ALTERED STATES

Coronavirus: Some Singapore restaurants shut for the month, others slug it out

Corner House at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, helmed by new chef David Thien, decided against offering takeaways and deliveries as ‘food sourcing has some limitations and challenges’.
Corner House at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, helmed by new chef David Thien, decided against offering takeaways and deliveries as ‘food sourcing has some limitations and challenges’. PHOTO: CORNER HOUSE

The plan was to offer deliveries and takeaways. But after crunching the numbers, chef Bjorn Shen has decided to close his Middle Eastern restaurant, Artichoke, in Middle Road during the circuit breaker month.

He will pay his staff their full salary. His projected loss is more than $30,000 after help from the Government's assistance schemes and relief from his landlord.

"If I got everyone back to do takeaway and delivery orders, settling the mechanics and tech stuff will take a few days. Adoption may take a few more days, by which time we may be some way into circuit breaker month," he says.

"Thereafter, we have to make $10,000 in orders to break even. I don't think we can hit $10,000. That's because the increased demand also comes with a massive increase in supply from other businesses."

So rather than "stressing ourselves out" to roll out deliveries that may result in barely breaking even or even making a loss, he has decided to use the downtime to develop his staff through online courses, video-sharing sessions and work on brand building.

With more stringent safe distancing measures in place since April 7 and no more dining-in anywhere since last Tuesday, restaurants have pivoted to takeaways and deliveries.

But several restaurants - high-end, mid-range and casual - have decided to close for the circuit breaker month, which is scheduled to end on May 4, if the situation improves.

They are doing so for various reasons: They are located in malls, which have turned into ghost towns; they are luxe restaurants that rely on dining-in to deliver a complete experience; or their food is not suitable for takeaways and deliveries.

CLOSED FOR THE MONTH

Among the fine-dining restaurants closed for the month are three-Michelin-starred Les Amis at Shaw Centre; one-Michelin-starred Jaan by Kirk Westaway at Swissotel The Stamford; La Dame de Pic and BBR by Alain Ducasse, both at the Raffles Hotel; and one-Michelin-starred Corner House at the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

A Les Amis spokesman says: "We have no choice but to shut down as dine-in is the core of our business as a fine-dining restaurant."

 
 
 

The spokesman for Corner House, which has new chef David Thien at the helm, says the restaurant decided against offering takeaways and deliveries. "It was not logistically ideal. We will need to order different ingredients on top of the existing ones and, currently, food sourcing has some limitations and challenges," she adds.

Sushi restaurants Shinji at the Carlton Hotel and St Regis, both with one Michelin star; and newly opened Oshino at the Raffles Hotel will also shutter for a month.

Owner Joni Ong says: "We work with the freshest fish and seafood from Japan. With takeaways, the risk is that consumers may not eat our sushi in a timely manner. And the effort is not quite worth it.

"It has already been quite challenging in the last two weeks, negotiating for freight space on drastically reduced flights from Japan and paying premium dollar for these slots."

Others closing temporarily include Indian restaurant Rang Mahal at the Pan Pacific Hotel, one-Michelin-starred Labyrinth at the Esplanade, Gordon Grill and L'Espresso at the Goodwood Park Hotel and Zafferano at Ocean Financial Centre.

Labyrinth owner Han Liguang says: "My main priority is the welfare of my 16 staff. We need to avoid going out and I don't want them to be subject to the risk of infection because they do a job that can't be done at home.

"It's painful, but I think we have to place a priority on their wellbeing."

The staff will take three weeks of no-pay leave, but he says any profits generated when the restaurant is up and running again will go to them.

SLUGGING IT OUT

Not all fine-dining restaurants here are closing temporarily, however.

One-Michelin-starred Iggy's at the Hilton had wanted to do so, but owners Ignatius Chan and Janice Wong are offering takeaways on Fridays and Saturdays to raise money for charity.

Half of its gross sales will go to The Food Bank, a non-profit which aims to end food insecurity in Singapore. Ms Wong says: "We feel very blessed to be in a less precarious position than many of our F&B colleagues and with the Government and landlord's help, we can do something for charity."

Also offering takeaways and deliveries is two-Michelin-starred Zen in Bukit Pasoh Road. One of its owners, restaurateur Loh Lik Peng, says the restaurant will offer dishes such as roast lamb, and also care packages with champagne, caviar and blinis, that people can send to their friends.

He says: "We figured our customers can do with a bit of lifting up at this time."

There is another aim. He has told chefs in his restaurants to earn as much as possible for the foreign staff they employ, who do not qualify for government help.

CASUAL EATERY CONCERNS

Although it might seem natural for mid-range and casual restaurants to offer takeaways and deliveries, some are choosing to close temporarily. Such restaurants include Relish at Frasers Tower; and Les Amis Group restaurants Sushi Jin in Farrer Park and Jinjo and Shabu Shabu Gen, both at Shaw Centre.

A Les Amis Group spokesman says: "Jinjo and Shabu Shabu Gen have decided to close as their regular menus don't travel well for delivery. Sushi Jin has seen a drastic decline in traffic and has made the painful decision to close during this period. Their teams will be using this time to focus on training and menu improvement."

 
 
 

Its casual Vietnamese eatery Comnam at Raffles City will also be closed temporarily as business is dependent on mall traffic.

Relish's chef-owner Willin Low, who also runs Relish at Cluny Court, says: "Restaurants in the Central Business District are hard hit because no one is working there right now. There would be few, if any, takeaways. We will keep everyone for as long as we can, with the revenue from takeaways and deliveries generated by Relish at Cluny Court, government handouts and, hopefully, support from landlords."

Support from and more equitable terms with landlords are what all restaurateurs, whether closing temporarily or not, are asking for.

Mr Desmond Lim, chairman of the Les Amis Group, says: "The current leasing environment does not allow tenants to negotiate with landlords, who have been in the habit of deciding what they can give and announcing their decision.

"There's very little consultation between landlords and tenants. They don't really see the relationship as a partnership, but, rather, a transaction. Most have a very short-term view and don't want to admit it's a lose-lose situation."

He says that when tenants do well in good times, landlords earn higher rental, so they should adjust rentals downwards to reflect significantly reduced footfall in the malls.

"I sincerely hope the relevant authorities or fair competition bodies can help arbitrate fairer terms for tenants.

"Shaw Centre, where more than half of our concepts are located, has been more open to hearing out our current plight and feedback on what rental rebate support we need to see us through this challenging period. We need a way to have a better dialogue with our landlords."

Chef Low adds that help schemes need to extend beyond the circuit breaker month.

"The Government's measures so far are welcome, but we will need more wage support if we are to keep all our staff as revenue will continue to drop drastically."

He thinks that charging tenants 10 to 15 per cent of gross turnover, with no basic rent for six months, would be fair to landlords and tenants. "To ensure the survival of the tenants is to keep the golden goose alive."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 12, 2020, with the headline 'Some restaurants shut for the month, others slug it out'. Print Edition | Subscribe