been a challenge, Henry says.
Drawing on his background in the chemical industry, he’s carefully tuned the process to account for Singapore’s climate, and honed his pizza-stretching skills, too.
“I made one pizza a week for about a year,” laughs Henry.
Mylene, on the other hand, is in charge of the pizza sauce, and he customized it with a homemade spice blend.
The couple decided to set up a pizza shop in the hawker center because it is not common to find pizza in this place.
He thought this would increase the kiosk’s appeal, as pizza is usually sold in restaurants.
“We can sell traditional hawker food, but we feel this caters to the tastes of young people in Singapore,” Henry explains.
Gradually facilitating the entry of Junos into the business
While this shop was created with Jonus in mind, Henry and Mylene admit that getting Jonus into the business will be a long, step-by-step process.
This is because children with special needs like Junos will need a long time to adjust and acquire new skills, Henry notes.
They started by training Jonus to fold pizza boxes for the kiosk, and it now takes about 14 seconds per box.
Henry hopes the next step will be to teach him how to make dough.
After that, he might advance to assembling pizzas, or even running a cashier.
For now, Junos’ parents bring him to the booth once a week to introduce him to the environment.
This is easier said than done because Jonus is very sensitive to noise and can be moody.
During our interview, a nearby bird started screeching incessantly, causing Junos to moan in frustration.
Mylene goes to comfort him and tell him they will be home soon, while Henry turns away from the offending bird.
Previously, Junos’ seizures could be triggered by the sound of babies crying, but he’s since gotten over that.
It’s clear that Jonus won’t be able to handle clients anytime soon, as he’s still uncomfortable with a lot of the people around him but his parents still hope he’ll eventually be able to do it.
“We’ll (watch) his progress over those two years, and see if he can take it,” Mellen shares, “but I think he can make it.”
By exposing him to the business, Henry and Mylene also hope the experience will help Junos visualize where the money comes from and help him become more independent.
“We (want to) show him that if you want to have something, you have to work to make money,” Mellen explains.
Selling 300 pizzas a week
The couple successfully bid for the booth at Taman Jurong Market and Food Center in December 2022, after months of trying.
Although it is a long drive from their home in Pasir Reis, Henry felt that the relatively quiet neighborhood made it a suitable location to bring Junos.
They also pay a relatively affordable rent of S$2,000 per month.
Right now, the kiosk is open from 6pm to 9pm Thursday to Saturday, selling 300 pizzas a week.
The grateful couple says this is only possible with the help of their families.
Benjamin, Sebastian, Henry’s nephew, as well as siblings on both sides serve customers at the booth.
On WhatsApp, their families discuss recipes, and provide feedback on how to make the workflow more efficient.
With their input, Henry, the only chef at the booth, was able to reduce the preparation time for each pizza to two minutes.
Three months after starting the hawker business, the couple acknowledged that although there was a thorough planning process, the reality could be tough.
But they are grateful for the support received from their loved ones and Junos for being an “understanding child”.
When Junos noticed his parents were busy, he would refrain from bothering them, but instead made his needs known afterwards, as Mylene shared.
Henry adds that it was a good learning experience for his family, although he never thought that he and his wife would start a hawker business at that age.
Henry’s Pizza is S$15 or less.
The crust is soft and fluffy, and there’s a nice grease on it, too. I see the resemblance of a wood-fired pizza.
Henry tells us he gets a range of clients, from young to old.
The most popular flavor with customers? Pepperoni.
Unsurprisingly, it’s also Jonus’ favorite.
In the future, Henry hopes to invest the profits from the booth into assistive technology that will make it easier for employees with autism, not just Junos, to work there.
These include simplified point-of-sale offerings and contactless payment systems such as self-ordering kiosks.
These plans depend, of course, on the sustainability of the kiosk, something Henry hopes to assess in a year’s time.
Title: 168 Neapolitan Style Pizza, 3 Yung Sheng Rd, #03-168, S618499
work hours: From 6 pm to 9 pm, from Thursday to Saturday
Top photo by Cheryl C.