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Social distancing measures at Meta and LeVeL33 with tables at least one metre apart.

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Chef Sun Kim of Meta.

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Social distancing measures at Meta and LeVeL33 with tables at least one metre apart.

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“We are hoping the government Will lend some support to our industry to keep jobs and that landlords Will be less venal and share the pain more equally. at the moment a lot of them are not prepared to do that.” - Loh Lik Peng

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(Left) Drew Nocente of Salted & Hung will offer his menu for takeaway and delivery. (Right) Chef Han Li Guang (black t-shirt) organized a drive to provide food for healthcare workers during the Covid-19 health crisis.

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Drew Nocente of Salted & Hung will offer his menu for takeaway and delivery.

Restaurants gear up for battle against Covid-19

Social distancing. Home delivery. Fine dining chefs are hunkering down for a long fight against Covid-19. Will they win?
Mar 27, 2020 5:50 AM

SINCE HE AND some industry friends launched a drive to raise money to buy food for healthcare workers toiling during the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak, Han Li Guang says they have already raised over S$6000 and sent out S$5000 worth of packed meals – a better-thanexpected response to his “small” effort to do some good during a crisis.

It’s a little bright spot in the forecast of misery-with-a-chance-of-disaster that hangs over the F&B industry as restaurants struggle to stay afloat. While the chef-owner of one Michelin-starred Labyrinth has seen his numbers fall through the floor, Chef Han says he’s heartened by the response to his charity drive. Together with Keng Eng Kee (KEK), Jam at Sirihouse, Pezzo Group and Sanity Coffee, they’ve been pooling a portion of their proceeds to buy food from KEK and Pezzo to send to nurses, cleaners and other staff at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID).

“We’ve had direct donations from people who aren’t even our customers – they just call and say they want to help,” says Chef Han.

“We get a few hundred dollars. I even had a customer from the US who sent us S$140.” He’s also seen business pick up a bit, many of them friends who come to support. “Even with all the bad, we’re seeing the good side of people.”

DANGEROUS TERRITORY

Still, it’s been tough, with Chef Han taking a 20 per cent cut in pay and introducing no-pay-leave for his staff instead of resorting to layoffs.

Loh Lik Peng, head of The Unlisted Collection which has a stable of fine dining restaurants including Zen, Cloudstreet, Nouri, Pollen, Basque Kitchen by Aitor and more, is grim about the industry’s prospects. “It’s a question of another two or three months and you will start seeing quite a few restaurants closing. We are hoping the government will lend some support to our industry to keep jobs and that landlords will be less venal and share the pain more equally. At the moment a lot of them are not prepared to do that. Wage support is critical because that is the highest fixed cost, along with rent.”

As for Unlisted restaurants, “In comparison to our properties and restaurants in the UK, Ireland and Australia, things in Singapore are not quite so bad yet,” he adds. The pain has been disproportionate, with some getting by but Pollen, Majestic Bay and Jing hit the hardest, mainly because of their locations. “For now, we are not contemplating shutdowns but looking at reducing overheads and fixed costs as sharply as we can.”

However, Beppe De Vito of the ilLido Group is preparing for the worst. Although he has seen good response to his special dining discounts at all his outlets, “we’re not sure how long it can last”. Despite cautious optimism just a week ago, he says, “I fear we have not seen the worst yet. We’re currently working on a contingency plan that may include closure of some of our outlets. That will undoubtedly lead to temporary layoffs unless the government steps in to cover for this.” At risk are his flagship eateries Art and Aura at the National Gallery, which he will decide very soon whether to close until June. If he had a wish list for the kind of government help restaurants need, he reels it off: “Block all payments of employment passes’ levy fees, CPF and GST. Impose a rental freeze and allow the utilisation of deposits to eventually repay it. And, full if not partial support for salaries to retain all staff.”Fernando Arévalo, chef-owner of Preludio would concur, having sent out a public plea on social media for help. “We experienced a really big fall in business in the last weeks, almost by 70 per cent.” He’s since introduced a “Tough Times Ticket” initiative, that entitles diners to a full eight-course dinner for the price of a six-course that can be redeemed any time in the future, just one of a few strategies including small-scale catering and possibly home catering.

GOING INTO BATTLE

Hand sanitisers, temperature checks, safe distancing of tables one metre apart, and alternative revenue streams. These are just some of the weapons that restaurants are using to battle the virus. And diners will soon get Michelin-quality food delivered to their homes as restaurants ramp up their efforts to get their food to customers one way or another.

Leading the charge is Chef Han, whose original plan to open a casual concept this year was scuppered by Covid-19. So, he’s adapted it into a food delivery service offering top quality local dishes made from family recipes. With a coyly sweet name like Miss Vanda, he will start with ang moh chicken rice, har cheong kai made with boneless chicken wings, laksa and beef cheek rendang. “We can’t deliver Labyrinth cuisine so why not do traditional Singapore cooking – not fancy but good quality,” he says. It will be sold tingkat-style as a set meal of four dishes for around S$50 to S$60 for two people, with just 50 portions available a day, starting from mid-April.

Meanwhile, Michelin-starred Meta’s chefowner Sun Kim will launch a delivery and takeaway “Meta to go” service next week. “It will be very simple Korean food like kimchi fried rice, Korean pancakes and chawanmushi,” says Chef Sun, who has seen business drop by almost 40 per cent since February. He’s also adjusting operating hours and “offering short course menus with half beverage pairing in the restaurant”. Chef Sun also co-owns Kimme and modern Indian eatery Thevar. But with the departure of Kimme’s head chef Louis Han and the Covid-19 crisis, he decided to close it permanently instead of re-opening with a new concept.

“You will also see a lot of our places that didn’t previously do deliveries, now doing so,” says Unlisted’s Mr Loh. “Ivan (Brehm of Nouri) has started a cook-at-home series of dinners where he (or his team) will come to your home to cook dinner for you and your guests.”

Chef De Vito, too, is also rolling out ‘Beppe’s Home Food’ – a delivery service featuring classic Italian dishes for enjoying at home.Salted & Hung’s Drew Nocente offers almost his entire menu for takeaway and will introduce delivery next week as well. “We’ve done a new menu with more hearty dishes like braised wagyu short rib,” says Chef Nocente.

“We’ll be doing a 200gm Blackmore wagyu pastrami sandwich on homemade sourdough, lamb loin char siew, tiramisu and ANZAC biscuits.” Business has dropped recently, but “we are surviving,” he says.

Instead of laying off staff they are taking one day of no-pay-leave a month “which we will pay back once we are through this”. He has cut down on outsourcing his kitchen cleaning tasks from six days a week to three, with his chefs doing cleaning and dishwashing on the other days.

Cosy spaces to mingle, once a must-have are now a no-no at places like LeVeL33, a CBD microbrewery cum dining lounge that has taken  a severe hit due to its location. Owner Martin Bem has since stepped up sanitisation and safe distancing measures, such that “even on our popular terrace with a panoramic view of the Marina Bay waterfront, we’ve decreased seating capacity so there’s a considerable spacing between guests to make them feel comfortable.”

WILL IT WORK?

While things are still very bleak, “I definitely see more local diners coming out – some of ourrestaurants are doing ok and some are doing not so bad but some are also in dire straits,” says Mr Loh. “It will be many months before travellers come back, so restaurants that rely on that business may become unsustainable even in the medium term. Those with a strong local following will probably be ok so long as we do not have a very deep and long recession in Singapore. There may well be a process of separating the wheat from the chaff and that will be a painful process.”

“This line of business has always been volatile,” says Bjorn Shen of Artichoke which has also been hit “but no better or worse than others”. He adds, “Having been in the business for the last 10 years, nothing shocks me anymore. It’s always been clear to me that restaurants live on borrowed time, and despite our best efforts, everything we have can go away tomorrow, Covid-19 or not.” In fact, “I feel people’s health matters more than the F&B industry. It’s money that we lose, but people could be losing their lives.”

Ace Tan of the newly-opened 1:VU in Sentosa adds that it was tough in the first few weeks of the outbreak, but it’s since been generally positive with locals and staycationers helping to fill up the restaurant over the weekends.

An upcoming two-night collaboration with Korean chef Louis Han is also getting good traction, such that he’s thinking of extending it by another night. But he also makes use of the inevitable downtime to work on R&D.

But generally, “feeling down won’t change anything. The important thing to do now is to get through this, not alone but with the community. And it’s been inspiring to see how the F&B community, guests included, have been bonding together to help each other."