LIKE it or not, high rents are here to stay. But rather than whinge about it, a few restaurateurs are already trying to come to terms with this reality. The latest modus operandi to be tested: a common space with different day and night uses. After all, hawker stalls are already doing it with their day and night-shift operators, so why not casual restaurants?
Two months ago, seasoned restaurateur Victor Tan established Two Face, a casual pizzeria and bar that takes over an entire 1,200 square foot coffeeshop when the three hawker stalls there shut for the afternoon.
Dark wood panels - which double as chalkboard menus - keep out of sight the messy pails and brash stainless steel fixtures of the day-time operators, and tungsten lights are flicked on to create a sleepy, nostalgic ambience in the retro-chic space.
"This is not a novel concept, it's a practical concept. It was born out of necessity," says Mr Tan. "There are so many young people in Singapore with great ideas, but it's a pity the high rents prevent them from trying."
Echoing his view is Tan Kay Chuan, who holds the master tenancy for Ali Baba Eating House along East Coast Road. A week ago, Mr Tan completed his upgrade of the space, turning it into a regular coffeeshop by day, and a hawker bar - a place that serves hawker food in a Western bistro setting - by night, called Alibabar. All in the hopes of attracting more young patrons, as well as young chefs into the hawker trade. "It's going to change people's perception of a coffeeshop," he says. Food prices are kept the same as he's banking on increased patronage to help meet the overheads, he says.
One advantage of running a dual-concept space is that each one helps to market the other, says former corporate communications executive Beverly Yeoh, who runs day-time eatery Shoebox Canteen on North Canal Road. Come sundown, the 500 sq ft space opens up and becomes part of 1,600 sq ft bespoke cocktail bar, Bitters and Love. "When people find out about the bar hidden behind us at lunch, they immediately want to come back in the evenings for drink," says Ms Yeoh.
The more stark the contrast between the two distinct identities, the stronger their appeal, the restaurant owners say. Ms Yeoh elaborates: "We don't let people dine in the bar segment in the day, even when we are full, because it doesn't look at all like what it does at night. We want to protect the image and mood of Bitters and Love."
And as to whether the dual-shift restaurants can be the way of the future, most business owners agree that it is one that can't be easily duplicated. "In any food business, one size doesn't fit all," says Alibabar's Mr Tan. "It all depends on the business, your target audience and the demographic of the neighbourhood. What works in Katong may not work in Woodlands."
Alibabar - Hawker Bar
125 East Coast Road
Tel 6440 6147
Hours: 7.30am-11pm daily
SOMETIMES, it takes industry outsiders to inject fresh ideas into our local food scene. When Tan Kay Chuan and his wife took over the master tenancy for Ali Baba Eating House in Katong just over a year ago, he knew he wanted to run more than a typical coffeeshop.
"We come from corporate, not food, backgrounds, so to have yet another coffeeshop was not our plan. We wanted to come up with a new exciting concept that will hopefully transform people's perception of a coffeeshop," says the ex-civil servant who now works with an investment firm. His wife Sarah was previously a regional sales manager.
The couple launched their vision last week in the form of Alibabar. Call it kopitiam v2.0, if you will, for the 1,800-sq ft space now takes on a dual personality: it functions as a regular coffeeshop by day, and a hawker bar by night.
A hawker what? According to Mr Tan, his newly coined term is "a laid-back spot where people can enjoy hawker food in a bistro-bar setting".
Three of the cuisine types - namely char kway teow, Filipino and French food - sold at the coffeeshop previously have been retained, though the latter two are now run by new operators.
In the day, the custom-fitted drinks corner sells kopi-o, teh tarik, toast and steamed pau. When the sun goes down, the drinks menu switches to a selection of Belgian craft beers and specialty ciders. The lights are dimmed, and the TV channels switch from news to sports.
"The kopitiam is traditionally somewhere families go for a quick meal and then leave. It's not really a place people think of lingering in - the only people who sit around are old uncles," Mr Tan quips.
He engaged design firm Qube to knock down the walls to create a seamless, airy space. Now clad with wooden crates, quirky life buoys and leafy tendrils, the ambience is reminiscent of a casual Western cafe - or a food court.
"Food courts like Food Republic and Food Junction have proven that hawker food can be had in beautifully renovated themed spaces, so why can't the same be done with coffeeshops?" muses Mr Tan.
Food offerings come nightfall will be transformed, too. French stall Le Petit Paradis and Filipino stall Food Hutz will replace their set lunch menus with light snack offerings, such as spring rolls, barbecued pork and duck rillette, battered escargots and $7.90 foie gras plated to fine dining standards.
The only exception to this model is Yong Huat Char Kway Tiao, which shuts at 7pm daily. Mr Tan is currently sourcing for a night-time operator for the space, as well as a full-time tenant for his fourth stall.
Though it's early days yet, he hopes his new coffeeshop business model will inspire a new generation of hawkers to join the trade, especially "young chefs who want to try new cuisines without the high overheads of running a proper restaurant", he says.
One aspiring chef who has since caught on is Enoch Teo, 22, who runs Le Petit Paradis. On taking up the role, the 22-year-old former chef de partie in French fine dining restaurants such as Les Amis, Absinthe and Restaurant Andre says: "I've worked in world-class kitchens, but as a local, I still feel like I want to cook in a place where I feel is my comfort zone."
Half and half
36 North Canal Road
Tel 9296 4836
Hours: 11.45am-2.30pm (Mon-Fri)
Bitters and Love
Tel 6438 1836
Hours: 6pm-12am (Mon-Thu)
NOT only do they have to deal with sky-high rents in land-scarce Singapore, aspiring restaurateurs have a whole other list of boxes to check when they're scouting locations for new ventures. Sometimes, you get a space in the perfect location but not with the right length of lease. Or if it fits both criteria, you'll later find out that it can't be licensed as a restaurant.
So when Beverly Yeoh came across her dream space along North Canal Road, she took it up instantly, never mind a small hitch - at 1,600 sq ft, the ground floor shophouse unit was twice the size she was looking for. "It was a standalone on a quiet street, in between Boat Quay and Clarke Quay, but not in the middle of the restaurant-saturated stretch of either. It fit perfectly our idea of creating a destination restaurant," says Ms Yeoh.
To get around the size issue, she simply carved out two distinct spaces within the lofty, rectangular space, and put together two teams to run them as separate businesses.
Fronting both operations is the petite Shoebox Canteen, a 32-seat casual eatery catering to an office lunch crowd with affordably priced fare. Partitioned away behind ribbed glass doors is Bitters and Love, a bespoke cocktail bar that stirs to life only after dark.
"We've always wanted to do a casual eatery and a cocktail bar, but the two don't go together like a smart restaurant and bar would," adds Ms Yeoh, who left her corporate communications job to run the two outlets full-time. She has a silent business partner.
At Shoebox, the menu changes every three to four weeks, and the food isn't defined according to any type of cuisine. So you get creations that marry East-West influences such as the chicken katsu burger ($13) or the seafood capellini with prawns and scallop ($15). The latter's briney prawn stock makes it seem like a Western cousin of Hokkien mee, except it is served with generous amounts of better quality seafood, and it's MSG-free. "We're not doing high-end food. We're a canteen, you come here for a good meal without the fuss," says Ms Yeoh. In the same spirit, patrons are encouraged to share the table - a long 14-seater slab made from Indonesian Suar wood - during the busy lunch hour. Or go for the three-sided tables that sit four if you have a small group.
Bitters and Love, meanwhile, is quite the opposite of Shoebox. "It's a moody, 50 Shades of Grey kind of bar", says Ms Yeoh. Save for a few statement pieces such as a marble bar top counter and a large tree trunk-turned-table, the space is sparsely decorated and lit mainly by candles. "We're not pretending to be a New York or London-inspired bar, we wanted to keep things flexible - and local," she adds.
Head bartender and business partner, Din Hassan, is a 25-year veteran of the cocktail scene and along with two other local bartenders, shakes up bespoke concoctions according to monthly themes and customer requests. December's theme, for instance, pivoted around local spices, so custom-made drinks worked in plenty of cinnamon and star anise. January saw fresh tropical fruit such as mangos and mangosteens take the spotlight, and February's focus will be on edible flowers such as chrysanthemum and elderflower.
"Because we've kept operations for both concepts pretty small, we're able to constantly change and refresh our menus to give regulars a different experience each time they come back," says Ms Yeoh.
Keeping the charm
Two Face Pizza & Taproom
56 Eng Hoon Street #01-46
Tel 6536 0024
Hours: 5.30-11pm (Tue-Thu), 5.30pm-12am (Fri-Sat), 10am-10pm (Sun)
IF you walked past the coffeeshop in Block 56 on Eng Hoon Street recently, you might think the space is battling an identity crisis. A plastic banner advertising Ya Lim Mee Pok hangs over the coffeeshop's entrance, yet just below that, a stylish wooden signboard flags a pizzeria and taproom on the same premises.
No, it's not the work of a fraudulent property agent either - the space functions as a regular coffeeshop selling yong tau foo, mee pok and vegetarian food by day, and transforms into pizzeria-bar Two Face come sunset.
The duality is the brainchild of Singaporean Victor Tan, 49, who used to run restaurants such as Firestation Hillside Gastrobar in Bukit Timah. The Tiong Bahru resident of three months says the idea struck him during one of his regular jaunts around the estate, when he noticed that most food stalls in the area are shut by 2pm. "I'm always looking for new spaces and new concepts, so I sensed an opportunity," he recalls. "With rents going up the way they are, we have to think of creative ways to maximise the use of space."
Getting the space proved no easy feat, however. He spent two months trying to convince the initially sceptical master tenant to rent him a stall. "When you're the first to come up with a new concept, there's no precedent you can show others to explain what you're trying to do," he looks back, unfazed.
Says coffeeshop master tenant Yeo Kee, 60: "At first, I was afraid he would mess up the place, so I said no. But he persisted, and through communication, we are able to work this out."
Western comfort fare was chosen as Mr Tan found the dearth of affordable Western fare in the neighbourhood lamentable. "I thought, why not start something to meet my own needs first," he laughs.
Going by the response that the two-month-old pizzeria has been generating so far, his is a need shared by many others.
The 70-seater's retro-chic vibe and selection of Belgian craft beers appeal to the expats and designer types in the neighbourhood, while families wouldn't feel out of place sharing a pizza around its spacious tables on weekends.
With no GST or service charge, the fare is affordably priced between $10 for a margarita and $16 for a meat lover's pizza. Pastas start from just $10 and typical bar snack appetisers such as truffle fries and buffalo wings average $8.
But what's the point of setting up a pizza place in a typically Singaporean coffeeshop - and a well-preserved, decades-old one at that - if it doesn't take on a little local flavour? The har cheong gai ($8) is a home-made take on your typical zi char chicken wings and is served paired with a pretty potent chilli sauce. The kiam he pizza ($14) wins points for originality, but might be a little too salty for lighter palates.
If you're feeling extra indulgent, go for the foie gras on fries ($12). You'd initially think the slab of foie gras seems rather misplaced on a bed of fries, until you realise its grease trickles down to give the spuds an extra unctuousness. And if guilt strikes, balance it out with the Two Face signature drink ($4), a healthy-looking lush green blend of sour plum, pineapple and chye sim.
Besides expanding the menu to include burgers or fish and chips in the coming months, Mr Tan also hopes to open one more outlet ("I'll call it Two Face Two," he jokes) by year-end "in a neighbourhood with the same vibe". Like at Two Face, he hopes to do only minor alterations, such as refitting the table tops, adding in new tungsten lamps and rewiring the electrical circuits .
"A lot of the new concepts that come to Tiong Bahru try to revamp everything - so the charm of the estate is slowly eroding," he says." "I love Tiong Bahru for what it is. The whole point is to keep the charm of the original concept intact."