An F&B in turmoil — S'pore chefs share how they're coping with the dining-in ban

·Lifestyle Contributor
·11-min read
Interior of The Masses during Phase 2 (HA) (PHOTO: Zat Astha/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)
Interior of The Masses during Phase 2 (HA) (PHOTO: Zat Astha/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)

SINGAPORE — “Zat, do you know why F&B workers are not given priority for COVID-19 vaccination?” Chef Dylan Ong asks over direct chat on Instagram the week when Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) started.

His question came amidst a press conference where the newly-minted Minister for Health, Ong Ye Kung, announced a new vaccination strategy that extends the time between doses so that the maximum number of people can be protected. Students between the ages of 12-15 will also be eligible for the Pfizer BioNTech vaccination.

Phase 2 (HA) was announced due to the rising number of unlinked COVID-19 cases and the emergence of clusters in Singapore with his round of tightened measures spanning 16 May to 13 June 2021. Some of the limitations enforced by Phase 2 (HA) are reduced social gathering size to two people (down from five) and reenacting working from home as a default.

Dining-in would also no longer be allowed at all F&B outlets across the island, including at hawker centres, coffee shops, and food courts.

Stacked takeaway containers for delivery at Birds of a Feather (PHOTO: Zat Astha/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)
Stacked takeaway containers for delivery at Birds of a Feather (PHOTO: Zat Astha/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)

For some of the chefs and restaurant owners, I spoke to, this outright ban on dining-in left them blindsided and reminded them a lot of what happened in April last year when Singapore enacted Circuit Breaker measures for three months.

“I was surprised because I thought any new wave would have been mitigated by our collective efforts of mask-wearing, social-distancing, and the usage of contact tracing apps,” Willin Low, chef and founder of Wild Rocket, shared with me over WhatsApp. “Also, don’t we have very stringent border controls that include swab tests and strict quarantine measures?”

Chef Dylan was running lunch service at his restaurant, The Masses, when he heard of the announcement on Friday, 14 May. “It was too short a notice for something this drastic to happen by Sunday. For restaurants, Saturday will definitely be a full house, especially when it’s the last day of dining-in before Phase 2 (HA) kicks in. How do I find time to pivot to full delivery service over one day?”

“Yes, I know we have done this before,” Dylan went on to say. “But it would have been so much better had the government given us an earlier heads up. I know it’s a critical situation that requires decisive decision making. I expected the government to be more sensible than to dole out this knee-jerk reaction.”

Kitchen staff at The Masses (PHOTO: Zat Astha/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)
Kitchen staff at The Masses (PHOTO: Zat Astha/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)

The question of priority vaccination for F&B workers

To be completely honest, I’ve never questioned why people working in the F&B industries weren’t given priority for vaccination—at least not until Dylan asked. His concerns, though, were understandable.

In Phase 3 that commenced on 28 Dec 2020, dining in a group of up to 8 people was permitted. Up until the announcement of Phase 2 (HA), eating at restaurants remained the only close contact group activity where masks can be taken off during the entire meal duration—presenting a higher possibility for the virus to spread if safe distancing measures and sanitisation procedures weren’t properly adhered.

The perilous state of dining-in was further exacerbated by recent reports that the Kopitiam food court at Changi Airport Terminal 3 was visited by several confirmed cases, some of which have already been vaccinated. Changi Airport would eventually be named as one of the largest active clusters in Phase 3, swelling to more than 100 people.

Order chit at Lolla (PHOTO: Zat Astha/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)
Order chit at Lolla (PHOTO: Zat Astha/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)

“A thousand things went through my mind when the ban on dining-in was announced. But my foremost worry was the safety of my staff, especially since this new B16172 variant is said to be more infectious than the last,” said Chef Johanne Siy of Lolla at Amoy Street.

“My greatest concern was both the drop in sales and the increased number of cases that might put my colleagues at risk,” Dominic Tan, founder of Ajumma’s, shared. “The daily rise in cases also doesn’t assure us that the restrictions will last for only one month.”

Minister Lawrence Wong, co-chair of the COVID-19 multi-ministry task force, has since remarked that the current Phase 2 (HA) measures are working and that no further tightening is expected.

Concerns over employability

Early this year, Phase 3 measures brought some much-needed relief for F&B establishments affected by Circuit Breaker measures. Some chef-owners I spoke to last month in March even lamented the lack of staff to handle the onslaught of reservations from diners—customers with money to spare and nowhere to spend it except locally through staycations and to dine out at restaurants.

This aura of upbeat positivity has drastically taken a tumble, even if only based on anecdotes. While Circuit Breaker seems more a test of inventiveness and how pivot-ready F&B businesses are, Phase 2 (HA) is shaping up to be solely about survivability.

“I guess in a way, we are more prepared today than previously as we have at least experienced it once and know what to expect,” said Chef Willin. “The main challenge now is how to ensure all my colleagues, and I keep our jobs.”

It’s a concern shared by the co-founder of Apollo Coffee Bar, Shirlynn Eng. “To us, the team is family, and despite the circumstances, our priority is to make sure that our employees will be taken care of. Many of our crew have families both in Singapore and internationally—these countries include Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines.”

“So our priority is clear. To do whatever it takes to support and sustain their livelihood.”

Kitchen staff at Birds of a Feather (PHOTO: Zat Astha/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)
Kitchen staff at Birds of a Feather (PHOTO: Zat Astha/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)

Concerns over long-term financial stability

Chef Dylan readily admits that, like many other chefs, he’s now more operationally prepared for delivery and takeaway services even with a tight runway of one day.

But at its core, he posits that the problems and issues remain the same. F&B owners tend to run with a tight financial capital—any form of disruption in dining-in revenue will most certainly hit them hard.

“Unfortunately, it’s even harder now as we’re unsure what financial support we can get from the government to tide us over. Will there be rental rebates for this one month also? None of us knows.”

Handwritten card for a food delivery customer (PHOTO: Zat Astha/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)
Handwritten card for a food delivery customer (PHOTO: Zat Astha/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)

Although not immediately announced—and in some ways quite telling of how rushed these phase 2 (HA) measures are—rental relief for SMEs was recently introduced on 28 May 2021 by Finance Minister Lawrence Wong.

Under the Rental Support Scheme, privately owned commercial properties can look forward to getting a half month rental relief cash payout directly from the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore.

“From a business standpoint, I think it will be so much harder to survive this round,” said Chef Johanne. “There’s so much more competition from established players and new home-based businesses. It seems idealistic, but I hope everyone can find a place in the sun and somehow find a way to survive.”

Balancing the New Normal:

SG Phase 2 Heightened Alert: 6 cocktail delivery options for libation lovers

Foodies rally to patronise ailing elderly hawkers as diners asked to stay home

SG Phase 2 Heightened Alert: 10 F&B outlets that deliver familiar comfort food to your home

SG Phase 2 Heightened Alert: 11 restaurants that deliver a touch of luxe to your doorstep

Indonesian restaurant The Rice Table closing down after 24 years

New entrants caught by surprise

Businesses that are only beginning to recoup losses from the three-month Circuit Breaker are joined by brave F&B entrepreneurs who have delayed the opening of their restaurant concepts to May this year, only to be greeted by the news that dining-in will be banned again for one month.

A staff at Birds of Feather attending to online orders  (PHOTO: Zat Astha/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)
A staff at Birds of Feather attending to online orders (PHOTO: Zat Astha/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)

It is a situation chef Jeremy Chiam, formerly of now-shuttered Le Binchotan, is familiar with. Three weeks ago, Chiam launched Iko, a Mod-Jap restaurant and bar serving up contemporary Japanese fare, Robata-grilled bites, as well as a curated collection of sake and Japanese-inspired cocktails.

“Iko is only three weeks old, and I’m once again facing a ban on dining-in. It’s a new brand that has, unfortunately, come to a standstill after all that marketing effort we put out; it’s heartbreaking.”

It’s now evident that with every enactment and tightening of COVID-19 measures, the industry where the effects are most keenly and immediately felt is in the F&B sector.

According to the Singapore Department of Statistics, F&B sales registered a year-on-year decline of 26% in 2020. It was the worst-performing year since the growth rate was first recorded back in 1986, surpassing the Asian Financial Crisis in 1998, SARS in 2003, and the Global Financial Crisis in 2009.

In dollar terms, retail and F&B sales registered a decline of about S$4 billion during Circuit Breaker.

Stacked takeaway bowls (PHOTO: Zat Astha/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)
Stacked takeaway bowls (PHOTO: Zat Astha/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)

Could Phase 2 (HA) measures be better mitigated?

With such sobering statistics gleaned from Circuit Breaker last year, I wondered how the sudden ban on dining-in, and in retrospect, Phase 2 (HA) measures could have been better mitigated, especially given that we have experience and prior knowledge on hand.

For Dominic, government mitigation and intervention could have been offered earlier, even before Phase 2 (HA) measures were enacted.

“I feel that earlier support to manage crowds at F&B establishments could have been put in place, such as encouraging landlords to allow installation of clear Perspex or acrylic sheets within the restaurants to create a safer dining environment for diners,” said Dominic.

Dylan, however, was less enthused about how the government went about handling the ban on dining-in.

“We have done this before. Why are we still so lacking in how we prepare the people of Singapore for such drastic measures? Government leaders were put in place so they can have better foresight than us ordinary citizens. This kind of knee jerk reaction speaks volumes of the kind of leaders we have now.”

“I’m just extremely disappointed with how this is being handled,” Dylan went on to add.

Kitchen staff at Lolla (PHOTO: Zat Astha/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)
Kitchen staff at Lolla (PHOTO: Zat Astha/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)

In our initial interview, Willin wondered if there could have been a more gradual easing in of restrictions by cutting down the number of diners allowed per group instead of implementing such a drastic and sudden outright ban.

“But in view of the 38 local transmissions today (16 May 2021), I guess what the government is doing regarding the ban on dining-in does not seem too out of line, given how infectious this new strain is,” said Willin a few hours after the number of new community cases was announced.

When life gives you lemons

While waiting for dining-in to resume, some restaurants are taking a ‘when life gives you lemon’ approach to the pivot rerun to delivery and takeaway.

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At Birds of a Feather, Chef Eugene See has put together food bundles featuring signature dishes from the restaurant and its four sister brands. There’s the “French Toast” from Halcyon & Crane, “Salmon Grain Bowl” from 51SOHO, “King Prawn Noodles” from Chuan Hung noodle stall and the signature “Find The Chicken in the Chillis” from Birds Of A Feather.

“By offering this bundle, we hope our customers can experience what we can offer for our food delivery at a group level, and at the same time, bring the best food items to their doorsteps,” Chef Eugene shared.

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At Shirlynn Eng’s five cafe concepts—Apollo Coffee Bar, Neptune Cafe, Columbus Coffee Co., Lunar Coffee Brewers, and Atlas Coffeehouse—diners can look forward to the ‘Choux Box’, a care package iteration inspired by the first Circuit Breaker. Then, Shirlynn witnessed first-hand the rising practice of people gifting their friends or loved ones ‘care packages’. There’s also an encouraging response to the care packages Shirlynn rolled out at the time.

Bags of food ready for pick-up (PHOTO: Zat Astha/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)
Bags of food ready for pick-up (PHOTO: Zat Astha/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)

As the end date for Phase 2 (HA) on June 13 draws to a close, chefs and restaurant owners wait with breath that is bated for dining-in to resume and, for many of us ordinary citizens, for life to regain some semblance of normalcy—however that may look.

Undoubtedly, these are tough times for the F&B sector, made more challenging with razor-thin profit margins, disruptions in the supply of raw ingredients due to tightened border controls, and, funnily enough, a vibrant local dining scene with every operator eager for a slice of the proverbial pie.

Perhaps Shirlynn puts it best. “We just want our friends, family, and customers to live a little amidst this tough time, love a lot, and laugh over these delightful treats. It’s perhaps exactly what we need these days to get through these four weeks—joy and spontaneity.”

Balancing the New Normal:

SG Phase 2 Heightened Alert: 6 cocktail delivery options for libation lovers

Foodies rally to patronise ailing elderly hawkers as diners asked to stay home

SG Phase 2 Heightened Alert: 10 F&B outlets that deliver familiar comfort food to your home

SG Phase 2 Heightened Alert: 11 restaurants that deliver a touch of luxe to your doorstep

Indonesian restaurant The Rice Table closing down after 24 years

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