With F&B in flux, restaurants are...


The constant state of flux in Covid-19 dining restrictions has piled on the pressure for food and beverage businesses, which are already plagued by perennial manpower and rental woes.

In recent weeks, they have had to grapple with dine-in curbs and booking cancellations, while juggling surges in delivery and takeaway orders.

For restaurants that are newly opened or about to open, owners have had to tweak their timelines and plans.

Some older establishments have chosen to throw in the towel or take a break.

Two weeks ago, chef-owner Woo Wai Leong, who won cooking competition MasterChef Asia in 2015, shut three-year-old Restaurant Ibid, which served modern Chinese cuisine, due to staffing issues.

The 33-year-old chef also had to shelve plans for a cafe or bakery, but hopes to reopen Restaurant Ibid in August with a new format that requires fewer staff - counter seating for just 10 to 12 diners.

It will run till at least the end of the year, when his North Canal Road restaurant lease is up.

Chef Woo says he is also facing stiff competition from home-based businesses and private dining outfits. Restaurant owners like him have borne the brunt of Covid-19 restrictions while coping with operating costs.

"With the circuit breaker last year, we saw it coming. But now, we can no longer plan for a few weeks or months ahead. It is a very scary prospect," he adds.

Two other restaurants that have been hit hard by Covid-19 curbs are popular zichar joint Thai Pan in Mandarin Gardens, which closes for good on Wednesday after 18 years; and two-year-old modern izakaya Izy Fook in Club Street, which shut last Monday.

Deejay-host Sonia Chew, one of Izy Fook's partners, tells The Sunday Times that the brand is "taking a break to regroup" and will return with a fresh concept at a new location.


For restaurants that opened just before or during the one-month phase two (heightened alert), their owners are just glad dining in has resumed - even if it is restricted to just two people.

They include Canchita Peruvian Cuisine in Dempsey Hill, seafood eatery Milkfish at Raffles City Shopping Centre and the Mirazur (a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in France that currently tops the World's 50 Best Restaurants list) pop-up at Mandala Club.

Despite the uncertainty, a few more restaurants have opened in the past two weeks - such as Chura Sushi Bar at Suntec City and American-style Joji's Diner in Upper Serangoon.

At two-day-old modern Indian restaurant Firangi Superstar in Craig Road, head chef Thiru Gunasakaran puts a unique spin on classics.

Over at Chijmes, Casa Restaurant by Remy Lefebvre focuses on seafood and vegetables cooked over a woodfire. Reservations have been picking up since it opened last Monday, says chef-partner Lefebvre, 44.

Acknowledging that having a physical space is no longer enough to sustain a business in these uncertain times, the chef is launching an online platform for gourmet produce and a takeaway menu.

The Creative Eateries group has replaced its Barossa restaurant at the Esplanade Mall with a new Italian concept called Dopo Teatro. Barossa has another outlet at VivoCity.

Dopo Teatro offers Italian antipasti, salads, pastas and hand-stretched pizzas featuring Japanese ingredients such as uni, shishamo and smoked unagi.

The pandemic has taught the group to balance its portfolio of brands, which would usually be located in the city, says chief operating officer Bonnie Wong.

"Since July last year, we started taking up more units in suburban areas.

"We are also exploring options to turn our existing kitchens into cloud kitchens without additional investment."

A familiar name making a foray into the F&B scene is Dr Chee Soon Juan - better known as the Singapore Democratic Party's leader, who launched a cafe last Friday with his wife.

Called Orange & Teal, it is at Rochester Mall and serves what he calls "an eclectic mix of Western fare", including Creole Jambalaya ($13.90) and Tuscan-style creamy salmon ($20.80).

One reason for opening the cafe, he says, is to establish a social enterprise.

Profits can go to causes such as climate change, poverty and mental health.

Highlighting the high costs of setting up and running an F&B outlet, Dr Chee says: "High rent means the odds are further stacked against the little guy.

"Corporate chains can more than stomach the high security deposit that landlords typically require and when a crisis like Covid-19 hits, small operators have little room to manoeuvre.

"This is not healthy in encouraging local entrepreneurship. But this is where Singaporeans have a part to play.

"Whenever you go out for a bite or coffee, think about visiting that little cafe in your neighbourhood struggling to make good."


Making its debut in Singapore is San Francisco's cruffin bakery Mr. Holmes Bakehouse, which is slated to open on July 12 at Pacific Plaza.

The brand is brought in by Mr Vijay K. Pillai, 36, chief executive of Caerus Holding. The company is also behind Lady M patisserie here and recently launched a Lady M Champagne Bar at Ion Orchard.

On opening during this period, Mr Vijay says: "The main challenge is the uncertainty and sudden implementation of measures to curb the virus.

"We can have everything planned from months back, but a sudden spike in cases and new regulations that follow may derail our timelines and we have to rethink activation and launch strategies."

Delivery still remains a priority, with 60 per cent of sales coming from takeaways and deliveries.

The Yen Group, which runs yakiniku restaurant Yen Yakiniku in Ann Siang Road, will launch a more casual sister outlet Yen Social at Duo Galleria on Friday.

Mr Tom Kong, 37, the group's founder and managing partner, says revenues fell by more than half when dining in was banned.

"Nothing can replace the gratification of a freshly grilled oyster blade off the binchotan grill... That said, we had been working on a delivery line even before the pandemic so we were prepared."

After a week-long delay, Korean restaurant Nae:um opens in Telok Ayer Street on Thursday. It offers contemporary Seoul cuisine such as chef-founder Louis Han's take on mulhwae, a cold spicy raw fish soup.

The delay gave him more time to work on the menu, says the 31-year-old chef, previously from Meta Restaurant and Kimme.

"The silver lining is that with dine-in limited to two people, I am better able to control the quality of the food and service. The seating plan is also more straightforward," he says.

"The situation changes every day and I used to stress over unknowns. This pandemic has taught me to always be nimble."

More coming your way in July

Next month, more F&B outlets will open. They include craft beer tavern Gone Rogue Brewing at Le Quest Mall in Bukit Batok on July 1 and tendon specialist Tenya's second outlet at Ion Orchard on July 5.

On July 8, Sourbombe Artisanal Bakery - known for its popular sourdough bombolini by MasterChef Singapore alumnus Genevieve Lee - launches its first physical store at Park Mall. On the same day, Tigerlily Patisserie also rolls out its first bricks-and-mortar store in Joo Chiat Road, while sandwich shop Park Bench Deli presents its new Cubano sandwich brand Onda in Lorong Telok. And iconic favourite Chin Mee Chin Confectionery, which closed in December 2018, reopens at its old location in East Coast Road on July 30.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 27, 2021, with the headline With F&B in flux, restaurants are.... Subscribe