The restaurant may have been busy, but Mr Leonard Cheong and his two friends were confident of getting seats when they arrived for a Saturday brunch at Orchard fusion restaurant Kilo.
"We could see empty tables right in front of us, but the service staff told us we couldn't sit there," said the 31-year-old marketing manager. "It was frustrating."
The trio were told by staff at the Japanese-Italian eatery that they would have to dine elsewhere as the restaurant was too short on manpower to serve them.
It is a story that is becoming increasingly familiar here at restaurants, which are being forced to turn away customers as they scramble to maintain service levels amid the labour crunch.
Kilo manager Rubi Pandey told The Straits Times that the eatery has to turn customers away around twice a month, as it does not want to offer them a "half-hearted experience". She said: "We try not to do it. But the restaurant has to keep running and we manage the best we can."
Most restaurants say they do it on an ad hoc basis, such as when a chef goes on medical leave or when a waiter quits.
Old Hong Kong Kitchen in Novena turns away diners at least once a week. It even started a home delivery service six months ago to cut demand for staff.
"When a staff member doesn't show up for work, we do it. We have no choice," said owner Victoria Li, who is then forced to make 10 of her 24 tables at the Chinese restaurant off-limits. This means estimated losses of about 70 customers and $2,000 in revenue each time. She currently has 25 staff - but needs twice that number to operate smoothly.
Diners are also being turned away at Relish, Wild Rocket and Wild Oats - restaurants owned by chef Willin Low.
"Managers all have the authority to tell customers, at any one point, that we are full - even though we are not - because we have no manpower."
Mr Low estimates that he loses 20 per cent of business each time this happens. "We are so short," he admitted. "Once one person is missing, it's like a quarter of our workforce is gone."
It is the same story at Fika Swedish Cafe and Bistro when its part-timers go back to school or someone quits. "Singaporeans can be quite particular and we don't want to run the risk of the customer having a bad experience," said owner Tasneem Noor, who faces this problem once a month at her three outlets.
Tim Palace in Toa Payoh and Next Door Deli in Ang Mo Kio also resort to such measures.
Job vacancies in the food and beverage service sector stood at 6,400 at the end of last September, up from 4,200 three years earlier, latest Ministry of Manpower statistics show.
The Straits Times understands that the Restaurant Association of Singapore (RAS) met Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) officials on Jan 20 to discuss rising business and manpower costs, in addition to the labour crunch.
Turning customers away, said RAS president Andrew Tjioe, is "an acute measure that no one would adopt unless there was no other way".
"It's becoming more widespread now, but it started when the manpower crunch became bad. Restaurants are forced to do this. It's a pity, saying 'no' to business," he said.
Mr Tjioe advised restaurants against closing off sections that are visible to customers.
But for Mr Cheong, the damage has been done. "It shouldn't be a customer's problem. We went all the way to the restaurant. We felt really slighted that it didn't want our business," he said. "It left a really bad impression."