Restaurants v Covid-19: The fight for survival in Singapore's F&B scene

Until Aug 18, or perhaps for longer, diners are banned from eating places. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

SINGAPORE - After a year of pivoting and scrambling while being hammered by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the food and beverage scene has been dealt yet another blow.

Until Aug 18, or perhaps for longer, diners are banned from eating places. Food businesses can offer only takeaways and deliveries as Singapore grapples with new clusters of infections - this time involving fishmongers, KTV lounge patrons and the hostesses that flit among these nightspots like butterflies.

Singapore had barely emerged from the heightened alert phase, when eating places could not welcome diners. Then, people could dine out in pairs, before the Government decided to allow groups of five into restaurants. Just when food business owners were heaving sighs of relief, the emergence of the two clusters prompted a rethink in the dining-out rules.

Initially, the rules reverted to parties of two, although groups of five were allowed if the entire group was fully vaccinated. What followed was a few days of confusion as food businesses had to figure out what permutations of diners - fully vaccinated, partly vaccinated, not vaccinated and whether they were from the same household - they could welcome.

For Mr Aidan Wee, co-owner of Fleurette, a small restaurant in Rangoon Road serving contemporary food with Asian and Western influences, figuring it out was like trying to "crack the Da Vinci Code".

The Straits Times ran graphics on what combinations of diners were allowed, and there were at least two apps to help restaurants figure things out, before eating places were closed to diners from July 22.

Since then, restaurant staff have been calling diners to cancel or reschedule reservations, or persuade them to order food for delivery or pickup.

Mr Vadim Korob, managing director of Zafferano Italian Restaurant & Lounge at Ocean Financial Centre, says he is looking at a slew of cancellations.

"They are telling us that they do not want to even consider postponing their bookings as they cannot be certain of what will be announced by the Government in the coming weeks," he adds.

Interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, who collectively run more than 70 casual, mid-range and high-end restaurants, paint a grim picture.

Down the drain

Aside from the loss in revenue, restaurants have had to grapple with ingredients ordered for dine-in menus which, in some cases, cannot be used for takeaway or delivered food.

Mr Reuben Chua, chief operating officer of Yun Nans, which has three restaurants serving food from Yunnan, China, says: "We are expecting huge losses as we have already ordered ingredients such as seafood to cater to the dine-in crowd."

Restaurateur Loh Lik Peng - whose Unlisted Collection group runs restaurants such as the one-Michelin-starred Burnt Ends and Chinese restaurant Majestic, and who is one of the owners of two-Michelin-starred Zen - says high-end restaurants will have a lot of perishable ingredients.

"These are very, very expensive perishables, such as truffles, caviar and cheese. They are not going to keep for a month."

Mr Beppe de Vito of the ilLido Group, which runs seven restaurants and bars, says: "We are transferring as many ingredients as possible to our restaurants that will be operating for delivery and takeaway.

"For ingredients that we can't transfer, we had to promote them so they don't go to waste. The moment news broke about the suspension of dine-in, we extended a promotion on our oysters at our rooftop oyster bar Southbridge, on July 20 and 21, giving half a dozen oysters free with every bottle of wine or spirit ordered."

The FOC Group, which runs Spanish restaurants in Hongkong Street and Sentosa, says it is looking at thousands of dollars' worth of ingredients it cannot use for its takeaway menus.

A spokesman says: "It is a very difficult situation for us, as our dine-in menu is different from the takeaway and delivery menu. We work with a lot of fresh and imported produce, which is very costly and best consumed for dine-in service. The wastage will be high and the cost will be substantial. But, like any F&B outlet in Singapore, we will do our best to minimise the wastage, although it is not possible in many cases."

Picanhas', a steak restaurant in Club Street, is looking at $8,000 to $12,000 worth of perishable ingredients that need to be used up.

A spokesman says: "We are blessed to have dedicated chefs who are very innovative and are able to curate new dishes and have them on our delivery menu."

Not every restaurant is in the same predicament, though.

A spokesman for Greenwood Fish Market, which has three restaurants, says: "We were able to cancel some shipments to avoid any excess. Fortunately, since we import fresh seafood directly, we can manage our supply and demand schedule based on projected business.

"Experience has provided us with an estimated idea of the volume that we can expect. With the cooperation of our suppliers, we thankfully do not have much of a loss."

A matter of survival

Until Aug 18, or perhaps for longer, diners are banned from eating places. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

The Government announced on July 23 a $1.1 billion relief package for firms and workers in sectors most affected by the harsher Covid-19 restrictions.

The package includes up to 60 per cent support from the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS) for the F&B sector from last Thursday to Aug 18.

Also included: rental relief for tenants of government-owned commercial properties, and tenant-occupiers and owner-occupiers of privately owned commercial properties.

The Finance Ministry is also looking at how to require rental obligations to be shared fairly among the Government, landlords and qualifying tenants.

On the same day, however, #savefnbsg - a group representing more than 500 restaurant owners, set up last year to help one another survive the effects of the pandemic - sent an open letter to Finance Minister Lawrence Wong and Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong.

The group says it is heartened that the Government "has heard the pain points of the various impacted sectors".

But it adds that the industry continues to be heavily affected by the rounds of closures, changing rules and restrictions, and lack of proactive support to protect their businesses.

It is asking the Government to consider six weeks of rental rebates to be given directly to tenants, for the JSS support to include foreigners working in F&B, for the scheme to be extended until Sept 30, and for waivers of the foreign-worker levy and work-permit related fees.

The group also wants the Government to engage it in decisions that will affect its businesses. It suggests a task force be set up for the sector.

"Sudden closures without sufficient time to plan and organise resources have repeatedly impacted the industry, causing an unnecessary burden on the businesses."

The letter also says: "The F&B industry is at the point of decimation, with many businesses at the brink of closure."

One such restaurant is Daya, a halal izakaya in Jalan Kayu. Business dropped 70 per cent the last time restaurants were closed to diners.

A spokesman says: "We might have to fold if the ban on dining in restaurants is lengthened. Rental and wage support needs to be higher. Sorry, this seems more like a plea than a request, but it is what it is."

Mr Gibran Baydoun, founder of Lucali BYGB, the Singapore outpost of the popular Brooklyn pizza restaurant, says he had been getting ready to celebrate the first anniversary of his restaurant.

He says: "I would be lying if I didn't acknowledge the anxiety around our financial situation. We were finally finding our footing from the last heightened measures and so it is a big blow."

Chef Drew Nocente of Salted & Hung, a contemporary Australian restaurant in Purvis Street, says: "I won't lie, restrictions like this hurt. When you add the extra cost of packaging, deliveries and lower margins, it makes it very hard to survive. At times like this, our main goal is to look after our team. They are our main priority and we will dig deep to make sure we can look after them."

Keeping cash flow going is crucial, the food businesses say.

Unlisted's Mr Loh says his restaurants will offer family-style meals with friendly prices because "there is no way you can charge $300 for takeout".

He adds: "We have to swallow our pride and do what we need to do to feed our teams. It's do or die. This is a killer blow. A significant number of people would have depleted all their resources."

Other food businesses are also asking for rental relief and wage support.

A spokesman for the Spa Esprit Group, which runs restaurants such as Drunken Farmer, Tiong Bahru Bakery and Open Farm Community, says that apart from longer and more help from the JSS, rental and levy rebates, it would also like extended financing of the ART (antigen rapid test) kits.

"Every initiative and support counts," a spokesman says.

Uncertain future

Until Aug 18, or perhaps for longer, diners are banned from eating places. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

The healthy orders of food from restaurants during last year's circuit breaker tapered off significantly when restaurants were closed to diners during the heightened alert measures. It is too early to tell what food orders will be like for the next four weeks.

Chef Anthony Yeoh of Summer Hill, a French bistro in Sunset Way, says: "It just feels like we've been treading water for the past year, waiting for the lifeboats to get to us. We want to get out of the water and back on dry land. A lot of our colleagues and peers have already sunk. It feels like we lost a whole year to this pandemic."

The effort to come up with compelling takeout and delivery offerings might not translate to more orders, as Singaporeans grow weary of the endless struggle to tame the pandemic and wary of new variants of the virus and clusters of infections.

Mr Eugene Goh, co-owner of Rebel Rebel, a restaurant and natural wine bar in Bukit Pasoh, says: "I am worried for my staff. They signed up to work in a restaurant, not a central kitchen. They thrive on the hustle of service on a busy night, and we haven't had many of those recently.

"It's been increasingly difficult to keep a positive outlook, but I believe Singapore will be able to open up once we reach sufficiently high vaccination levels. My hope is that this is just around the corner, and we just have to soldier through this trying phase."

Mr Thaddeus Yeo, one of the owners of Lolla, a small-plates restaurant in Ann Siang Road, hopes the Government can push harder to get more people vaccinated.

He adds: "As a business and an employer, we are focusing on looking forward. In other words, we are optimistic that Singapore will hit our targeted vaccination numbers on schedule and we will then shift to 'endemic mode'. In the meantime, we are willing to take a hit financially, to support the needs of our community and our employees."

For some, however, the future is not quite so bright.

Fleurette's Mr Wee says: "Nobody has any idea what kind of climate we will reopen to on Aug 18. We have no indication of what size the dine-in groups will be, or if the ban will be extended like in the last round. Everyone needs something to look forward to."

Chef Willin Low, who runs Relish at Cluny Court, and Relish and Roketto Izakaya at Frasers Tower, says: "I think we will see another round of restaurant closures.

"It's like being hit in the head, standing up and being hit again. And again. We just have to keep standing up until we can't anymore."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.