F&B associations warn of impending closures with operators hard hit by 'go-no-go' Covid-19 curbs

People dining at a restaurant in The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands on Sept 25, 2021. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
New restrictions were announced on Sept 24, allowing dining-in at eateries only in fully vaccinated groups of two from Sept 27 to Oct 24. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
People dining at The Hainan Second Street restaurant at the IMM building in Jurong East on Sept 25, 2021. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN
People dining at a restaurant in Junction 8 mall on Sept 25, 2021. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH
People dining at Northpoint City on Sept 25, 2021. ST PHOTO: YEO SHU HUI

SINGAPORE - The slew of changes to the safe management measures for food and beverage operators has taken a toll on businesses in the sector, said employers, staff and business associations.

Operators cited challenges such as gauging the quantity of ingredients to order, as well as allocating adequate manpower to enforce various safety restrictions.

Mr Desmond Tan, owner of Tribeca bar and Bistro, said the frequent changes in restrictions affect the flow of customers.

This means it is difficult to plan how much food he has to order, "so we end up buying smaller quantities which, of course, increases costs, reducing an already wafer-thin margin", he told The Straits Times.

Food suppliers have also been affected due to restaurants cutting down or even halting orders completely, Mr Tan said.

These suppliers "go through an even harder time as they haven't been given as much support but are a part of the restaurant ecosystem", he said, noting that some have downsized or shut down during the heightened alert period.

Business associations for the sector said that government aid has gone some way in cushioning the impact, but cautioned there could be closure of businesses and loss of jobs in the coming months if fluctuations in restrictions that impact operations continue.

New restrictions were announced on Friday (Sept 24), allowing dining in at eateries only in fully vaccinated groups of two from Monday to Oct 24. This is down from the current limit of groups of five.

A set of earlier rules had disallowed dining in completely at all establishments.

A spokesman for the Restaurant Association of Singapore said the "start-stop, go-no-go" changes in rules are taking a toll on F&B businesses, creating fatigue among staff who have to constantly adapt to last-minute changes.

"This results in additional unplanned costs, (ranging from) the cost of goods to manpower, which have been exceptionally tough for F&B businesses to manage during the last 20 months," the spokesman said.

He acknowledged that government aid has helped, but added: "We can't say for sure how long the assistance will go to keep F&B brands going, as well as protect the jobs of our F&B crew."

Help available for F&B operators include the Jobs Support Scheme, which gives employers wage support to help them retain their local workers. It will provide subsidies for 25 per cent of employees' wages from Monday to Oct 24.

The Government will also provide a two-week rental waiver for qualifying tenants on government-owned commercial properties, while qualifying tenant-occupiers and owner-occupiers of privately owned commercial properties will be given a two-week rental relief cash payout under the Rental Support Scheme.

Cooked food and market stallholders in centres managed by the National Environment Agency (NEA) or NEA-appointed operators will receive a two-week rental waiver.

Mr Kung Teong Wah, who sits on the Food and Beverage Management Association's executive committee, warned that while bigger players like hotel and restaurant chains may be able to recover, small business owners may not be able to survive long with so many changes.

Eateries that may not be suited for takeaways or small group sizes have been hardest hit.

Mr Elton Seah, owner and chef at HolyCrab in Stamford Road, said there has been a 60 per cent overall drop in orders in the past two weeks.

The new restriction allowing dine-ins only in groups of two has not helped the situation at the restaurant, which specialises in crab dishes and seafood.

"Not all restaurants are the same. Two-pax dine-in may remain conducive to some cuisines, but for hearty family-style restaurants like ours, it has been destructive," Mr Seah said.

Owner and chef of HolyCrab Elton Seah at his restaurant at Arcade @ The Capitol Kempinski Hotel on Sept 24, 2021. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

One worry is that the restaurant may not be able to use up its current batch of live seafood - fish, lobster and Alaskan crab - although it had already reduced its orders recently.

"We have received cancellations for this weekend after (the changes) were announced, and are expecting more for the weeks ahead," he said.

Professor Lawrence Loh of the National University of Singapore Business School said the drop in sales at restaurants could also be due to apprehension about dining in, cost concerns and takeaway fatigue.

"It has been a long-drawn pandemic... If you look at consumer behaviour like eating habits, a lot of people may be quite tired of deliveries and takeaways," he said, noting that many are exploring other food options or going back to cooking.

But the ray of hope is that with every trend, this will not be permanent.

"Even if restaurants have a dip in sales now, it won't persist forever - it will run in a cycle. People will naturally want more food options and go back to ordering from restaurants," Prof Loh said.

Employees at F&B outlets have also been affected - when restrictions change, they are the ones who have to pass on the message to customers who may not be aware of the new rules.

The management team at Western restaurant LeVeL33 said it receives a high volume of calls from guests whenever new changes are announced.

"Our (staff) are rushing to ensure they understand the new rules clearly, so they can communicate them in a way that avoids ambiguity and frustration," it said.

Guests checking in with SafeEntry at LeVeL33 on Sept 25, 2021. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Mr Eric Lim, 33, an employee at a Japanese restaurant, said that occasionally, there are customers who refuse to maintain social distance or to wait for staff to check their vaccination and check-in statuses before entering the restaurant.

He said: "It can be frustrating to be in such a situation, but we will try to remind them at least three times. Usually, they will gladly follow our advice when we ask them to."

Meanwhile, diners who were out and about on Saturday expressed frustration at the constant changes in restrictions.

Sales manager Danny Lee, 42, who was at a noodle restaurant in Yishun's NorthPoint City mall with his wife and son, said: "We were previously given the assurance and confidence that we will definitely open up... (the changes) cause a lot of confusion."

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