Summer Hill chef has to keep thinking one step ahead to cope with Covid-19 pandemic

Chef Anthony Yeoh has rented a car to make deliveries, should food delivery drivers not show up.
Chef Anthony Yeoh has rented a car to make deliveries, should food delivery drivers not show up. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

SINGAPORE - Ask chef Anthony Yeoh how many new Covid-19 cases there are in Singapore on any given day and, chances are, he will be able to give the right answer.

He has a spreadsheet tracking the numbers. "It's the nerd in me," he says.

Well, that is not the whole story.

The fate of his French bistro, Summer Hill in Sunset Way, depends on those numbers going down and dine-in resuming.

So even as restaurants were getting ready to welcome diners from Monday (June 21), he says he does not want to get his hopes up, during this interview last week.

It turns out, his instincts are right. Dining in restaurants is capped at two people a table, until at least the middle of next month.

This ruling, announced last Friday, is the latest dip in the roller-coaster ride that has been the life of chefs and restaurateurs since the pandemic wreaked havoc on the food and beverage (F&B) scene.

He says: "Allowing tables of two will definitely help sales, keeping in mind that what most restaurants are earning now is so little that it's a low bar to beat. It may be enough to survive, but not enough to thrive."

What restaurants will not have is revenue from bigger groups celebrating birthdays or turning up for family dinners. Under the new rules, pairs of diners from the same household have to sit at different tables.

"The spending tends to be lower. Two children sitting at a table are not going to be spending very much compared with two adults we might have to turn away."

The 39-year-old, who trained at At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy, worked in restaurants such as the now-defunct Cocotte before opening the 34-seat Summer Hill in 2018. It cost him $80,000, which came from his savings and a loan from his family.

Although he had worked as a chef for about 10 years before he opened his own restaurant, it was a challenge getting Summer Hill up, running and thriving.

He says: "It was about getting the right menu mix and right price point, building relationships with customers, learning how to manage a business as a whole...

I was just starting to find my feet when the pandemic came along."

It was all kind of new

When Covid-19 cases started going up in Singapore early last year and he saw how other countries were going into lockdown, he figured it would happen here too.

"It was a new challenge. For customers, it was all kind of new too. No one felt this was the end. No one was so fatigued by Covid-19."

He sat his team of six down. "I said, my goal is: Let's just survive this. Everyone in F&B around the world is struggling. I am not going to retrench or cut salaries. If it came down to the wire, I told them I would pay them first."

Seeing how restaurants around the world turned to a takeaway-and-delivery model, he decided he would gear up to do the same.

Chef Anthony Yeoh owns Summer Hill, a casual French restaurant in Sunset Way. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

One team member sourced for packaging. There is limited space at the restaurant, so chef Yeoh stored it at home.

As many restaurateurs now know, it later became a nightmare to source for and buy food packaging with a sudden surge of demand from restaurants which could offer only takeaways and deliveries.

Chef Yeoh and his head chef Christopher Soh, 34, worked out a menu of food that would travel well. He also wanted to sell do-it-yourself kits - cooked, vacuum-packed food customers could buy to reheat at home.

He leased a chiller to add to the existing one, as well as a vacuum packer. He also bought a chest freezer for stocks and gravies.

"I just wanted to be ready. If there was no lockdown, I'm out $1,000. I was willing to take that chance."

A week later, on April 7 last year, Singapore went into circuit breaker mode. Chef Yeoh says: "When it happened, the team was calm. Our prep work boosted morale."

It was heady times.

He says: "In the lead-up to circuit breaker, everybody was spending like crazy in the restaurant, eating like the world was ending. Lunch business went up because the CBD crowd came to us when people started working from home. They would bring bottles of champagne, have three-hour lunches."

That continued through the circuit breaker. Customers ordered big sharing dishes - stuffed Challans ducks, veal chops - and food for Zoom parties and for family and friends.

Chef Yeoh was on GrabFood before the pandemic, but dropped out because of the high 30 per cent commission it charged restaurants. He switched to Lalamove, which charges by distance, starting at $13 a trip.

He rented a car "in case Lalamove didn't work out, if the drivers didn't show up, if we had messed up an order" and did some deliveries, three or four at each mealtime, himself.

When he could, he would stuff brochures he had printed, with the restaurant's menu and ordering information, into letterboxes "until the security guards chased (him) away". It cost him $350 to print 5,000 brochures.

He says: "Even if we got just three to four orders, they would have paid for the brochures."

At the same time, he was also dealing with new safety regulations. The team had to work out what masks were most comfortable to wear while cooking, do temperature checks and deal with safe distancing ambassadors.

It wore him down.

But there was an upside to all this.

"The circuit breaker opened up a whole segment of takeaway business we didn't have before," he says. "Once people could eat in restaurants again, orders dropped. But it was still 25 to 30 per cent of what we did during that time. That's revenue we never had before."

In fact, his business grew by about 30 per cent during the circuit breaker.

When restaurants opened to diners again, they came in droves to Summer Hill.

While some restaurants stopped offering deliveries and takeaways, he continued.

That proved to be a good decision because December was a good month for the restaurant, with big orders of dishes such as Boeuf Bourguignon and stuffed duck for Christmas celebrations.

Chef Yeoh did well enough to grow his team from six to seven.

Chef Anthony Yeoh with Summer Hill head chef Christopher Soh packing food orders. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

But it was a different story during the recent one-month phase two (heightened alert), when dining in was banned again.

Many F&B owners swung into action quickly. They had their suppliers locked down - for packaging and ingredients.

Many restaurants also already had their takeaway and delivery game mapped out.

But where were the customers? He says: "Sales dropped like crazy. You could hear the crickets."

The average bill was about $160 during the circuit breaker.

That has dropped to about $100. He is not getting orders for Zoom parties. There are fewer orders for family and friends.

Business is down 50 per cent.

"Food businesses started slashing prices," he says. "I understand. It's an emotional response. But we had built up a war chest and hadn't spent it on anything much. I had wanted to make sure we had enough reserves, so I wouldn't have to make short-term decisions."

He thinks people are ordering less because the pandemic has worn them down.

Some are watching their waistlines after putting on weight during the circuit breaker and also being more careful with their spending because of the uncertainty.

Like he did during the circuit breaker, he came up with a plan. The restaurant used to be closed on Mondays, but now operates all week because he has more staff.

He is also selling loaf cakes paired with a house-made jam or spread, which can be shared by a family.

That led to orders at 3pm to 4pm, usually a dead zone. But customers were ordering the cakes as gifts and for themselves at teatime.

He has brought back sandwiches for lunch - the popular steak one and another with ham and brie. For the weight-conscious, he has a fish main served with bulgur wheat and is looking to offer grain bowls too.

With more people being eco-conscious, he has also switched to biodegradable food packaging.

These ideas may or may not take off. "Frankly, it's been very tiring," he says.

Challenges ahead

The Summer Hill crew preparing to welcome diners. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Reservations are trickling in from diners anticipating that restaurants will reopen. But will restaurants remain relevant in a Covid-19 world when countries have to go into lockdown multiple times? This question keeps chef Yeoh up at night.

He says: "Moving forward, we need to change as a business. How do you stay in business with repeated lockdowns? If you have two or three a year, your revenue plummets 80 per cent. At some point, it won't be worthwhile to continue.

"I'm glad I went through the struggle in the beginning - opening a restaurant without partners or investors, knowing that if it failed, it was all on me. That has given me the confidence to face what we've had to face, to prepare for the worst.

"At this time, though, I have more questions than answers."

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