THE tale of David trumping Goliath isn't new, but it seems to have uncanny resonance in the restaurant industry of late. While large restaurant groups are closing excess outlets or scaling down their fine-dining venues to offer high-volume casual grub instead, independent F&B outfits are happily surviving - and even thriving.
At least eight independent eateries have launched or are about to open second outlets with new concepts in the coming weeks. All this amid common grouses from restaurateurs over escalating rents, short-term leases, the crippling quota on foreign labour, and the shortage of skilled and willing local staff.
While the same issues dog the Davids of the local restaurant industry, many say that growth in such a competitive climate is still possible for small eateries, and staff retention is pivotal to managing their expansions.
Muchachos's Jonathan Yang, who will launch protein-centric health food eatery The Daily Cut next month, says this means not treating his staff like employees.
He and co-founder Elson Lee regularly treat their team of 12 to 15 staff, including part-timers, to "appreciation meals" in a restaurant of their choice. From hotel buffets to seafood restaurant The Cajun Kings, "we don't scrimp on our welfare practices", says Mr Yang. Employees are further incentivised with profit-sharing bonuses based on good performance, such as $100 in extra wages if they go without taking medical leave for the month. "In the one year that we've been operating, we've only received one MC, and never a complete no-show," he adds.
"In a smaller venture, you're on the ground every day, you ask your staff how their mum is, you let them have a day off to visit their mum in hospital - essentially you share with them parts of your life as they do with theirs. We care about them as human beings, and it clearly makes a difference," Mr Yang says. "Because at the end of the day, you can install all the welfare practices you want, but if they don't feel like you really give a damn, you are not going to reap the benefits."
To others, expanding the business is a necessary means to keep staff motivated. "The unfortunate reality is that working in the F&B industry is not considered a proper profession in Singapore, there's so much stigma against being in a service role," says Benjamin Lee of week-old The Lokal, a sister outlet to popular Telok Ayer sandwich cafe Sarnies. He also opened his first overseas venture Jump Cafe in Kuala Lumpur last month. With the new outlets come new leadership positions that existing staff can aspire to.
"What we try to do at Sarnies is empower employees by giving them opportunities to map out a career with us," he explains. One of his head baristas at Sarnies, Eric Chan, for example, is now managing Jump Cafe, while he's taken on former staffer Louise Tong-Davies as a business partner for The Lokal.
It helped, too, that the new outlets helped to stretch existing fixed costs, he adds. "We had 30 staff for one cafe, including a back-end team focusing on finance and human resources. It was an infrastructure that could easily support three to four more outlets."
For Jeremy Cheok, his second baby came somewhat unintentionally. The private chef behind casual bistro OKB was merely looking for a larger prep kitchen to supplement OKB's 500 sq ft kitchen when he came across the 2,000 sq ft unit that currently houses his second restaurant, Slake. He originally wanted to lease the dining room out to tenants to run as a separate restaurant that he would supply from the back kitchen, but found it more cost-effective to run the whole place himself.
Smaller businesses have an advantage in their shorter response time to customer feedback and new ideas, he notes. "We have fewer people to answer to and contracts with suppliers to alter. I can change my menu within a day, or a few hours - all we have to do is print a new one on the spot."
Even the lack of financial muscle compared to the top dogs is no reason to not keep pace. The Humble Loaf's Dillon Ng believes that as long as one focuses on making a good product, rather than actively courting investors, the opportunities will come knocking.
His new business partner for his upcoming, five-times-as-large outlet Gastrosmiths is a regular patron who saw potential in the 10-seater's growing queues, and a few of his staff similarly came on board after dining at his eatery.
"It helped that we had similar ideals but yet different strengths," says Mr Ng of his partner Heng Tong Jin. A stockbroker by day, Mr Heng will focus on business development so that Mr Ng can do what he does best: cooking.
When they expand to future outlets, Mr Ng says he hopes to likewise let his sous chefs run the show, with concepts fashioned around their personal interests or cooking styles, rather than a cookie-cutter replica of Gastrosmiths.
Along the same vein, Muchachos's Mr Yang believes that maintaining a sense of individuality is the key selling point for independent brands. Though he had initially aimed to open two to three more outlets of his San Francisco Mission-style burrito eatery in Singapore, he has since shelved those plans.
"Muchachos has somehow taken on a slightly iconic status here," says Mr Yang, who is now talking to potential partners in Hong Kong, Manila and Jakarta instead. "We don't want to hurt the brand by turning it from a nice little spot that serves great burritos to yet another chain restaurant."