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New settings for old favourites
IN June last year, Beng Hiang Restaurant - a 38-year-old bastion of old style Hokkien cooking - moved out of the CBD address it had held for decades to the comparatively more far-flung area of Jurong. It was a purely financial decision, says co-founder Ng Han Kim. "Twenty-one years ago, we paid S$40,000 a month for the 1,000-sq-m premises. Last year, the landlord increased the rent to S$120,000."
Chef-owner Koh Hoon Liang of popular Teochew eatery Chao Shan Cuisine expresses the same woes. The restaurant also relocated because "the landlord kept asking for higher rental", he says. "But I managed to negotiate for a new space at a lower price. Best of all, it was within the financial district."
Even though food and beverage leads as the primary driver in demand for retail real estate in Singapore, the recent economic downturn paints a less than rosy picture for the sector in the coming months. According to Jones Lang LaSalle's Third Quarter Retail Index, the average shopping centre rental in Orchard Road and district 9 fell by 0.4 per cent on a quarterly basis, and by 0.7 per cent year on year.
"I was lucky when I started looking for an alternative site," adds Mr Ng of Beng Hiang. "A friend who owns the current space made an offer I couldn't refuse, and Jurong had, and still has, a huge population of Hokkiens living in the area."
Still, the move had its challenges. For one thing, the lunch clientele changed drastically. At his old location, lunch was brisk and the executive crowd had higher spending power. Since the move, the takings from lunch have dipped and Beng Hiang takes on a more family-oriented stance at dinner and on weekends. Fortunately, the restaurant has a big pool of die-hard regulars who persist in their quest for traditional Hokkien dishes.
One way to ensure loyalty is to keep intact a sense of déjà vu. The new interior is almost an exact replica of the previous restaurant. "I deliberately minimised the disruption. Once you step through the entrance, you might even think you are in Amoy Street. We have a brand new bar counter, carpet, and furniture, but our regulars thought they were brought over from the old premises," laughs Mr Ng.
Even the menu remains, featuring dishes that Mr Ng's chef and business partner has been cooking for more than 50 years and which his customers love. "We trained many chefs," he explains, "but none was able to replicate the exact taste of yesteryear. In a sense that's our biggest selling point - our customers keep coming back because no one else can cook these Hokkien dishes like we can!"
Chao Shan Cuisine also relies on regular customers to help it weather its transition. While the rent per square metre has gone down, Mr Koh has taken on a bigger area thus increasing his business costs. "Previously, we could only seat 50 within the 100-sq-m restaurant but now we easily accommodate 200 persons in one seating," he explained.
The renovations on the 300-sq-m restaurant cost him half a million dollars and includes three private rooms and a massive cold room. The pay-off has been a visible increase in revenue for lunch; but despite this, Mr Koh is determined not to introduce "lunch set menus" for an even quicker turnover. "I am dead against turning my food into 'fast food'; I want my customers to enjoy really authentic Teochew food carefully prepared, however long it takes."
Meanwhile the cold room's additional storage volume means Mr Koh can import more ingredients from China, particularly Shantou. "The lack of cooking space at Beach Road (his former premises) constrained my repertoire," he added, "dishes such as roast suckling pig had to be taken out of the menu." Mr Koh now roasts his piglets over charcoal at a specially constructed pit at the back of the restaurant.
While financial challenges precipitated many restaurant relocations, some came with a silver lining. Teochew Restaurant Huat Kee's move to new premises on Orange Grove Road is one example. Chef-owner Lee Chiang Howe capitalised on an upbeat property market and sold the Amoy Street shophouse unit which he had owned since 1993 for a huge return.
One of the perennial drawbacks of operating a business along Amoy Street, especially a restaurant, is the lack of car park space. "The majority of our regulars drive and our current location at RELC offers ample parking lots, said Mr Lee, "but more importantly the move reflects our continuing expansion plans."
With no solution to the local labour crunch in sight, Mr Lee and his daughter, Jasmine, are taking advantage of advances in food technology - especially as it pertains to the mass production of premium dried seafood delicacies such as shark's fin, sea cucumber and abalone - in order to distribute them more efficiently to the region. The immediate aim is to reduce an over-reliance on chefs in the commercial kitchen; and eventually to offer consumers the opportunity to enjoy fine-dining quality braised abalone and shark's fin at home through "ready-to-eat" premium takeaways.
Plans are already afoot to launch this service this coming Chinese New Year; and included on the takeaway menu is roasted suckling pig for that all-important family reunion meal. Mr Lee is confident that his avid customers will gravitate towards him wherever he goes, and that his current location amid an exclusive residential enclave will eventually gain him new devotees too.
Chris Hooi of the venerable Dragon Phoenix brand also hopes to garner a new customer base with the opening of his 600-sq-m Dragon Phoenix Grand at the newly minted Temasek Club in Rifle Range Road. Opened in 1962 by his father, Masterchef Hooi Kok Wai, Dragon Phoenix Restaurant has fed generations of Singaporeans with fine Cantonese food and spawned iconic dishes that form part of our collective culinary heritage.
In the past, an established restaurant could rely solely on its regulars and on word-of-mouth to maintain business. Not so today. With close to 3,000 restaurants opening every year, competition has gone through the roof and casualties are high. Customers' expectations and priorities have changed as well. Loyalty is highly optional; the search for new dining experiences is relentless and restaurant-hopping is a foodie's raison d'etre. In such a market, complacency, even among such stalwarts, is fatal. And the experienced restaurateur knows this.
Mr Hooi's new restaurant sports an updated, contemporary Chinese interior, and he has his eye on the 16,000-strong membership of Temasek's military officer's club as well as the well heeled demographic of residential Bukit Timah. He is optimistic that therein lies his customer base, despite the further rental correction in Singapore property and the anticipated economic slowdown that analysts are predicting. In fact, this second-generation face behind the brand cites a 20 to 30 per cent increase in new customers since opening.
"These are residents living around this area, and they do not need to be a member of the club to dine here," he explains.
On the menu, the signature dishes of Dragon Phoenix, such as the deep-fried yam basket which the Senior Hooi made famous, still take pride of place. But things are stirring, Mr Hooi is quick to point out, disclosing that newly created dishes as well as attractive set lunches are in the pipeline and will be launched after the Chinese New Year.
Beng Hiang Restaurant
Blk 135 Jurong Gateway Road
#02-337 Singapore 600135
Chao Shan Cuisine
17 Phillip Street
#01-01 Grand Building
Dragon Phoenix Grand
131 Rifle Range Road
#02-03 Temasek Club
Teochew Restaurant Huat Kee
30 Orange Grove Road
#02-01 RELC Building