Dining curbs

Eateries hit harder this time round

Some restaurants are seeing their business dip to new lows and are bracing themselves for worse to come as Singaporeans start to travel abroad

Food and beverage (F&B) operators are bemoaning that revenues have taken a nosedive, even more than in the past, with current restrictions that allow only two vaccinated people to dine together.

The restrictions started on Sept 27 and are expected to be reviewed soon.

Previously, a two-person dine-in rule was imposed from June 21 to July 11, and there were various periods when five people were allowed to dine together, the last one running from Aug 10 to Sept 26.

Mr Indra Kantono, co-founder of the Jigger & Pony Group, says weekly revenue for his eateries has dropped further by 15 to 20 per cent, compared with the last time when two persons were allowed to dine in.

The group operates eateries like Italian restaurant Caffe Fernet at Customs House and Humpback, a modern seafood restaurant and bar in Bukit Pasoh Road.

Other restaurateurs report a similar dismal trend.

Dr Martin Bem of Western restaurant LeVeL33 in Marina Bay Financial Centre calls this "the lowest sales for a period with some form of dining in allowed".

He says "only the lockdowns had worse performances".

Compared with May, when five persons were allowed to dine in, revenue for his restaurant has dipped 25 per cent.

The drop is even bigger - 70 per cent - at Erwin's Gastrobar in Marina Bay Link Mall, which he also operates.

Both Casa Restaurant by Remy Lefebvre, a woodfire restaurant at Chijmes, and contemporary Australian restaurant Salted & Hung in Purvis Street estimate a 40 per cent decrease this month, compared with last month.

Chinese restaurants, which traditionally thrive on communal dining, and filling big tables, are especially hit.

The managing director of Famous Treasure in Capitol Piazza and Famous Kitchen in Sembawang Road, Mr Jeff Foo, says: "We are more badly affected than previous periods when dining in was restricted to two and five persons and business is a far cry from pre-Covid-19 times. Our business has decreased by 95 per cent."

He adds: "Chinese restaurants cater mainly for families and bigger groups. Furthermore, many people are afraid of dining out now as cases have been on the rise."

Hotpot eatery Li Ji Chuan Chuan Xiang, with outlets in South Bridge Road and Jalan Besar, has also taken a battering.

Its director, Mr William Teo, says because families can no longer dine out together with the two-person rule in place, its business has been down by up to 70 per cent.

Restaurateurs also blame the dismal showing on pandemic fatigue, with diners losing the enthusiasm to dine out, as seen in earlier periods when rules were relaxed.

There is also poorer appetite for takeaway and delivery this time, as the pandemic grinds on indefinitely.

Says LeVeL33's Dr Bem: "During the circuit breaker last year, people still lived with an adventurous spirit. Every time heavy restrictions set in, this spirit dissipated slowly. So people spend less on dining at home. Our wine suppliers tell us the same story.

"We saw a steady decline of about 10 to 20 per cent during each of these restrictive periods for deliveries and takeaway."

Jigger & Pony's Mr Kantono says delivery sales for his outlets is now negligible.

In the case of Salted & Hung, demand has been so poor that it stopped offering takeaway and delivery altogether.

Sadly, the upcoming Christmas and New Year festivities do not bring cheer to ailing restaurateurs at all.

Most say that with the constant rule changes and uncertainty ahead, it is impossible to make any plans.

Traditionally, year-end celebratory bookings, especially for big groups, are made around October, but few have come in thus far.

Wagyu specialist The Gyu Bar in Stevens Road has held off taking festive bookings as yet.

Co-founder Karen Cheng says: "It's simply impossible to plan in advance with a fluid and uncertain situation. We do not know if we can accept groups of two, five or eight persons.

"For now, we aim to keep operations flexible and stay open to the inevitable changes."

Famous Treasure's Mr Foo laments: "It is difficult to plan new promotions or marketing activities as rules may change again. We have to take it one day at a time and be conservative."

Only a minority are more optimistic, such as Mr Kelvin Ng, director of KM7, which owns hotpot chain Coca, casual Thai chain Tuk Tuk Cha and Japanese izakaya Kakurega (The Lair) in Chinatown.

He is rolling out festive plans and expects bookings to return once the Covid-19 situation stabilises and government regulations ease. But even though he has received inquiries for year-end gatherings, he notes bookings are still "significantly reduced", compared with the past.

One common fear among all interviewed in the F&B industry is that the new Vaccinated Travel Lanes (VTL) with 11 countries will deal another death blow to the dining scene here.

Mr Vadim Korob, managing director of Food Concepts Group, which owns the newly opened Griglia Open Fire Italian Kitchen in Craig Road, says: "We believe that with more travel borders opening up, a lot of local consumers will go for their long-delayed holidays, which will greatly affect the festive season here."

Ms Nuria Gibert, director of Spanish eatery Restaurant Gaig in Stanley Street, notes the incongruity of the situation: "Now that there are VTLs open with more countries, people are leaving Singapore.

"You can go to Europe and watch a football match in a stadium with 40,000 people in it, but in Singapore, you cannot have lunch with your husband and your son at the same table."

Chef-owner Drew Nocente of Salted & Hung echoes the same worries.

"With the travelling restrictions easing up, residents are going away for their long-awaited holidays. If we don't ease up on the dining restrictions, Singapore will be the least attractive destination to visit," he says.

The Restaurant Association of Singapore, which has more than 500 members, also fearfully anticipates a "travel imbalance" for the F&B industry here.

Its president Andrew Kwan says: "While we can expect many Singaporean families to take advantage of travel to the 11 VTL destinations after two years of Covid-19 restrictions, the reverse is unlikely if our present dine-in rules and other safe management measures remain.

"Few, if any, overseas families would choose to fly to a destination with more restrictive Covid-19 rules than where they come from.

"So with Singaporeans likely to be flying out en masse and those coming in capped at 3,000 persons daily, domestic F&B operators may see all the remaining wind sucked out from our already flagging sails."

He hopes the multi-ministry task force can at least relax the rules for fully vaccinated members of a household to dine out together.

At the base level, it helps to uplift spirits, he says.

"On that note, a little music helps too," he adds hopefully.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 17, 2021, with the headline 'Eateries hit harder this time round'. Subscribe