Shutters soon at Shashlik

Restaurant offering Russian fare is closing at the end of the year when its lease runs out

When you enter the restaurant, it seems like time inside has stood still. But the restaurant's character quickly seeps in, part of the eatery's magical charm.

The Shashlik restaurant, which serves Russian cuisine, started business on April 23, 1986. Tucked away on the sixth floor of Far East Shopping Centre, the restaurant took over the premises of a former discotheque and is frequented mainly by locals and regular customers.

It was started by nine former employees of the Troika restaurant, which closed in 1985.

Ms Woon Ai Chun, 61, who has worked at the Shashlik restaurant for 11 years, prepares one of the restaurant's signature desserts, the Cherry Jubilee. Ms Jean Jee, 58, catches up on the news while Ms Wee Mui Quee (at right), 56, keeps herself busy as
Ms Jean Jee, 58, catches up on the news while Ms Wee Mui Quee (at right), 56, keeps herself busy as Ms Jenny Lee, 57, takes calls from customers inquiring about reservations. Business has spiked, keeping staff busy, following newspaper reports on the restaurant's impending closure at the end of the year. The restaurant is calling it a day after almost 30 years of operation due to manpower shortages and because the employees are getting old and tired. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

After about a year and a half of unemployment, these ex-Troika staff gathered and decided to chip in their savings to set up Shashlik, named after the dish from the old Troika restaurant, and which means skewered meat in Russian.

Ms Woon Ai Chun, 61, who has worked at the Shashlik restaurant for 11 years, prepares one of the restaurant's signature desserts, the Cherry Jubilee. Ms Jean Jee, 58, catches up on the news while Ms Wee Mui Quee (at right), 56, keeps herself busy as
Mr Han Tong Juan, 77, gets some rest in a corner of the restaurant while Mr Foo Sek Chuan, 75, fills his stomach with a packet of duck rice before the crowds start to arrive at the restaurant for dinner. The Shashlik restaurant, which serves Russian cuisine, started business on April 23, 1986. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

It started with 22 employees, and as business improved, the number rose to 26. Today, there are only five full-time staff members and three to four part-time workers.

ADAPTING TO CHANGE

When I introduced the iPad, the staff were saying that it was so difficult to use. But now they can't make do without the iPad.

MR TAN B.T., operations manager of the restaurant

TIME TO CHANGE ROLES

We have been serving people for so many years, it's about time we were served by others.

MS WEE MUI QUEE, a waitress

"Over the last three years, business has been slow and wages are going up. We also have manpower issues and recruiting of staff is difficult , especially since we work split shifts," said the restaurant's 64-year-old operations manager who wanted to be known only as Mr Tan B.T.

The existing employees are also getting older. The older staff have decided to call it a day when the lease on Shashlik's premises runs out at the end of the year, since business has been slowing down and they are facing stiff competition.

"They felt that they don't have energy to recover the business if anything drastic happens," said Mr Tan, who started working in Troika in 1968.

Although the average age of the staff is about 50, innovation has not daunted them as orders are taken on the iPad.

Ms Woon Ai Chun, 61, who has worked at the Shashlik restaurant for 11 years, prepares one of the restaurant's signature desserts, the Cherry Jubilee. Ms Jean Jee, 58, catches up on the news while Ms Wee Mui Quee (at right), 56, keeps herself busy as
Waitreess Wee Mui Quee, 56, who has worked for 21 years at Shashlik, is the last to leave as she arranges the tables in preparation for the next day's business. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

The iPad system was introduced about two years ago by Mr Tan, who was trying to think of ways to use innovation to save time and address manpower issues.

Ms Woon Ai Chun, 61, who has worked at the Shashlik restaurant for 11 years, prepares one of the restaurant's signature desserts, the Cherry Jubilee. Ms Jean Jee, 58, catches up on the news while Ms Wee Mui Quee (at right), 56, keeps herself busy as
The first thing Mr Foo Sek Chuan does in his daily routine is balancing bottles of ketchup and chilli sauce on top of each other to refill them before the lunch crowd comes in. Mr Foo, 75, started working in the old Troika restaurant in 1979. "Sometimes I do get the bottles mixed up, pouring the chilli sauce into the ketchup bottle," he said. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

"I used the (Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore) grant to reimburse the purchases of the iPads using the Productivity and Innovation Credit.

"The advantage is that the service staff don't have to run in and out of the kitchen, taking and sending orders. As a result, there can be more staff serving customers and it also saves time updating changes in orders," he said.

Ms Woon Ai Chun, 61, who has worked at the Shashlik restaurant for 11 years, prepares one of the restaurant's signature desserts, the Cherry Jubilee. Ms Jean Jee, 58, catches up on the news while Ms Wee Mui Quee (at right), 56, keeps herself busy as
Mr Foo using an iPad to check on orders. Beside it is the old board where the staff used to clip on the orders in the kitchen. When the iPad was introduced almost two years ago, it met with some resistance because many staff members were used to taking orders traditionally using a notepad or even memorising them, but these days they find the iPad a necessity in their work. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

However, there was initial resistance to using the iPad.

"When I introduced the iPad, the staff were saying that it was so difficult to use. But now they can't make do without the iPad," Mr Tan said with a chuckle.

Ms Woon Ai Chun, 61, who has worked at the Shashlik restaurant for 11 years, prepares one of the restaurant's signature desserts, the Cherry Jubilee. Ms Jean Jee, 58, catches up on the news while Ms Wee Mui Quee (at right), 56, keeps herself busy as
Madam Tan Kai Buay (above, with a kitchen staff member, Madam Too Lee Moi) is the restaurant's oldest employee at age 78. She prepares the vegetables for the salads that accompany the shashlik dish. She works mainly in the kitchen and specialises in delicately slicing the eggs into a floral pattern to hold the caviar for the restaurant's Caviar with Egg dish. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

As for the future of Shashlik, he said: "Pending the closure, there are interested parties that want to take over the restaurant, and at this point in time, negotiations are ongoing."

"We have been serving people for so many years, it's about time we were served by others," said Ms Wee Mui Quee, 56, a waitress at Shashlik, half in jest.

Ms Woon Ai Chun, 61, who has worked at the Shashlik restaurant for 11 years, prepares one of the restaurant's signature desserts, the Cherry Jubilee. Ms Jean Jee, 58, catches up on the news while Ms Wee Mui Quee (at right), 56, keeps herself busy as
Ms Woon Ai Chun, 61, who has worked at the Shashlik restaurant for 11 years, prepares one of the restaurant's signature desserts, the Cherry Jubilee. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 27, 2015, with the headline 'Shutters soon at Shashlik'. Print Edition | Subscribe