S'pore restaurants frustrated by extension of Covid-19 rules, ask for clearer goals

Mr Ivan Brehm, chef-owner of fine dining restaurant Nouri, pondering further impact on his business.
Mr Ivan Brehm, chef-owner of fine dining restaurant Nouri, pondering further impact on his business.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - Restaurateurs have greeted the extension of Covid-19 rules restricting dining-in to two persons until Nov 21 with frustration and resignation.

In a Zoom meeting with The Straits Times on Thursday (Oct 21), about 20 members of the savefnbsg chat group spoke about how they felt the food and beverage (F&B) industry has been treated unfairly, and that the logic behind the rules has not been communicated clearly to them.

The chat group is a ground-up movement of more than 500 restaurants that came together during the circuit breaker last year to support one another.

One of the members, Mr Willin Low, pointed out that while music is not allowed in his modern Singaporean restaurant Roketto Izakaya in Amoy Street, a gym nearby was blaring music loudly during a class where members were exercising without masks and sweating while the instructor was yelling at them.

"How is that different from my restaurant?" he asked.

Chef-owner Dave Pynt of Burnt Ends, a modern Australian eatery near Keong Saik Road, echoed the sentiment. "There is a lack of logic with the rules applied among the different sectors because you can have 100 people sitting in an airplane eating with their masks off. And is not having music really going to have an impact on Covid-19 transmission?"

He also questioned the rationale of not allowing a family of five to dine together. "Does the family create more risk than when they are at home? We just want to understand what we are trying to achieve. Now we have no idea of the goals for the industry."

Chef Janice Wong, who owns the Softhaus ice cream and the chocolate-centric Pure Imagination eateries in Great World, said a family of five has to split into three tables. And the two-person rule becomes very difficult to enforce when parents run over to help their children who are eating ice cream at another table, she added.

"It doesn't make sense when they came into the mall together but had to split up when they sit down. For us, the lack of an age limit is also important," she said.

At Wednesday's press conference, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said the Restaurant Association of Singapore had asked for members of the same household to be allowed to sit together at a table of five.

"For now, we think it's still too risky to make such a move because of the pressure on the healthcare system," said Mr Wong, noting that he understands the association's stance. "But it is indeed something we are looking into."

Mr Low said that just knowing the number of patients in the intensive care units of hospitals does not make any sense to him unless he also knows the target figure when rules can be relaxed.

Mr Christopher Millar, culinary director of the 1-Group that operates restaurants like the fine-dining Stellar at 1-Altitude at Raffles Place, noted that the restrictions have an impact on the food supply chain that is invisible to the public.

"It takes time to get supplies into Singapore. So with all the restaurants hesitating with their orders, it weakens the chain. When things open up, everything will become more expensive because the supplies won't be there," he said.

Chef Ivan Yeo of The 1925 Brewing Co would like to see more communication. "When we know the Government's decision only four days before it happens, we can't make any decisions," he said.

Others said the 25 per cent salary subsidy for Singaporean workers under the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS) does not even scratch the surface of their woes when revenue has dropped by 30 per cent or more compared with when five people were allowed to dine in. On top of that, restaurant owners have to spend more on mandatory health checks.

Rental is another issue the restaurateurs brought up.

Mr Sebastian Low of Malaysian chain PappaRich said he had been receiving legal letters from landlords when there was a slight delay in payment. "Our sales are linked to their system, so they know how we are doing," he added.

Chef-owner Beppe de Vito of IlLido Group, which owns Italian restaurants like Gemma at National Gallery Singapore, said the group had shared its plight with government agencies and ministers and hopes to see some positive action before more restaurants close down.

Mr Yuan Oeij, who owns the Prive group of Western restaurants, said his business is now in the red. "Deliveries and promotions are not working, and the only thing left is staff cuts, but we don't want to go down that route."

Mr Loh Lik Peng of The Unlisted Collection, which operates brands like Western eatery Basque Kitchen by Aitor and Chinese restaurant Majestic in the Central Business District, said Asian restaurants that cater to communal dining are hit particularly hard by the two-person limit.

Lunchtime diners at Italian restaurant Gemma at the National Gallery Singapore on Oct 21, 2021. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

Among the restaurants not in the chat group, fine-dining North Indian restaurant Rang Mahal at the Pan Pacific Singapore is bracing itself for cancellations for Deepavali, which falls on Nov 4 this year.

Said its managing director, Ms Ritu Jhunjhnuwala: "Diwali is typically our busiest time of the year. But now families cannot dine in to celebrate the Festival of Light."

The restaurant is preparing special menus to cater to dining for two as well as larger portions for delivery.

Other restaurateurs are facing a bleak year-end festive season as well.

Dr Martin Bem, founding managing director of upmarket Western restaurant LeVeL33 in Marina Bay Financial Centre, said it is not yet fully booked for New Year's Eve, a first for this time of the year in its 11 years, including last year.

Mr Chua Ee Chien, who owns modern Singaporean restaurant Jekyll & Hyde, felt the situation now is worse than when no dining-in was allowed. "From a business perspective, it's better either to open or close fully. Now, people don't know what to do - order delivery or dine out."

Mr Loh added: "If we close, at least we can alleviate some overheads. Being open, a lot of costs are the same, whether the restaurant is 100 per cent full or 40 per cent full."