Singapore eateries struggle with keeping rogue diners in check

Already fighting to survive the pandemic, eateries struggle with absent guests and illegal gatherings

Wine RVLT (above) in Carpenter Street has changed its opening hours to comply with a ban on liquor sales and consumption after 10.30pm.
Wine RVLT (above) in Carpenter Street has changed its opening hours to comply with a ban on liquor sales and consumption after 10.30pm.PHOTO: WINE RVLT

Want to book a table at a restaurant on a Friday or Saturday night? These days, it is not as simple as clicking on an app or making a phone call.

Restaurants which never used to do so are now asking diners for deposits to secure bookings. It is usually a hold on the diner's credit card or an upfront deposit, which typically ranges from $30 to $50 a person.

Chefs and restaurateurs say they have to do this because of no-shows.

Diners not showing up, even when they have confirmed their bookings, is a perennial problem with which many restaurants have long grappled. But it has become more critical because of the new rules for dining in restaurants during the coronavirus pandemic.

Safe distancing measures have meant that seating capacity in most restaurants has been reduced by between 20 and 35 per cent.

The owners and operators of 61 restaurants and nightspots interviewed by The Sunday Times have coped by introducing additional seating, opening for dinner earlier, introducing time limits of 90 or 120 minutes for meals or staying open between lunch and dinner.

Now, they are also taking deposits to guard against no-shows.

They have to tread the fine line between being hospitable, which is what their business is about, and following the rules. Aside from reduced capacity, restaurants also have to ensure that groups of diners cannot be larger than five, guests from different tables cannot mingle, guests must wear masks when they leave the table and no alcohol is to be consumed after 10.30pm.

Flout these restrictions and they face fines and mandatory closures.

While restaurateurs are clear about the rules, and say most of their guests are too, some diners are not.

Ms Angela May, culinary and events director of Deliciae Hospitality Management, says of the five-pax-max rule: "There have been instances where a family of six walks up to the restaurant, wanting to be seated. We say we are super sorry, we can't seat them.

I’d much rather be open at 50 per cent capacity than be forced into closing again. 

RESTAURATEUR LOH LIK PENG, co-founder of #SaveFnBSG, on why chefs and restaurateurs are following the rules to the letter

I advocate that hospitality doesn't mean servitude. We can say no when we have to. Thankfully, a friendly reminder to our guests usually suffices. That policies are, in fact, laws to abide by also helps.

MR SHAWN KISHORE, founder and managing director of Five Ten Holdings, which owns six restaurants and bars, including The Salted Plum and The Nomads

"If one of the children is a baby, what do you do? The family just wants to enjoy a meal out. It's tough."

The group runs five restaurants, including fine-dining Mediterranean restaurant Riviera Forlino at One Fullerton and casual steak-frites eatery L'Entrecote in Duxton Hill.

Owners have also trained staff to deal with situations where diners will not cooperate.

Mr Alvin Gho, co-owner of wine bar-restaurant Wine RVLT in Carpenter Street, says: "Many employees are hesitant to tell patrons when they do not stick to the restrictions. They need to be empowered by the owners to act."

Restaurateur Loh Lik Peng, co-founder of #SaveFnBSG, a coalition of 650 restaurants banding together to survive the pandemic, says: "I think most diners know it's tough on businesses now. Which restaurant wouldn't want to sell you more drinks and have more custom?

"But the reality is that if we want to avoid what is happening in places like Japan and Hong Kong, then we'd better err on the side of caution."

His Unlisted Collection runs 18 restaurants, including Burnt Ends in Teck Lim Road.

NO-SHOWS

Restaurateurs say no-shows are hurting them more because of the hit they took during the circuit breaker, when they could not offer dine-in for about three months. Reduced capacity also means they serve fewer people.

Ms Sarissa Rodriguez-Schwartz, chief executive and co-founder of the SJS Group, which runs six restaurants and nightspots, says the situation has worsened as overseas travel and late-night parties in clubs are now things of the past.

"One of the few opportunities for people to socialise is to dine out. This irresponsible behaviour has always existed. It's just that this is turning into a social norm - when diners feel more entitled now by the fact that the restaurants need them more than they need us."

Enter the deposit.

Chope, a restaurant reservation app, introduced the service in 2016 and had 80 mid-priced and high-end restaurants taking it up.

Post-circuit breaker, another 60 restaurants have signed up for the deposit-collection service.

 
 

Restaurants decide how much of a deposit they want to take.

Mr Dinesh Balasingam, Chope's chief business officer, says the amount depends on the average bill for the restaurant. Usually, it is $30 a person for lunch and $50 for dinner.

Ms Magdalene Tang, owner of Mag's Wine Kitchen in Keong Saik Road, asks for $50 a person to be paid via PayNow.

Ms Rodriguez-Schwartz, whose company runs Bar Milano and Pasta Bar in Keong Saik Road, adds: "I have a booking system called Umai at my venues, where if there is a no-show, the system blocks that contact from being able to ever make a reservation again."

Some restaurants, such as Les Amis in Shaw Centre and Cloudstreet in Amoy Street, have no problem with no-shows. Les Amis takes a $150 deposit - a measure which has been in place for a year. Cloudstreet asks guests to pay upfront for the meal when booking. Dinner costs $198++ a person.

Some restaurants wonder how long they can resist asking for deposits in this climate.

Chef Dylan Ong of The Masses in Beach Road says: "We're hit hardest on weekends. The average number of no-shows is three to four tables, which can come up to roughly 15 people. We're not implementing a credit card deposit yet - we still trust that guests will exercise empathy. We may have to if the problem persists."

His restaurant used to seat 65, but with safe distancing, it now seats 39.

Also resisting is Torasho, a 70-seat izakaya in Tras Street which used to seat 100. Co-owner Tora Widjaja says: "We wanted to implement a deposit system, but were afraid that would scare off customers."

The FOC Group, which runs three Spanish restaurants, is considering a deposit from diners on busy nights.

Its spokesman says: "We try to be as flexible and friendly as possible, but we also need to make sure our reservations are optimised. It is the only way to keep open and afloat each month, after months of operating on 'survival mode' with only delivery service.

"We hope our customers understand that a simple thing like replying to our e-mail or message can make a huge difference in actual people's lives, and may decide whether the restaurant they enjoy today will exist in a few months."

INTERMINGLING

Some diners show up but skirt the five-pax-max rule by booking under different names and asking to be seated near their friends.

Chef Bjorn Shen of Artichoke and Small's, both in Middle Road, had four groups of five book at Artichoke recently. The restaurant staff realised the diners were friends only when they started intermingling with one another.

"It's like trying to manage a bunch of kindergarten kids," he says. "We tell them nicely multiple times and they say okay, then they do it again five minutes later."

When the staff gave a final warning, the guests became upset and accused them of being annoying and providing bad service. The group also did not want to leave at 10.30pm, the closing time, and staff had to plead with them to vacate.

Shen says: "The job of the staff is to provide hospitality. My job as the owner is to protect the business and staff. If I have to anger a few errant groups to do that, that's an easy choice."

Mr Sid Kim, owner of Vatos Urban Tacos at South Beach and Vatos Cantina in Holland Village, has had similar problems.

His manager at the Holland Village outlet called the police on two tables recently - one with four people, the other with three - which had continued intermingling despite several reminders. They were asked to leave, but refused.

The police were called. While this was happening, a passer-by snapped a photo of the groups and told a staff member that the restaurant would be reported for violating safe distancing rules. The group confronted the passer-by and left before the police arrived, Mr Kim says.

"Ninety-nine per cent of customers are understanding and will listen to you. But there are these few who don't care," he says. "Whether you like the measures or not, they are working. We have to stick to them."

Italian restaurant Zafferano at Ocean Financial Centre has also had problems with guests intermingling across tables.

Recently, a guest proposed to his girlfriend and took her to the restaurant's terrace lounge, to be surprised by five friends. They refused to break up the party, despite multiple reminders, and argued with staff.

Mr Vadim Korob, the operations manager, says: "It was only after we mentioned that we would have to escalate the matter to the police that these guests finished up their drinks and left within 10 minutes."

Not all guests are uncooperative. Mr Paolo Campillo, general manager of Parkroyal on Beach Road, says staff at the hotel's Si Chuan Dou Hua Restaurant had to remind guests at two different tables to keep apart. "Fortunately, the guests were understanding and cooperative."

Chef Mano Thevar of modern Indian restaurant Thevar in Keong Saik Road says it has happened once in his restaurant. "We told the guests in a respectful way that the safe distancing measures are there for a reason. We then escorted them back to their table."

ALCOHOL AFTER 10.30PM

In days of yore, diners could stay as late as they wanted, ordering as much booze as they wanted. These days, they need to stop drinking alcohol by 10.30pm - no exceptions.

Some restaurants set closing time at 10.30pm. All the restaurateurs interviewed have staff remind diners as early as 9.30pm that drinking has to stop by 10.30pm. Many give multiple reminders, in 15-to 30-minute intervals. But it can be hard to stop when you are having fun.

Mr Ignatius Chan, co-owner of Iggy's, a one-Michelin-starred restaurant at The Hilton, says: "In the first week after reopening, we encountered a couple of tables giving us a hard time and refusing to stop drinking their wines even after 10.30pm. We had to clear their filled wine glasses. I suspect we may have offended them so much, we lost these regular guests permanently, as we have not seen them back since then."

LeVeL33, a microbrewery and restaurant in Marina Bay Financial Centre Tower 1, has also raised the ire of diners.

Dr Martin Bem, its founder and managing director, says: "The big majority of guests are very cooperative. But, unfortunately, we have had guests becoming angry.

"One even posted a poor one-star review online, complaining of the service and their dining experience because our staff did not give any extension for finishing their drinks beyond 10.30pm."

He says it was "the first one-star review I was really pleased with".

Mr Ronald Kamiyama, a partner of The Cicheti Group, adds: "By 10.25pm, all alcoholic drinks are taken off the tables. Even if they're not done. No exceptions. At 9.30pm, we give each table a reminder, then again at 10pm."

Restaurant staff also have to keep an eye out for guests who forget to put on their masks when they leave the table to go to the restroom or go home. Others have food bloggers and influencers trying to cadge free meals in exchange for publicity.

Ms Tang of Mag's Wine Kitchen says she was approached by one such individual. "The person claimed to be an influencer. I asked why I had never heard of them before and I told them to get lost."

But some restaurateurs say things are getting better as diners come to understand the restrictions and the consequences of not sticking to them.

Some of those interviewed acknowledged that diners have the upper hand in this industry which, like many others, has been devastated by the impact of the coronavirus.

#SaveFnBSG co-founder Beppe de Vito, whose ilLido group runs five restaurants and bars, says: "It's not a one-way street. We restaurant operators are trying not to let the rules affect the experience we give to our customers, by readjusting the way we do things. But we also need the cooperation of our guests.

"It's an uphill struggle for us. On the one hand, we are trying to give people an experience, but on the other, we are telling them what they cannot do.

"Once customers have chosen to patronise us, they don't want to be told what or what not to do. We follow the law and remind our guests of the law, but we need better support to solve the problems."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 23, 2020, with the headline 'Keeping rogue diners in check'. Print Edition | Subscribe