COVID-19 SPECIAL

Dining off the dance floor: Some clubs transform into F&B businesses as nightlife remains on hold

It is "reinvent or die out" for nightlife businesses. Some clubs are pivoting from dance floors to dining establishments. But at least a hundred others remain shut as they do not yet have licences that allow them to operate as F&B establishments.
A Sky High Hawker event on Aug 9 at Ce La Vi. The club at Marina Bay Sands has reinvented itself to be able to continue operating at a time when coronavirus restrictions have shuttered nightlife businesses. Ce La Vi now has a casual dining concept ca
A Sky High Hawker event on Aug 9 at Ce La Vi. PHOTO: CE LA VI SINGAPORE
Zouk transformed its Capital lounge in Clarke Quay into a pop-up restaurant, Capital Kitchen, which has been open for almost two months. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY
Zouk transformed its Capital lounge in Clarke Quay into a pop-up restaurant, Capital Kitchen, which has been open for almost two months. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

Clubs are transforming into F&B businesses to keep going while nightlife remains on hold

It is "reinvent or die out" as nightlife businesses continue to be shuttered under coronavirus restrictions.

Some clubs, like Zouk, are pivoting from dance floors to dining establishments.

But at least a hundred others remain shut as they do not yet have licences that allow them to operate as food and beverage (F&B) establishments.

The reinvent-or-die-out message to still-shuttered nightlife businesses in Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat's ministerial statement last Monday was clear, as he noted that such businesses will not be able to open any time soon.

But he added that the Government will help them transition to other activities or ease their exit, with the Ministry of Trade and Industry set to provide more details in the coming weeks.

Zouk was first off the blocks, transforming its Capital lounge in Clarke Quay into pop-up restaurant Capital Kitchen, which has been open for almost two months, while Ce La Vi's SkyBar at Marina Bay Sands' (MBS) is now a fast and casual dining concept, Bao, which opened earlier this month.

Dormant clubs like Nineteen80 in Tanjong Pagar are looking at converting their businesses to accommodate dine-in options.

Others, such as Lulu's Lounge and Bang Bang, both in Pan Pacific Singapore, are currently in "hibernation mode" until restrictions lift, most likely in phase three of the economy's reopening, as their owners focus on the F&B side of their stable of businesses.

EARLY MOVERS

Zouk's Capital Kitchen, which saw the Capital lounge's dance floor fitted out with 27 diner-friendly tables, has been a success, attracting a mix of Zouk regulars and new patrons, mainly young working adults.

It can seat 135 people, and serves Asian and Western fare like congee and fish and chips, cooked in the kitchen of its adjoining bar concept, Red Tail.

Zouk Group chief executive Andrew Li said it started the process of obtaining a licence to run an F&B establishment "very early on during the circuit breaker period... given the Government's clear message to pivot and adapt".

"It took about four to five weeks for the licence to be approved," he said, adding that most of the challenges in transforming the space were operations-related.

"Our kitchen predominantly served bar snacks, but now we have branched into a full restaurant menu, so in terms of staffing, we also had to upskill our team to provide the necessary service."

 
 

Zouk declined to reveal the cost of the revamp and retraining.

Mr Alexander Wong, 30, who goes to Capital Kitchen twice a week, said of its appeal: "It's the closest thing I can get to a club in this difficult period... we probably can't club in the near future, so as a clubber, it's a substitute that respects all the safe distancing and government measures."

The bank employee used to frequent Capital lounge weekly before all mass gatherings were halted in end-March.

Given Capital Kitchen's success, Mr Li said Zouk is looking into making it permanent.

 
 

For clubs that are part of multi-concept venues, like Ce La Vi - which comprises a restaurant, SkyBar and a club lounge - the dearth of tourists means catering to the local crowd.

The SkyBar patio area, which reopened on Aug 4, is now home to Bao by Ce La Vi, which serves bao-burger fusion dishes. Meanwhile, its restaurant now hosts Sky High Hawker, which features a rotating line-up of local guest chefs and hawkers each month, who offer special versions of their signature dishes from $10 each.

Ce La Vi's club lounge, however, remains closed. A spokesman said it is working with its landlord and others on options for the lounge.

The urgency to adapt and change is not lost on clubs, as relief measures and funds dry up, and as restrictions imposed by the virus drag on.

The Jobs Support Scheme, which pays part of the wages for local workers, and rental reliefs have been helping to tide clubs over.

However, rental rebates have ended and nightlife joints have to continue paying rent for the spaces while deciding to pivot or exit.

Nightlife businesses are seeking a more urgent shot in the arm, especially in terms of licensing. About a third of the Singapore Nightlife Business Association's 320 members remain shut as they do not have licences that allow them to operate as F&B establishments.

Those hoping for expedited and temporary licence changes include SJS Group, which owns and operates Bang Bang and Lulu's Lounge; as well as A Phat Cat Collective, which runs Nineteen80.

"I understand some organisations have been in discussion with Enterprise Singapore to potentially make that happen - that is, re-license temporarily to be able to convert a bar or public entertainment space into a restaurant or bar," said SJS Group managing partner Sarissa Rodriguez-Schwartz.

"For Lulu's Lounge, it would be great if we could operate with a 12am licence and still have social distancing measures in place."

 
 

While their clubs are in "hibernation mode", Ms Rodriguez-Schwartz said they are ready to open upon a phase-three announcement. In the meantime, SJS is focusing on its F&B businesses, which include Pasta Bar and the recently opened Bar Milano in Keong Saik Road.

Nineteen80 owner A Phat Cat Collective is exploring ways to incorporate dining into its retro-themed arcade nightclub, but recognises that it would have to spend on renovations, work on a menu and hire the appropriate staff.

The two-year-old club had just doubled in size and opened its expanded space on March 19 when clubs were mandated to close on March 25, prior to the circuit breaker. Closed for the last five months, during which it ventured into cocktail delivery and selling face masks, it took a 98 per cent hit in business takings.

"With our expansion, we were planning to fit out a small kitchen for a kiosk - somewhere to go for a midnight snack - but now it has to be a full-service kitchen," said Ms Francesca Way, co-founder of A Phat Cat Collective.

Pending clarity over its request for licence changes and capital injections from investors, Nineteen80 hopes to reopen next month.

LET MORE SPACES REOPEN

That is what regular clubbers like 31-year-old Holly Wu are hoping for. A frequent visitor to Capital Kitchen, she wants other clubs to also venture into transforming their spaces so she can visit them again.

"It will be interesting to see how Marquee can transform... with its three levels, it will feel quite grand," said Ms Wu, who works in the security industry.

MBS, which is home to Marquee, Singapore's largest nightclub, declined to comment on whether the space will be repurposed.

Clubber Cheryl Ko, 37, who works in marketing, said: "Even if we can't mingle, the familiarity of the space, the lights and video walls and stuff will (be enough to) recreate the ambience of being in a club."

 

For nightlife businesses, however, survival is the top priority.

"That's the whole idea - to survive the situation, not to make a profit," said A Phat Cat Collective co-founder Joshua Pillai.

"Covid keeps throwing us curveballs, but we have to cross each hurdle at a time."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 23, 2020, with the headline 'Dining on the dance floor'. Print Edition | Subscribe