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BT ILLUSTRATOR: SIMON ANG

How will coronavirus change the way we dine out?

How will the novel coronavirus change the way we eat?
Feb 21, 2020 5:50 AM

“VALENTINE’S DAY MUST be VirusFree Day,” deadpans one restaurant owner who, like others in the F&B scene, reported a full house for both lunch and dinner on that most important romantic day of the year.

In any other year, this would be a given. But this isn’t a normal year. With restaurants reportedly in crisis mode because of the COVID-19 outbreak, packing into restaurants on Valentine’s Day and avoiding them like the plague the next day is just one of the many erratic and irrational responses of people spooked by the ongoing health crisis.

Without a definitive playbook to tell them what’s safe or not, people are relying on a mix of official advice, news reports, social media and plain old fake news to dictate their actions on the dining front, leaving restaurants scrambling to contain the fallout.

THE HARDEST HIT

A supplier who specialises in high end Japanese seafood says that demand is still strong, with sushi restaurants either unscathed or perhaps seeing a slight drop.

On the other hand, another supplier has seen demand plummet from hawkers and mid market restaurants. “I would say supplies to hotels have dropped by 10 percent, restaurants 50 per cent and hawkers 40 per cent,” he says. “Steamboat restaurants in particular, are doing very badly. One of my customers in Chinatown has stopped operation because there are no customers at all. But it’s not just them.

Everyone is badly hit.”

Goodwood Park Hotel sums up the industry sentiment with its own experience since Chinese New Year when it saw a sharp drop in business. A spokesman says that besides the restaurants being very quiet, “Our corporate meetings have also been affected with cancellations of events, and two exhibitors who engaged us for food catering at the Singapore Airshowalso withdrew. Our room occupancy from Jan to May has dropped by 50%. Half of the room cancellations are from our corporate room sales.”

Restaurants in malls are among the hardest hit and no one knows that better than Han Li Guang, chef-owner of the Michelin-starred Labyrinth which is located in the Esplanade Mall, a tourist and theatre hub. He’s seen all three major sources of revenue dry up in the space of a couple of weeks: tourists, corporates and events.

“Even the pre-theatre dinner crowd isn’t coming,” says Chef Han. “They’re either not going to the shows or they’re just going straight there and going home right after that.”

All his catering events have been cancelled, as well as lunch or dinner events for larger groups. “There’s really nothing we can do about it but wait it out, and hopefully we can hold out. We’ve spoken to the mall management about a reduction in rent, but nothing has been decided yet, so we’re still waiting.”

BUSINESS AS USUAL

A drop of 30 per cent to 50 per cent is roughly the norm, but a lot depends on the restaurant’s location and the clientele they cater to. High end restaurants that see a lot of wealthy clients from mainland China have seen that business dry up, while lunch business in the CBD area has been hit, with more companies implementing workfrom-home arrangements.

At the three Michelin-starred Les Amis, Sebastien Lepinoy says he has seen a 15 per cent to 20 per cent drop, mainly due to the tourist and mainland Chinese business.

“But we still have local business, which is why things are not so bad for now.”

Rishi Naleendra – chef-owner of restaurants Cheek and Cloudstreet says Cheek’s lunch business has seen a bit of a slowdown, but Cloudstreet has been relatively unscathed with a packed house for Valentine’s Day and consistent business on other days. “Dinners at Cheek are ok,” says Chef Naleendra, adding that “we are a little stressed by the virus but it’s out of our hands so we can’t really do much about it.”

Restaurants that are in lower density areas, or are already hard-to-book destination spots are still going strong.

Cult favourite Mustard Seed, for example, is still fully booked until April, while hot tables such as Odette or Burnt Ends are still seeing healthy crowds. Over at COMO Dempsey, Malcolm Lee of the one-starred Candlenut is thankful that his restaurant “has not been affected much because of “the unconditional support of our guests”. But “we’re not taking anything for granted, which is why we’ve taken enhanced hygiene measures to ensure the safety of our staff and guests.”

One restaurant owner just outside the city centre says he’s actually seen an increase in business because “people perceive us as a safe place where there isn’t a lot of human traffic.”

Adds Drew Nocente of Salted & Hung on Purvis Street, “We’ve been lucky because we don’t do many group events at this time of the year anyway. Most of our diners are locals and they are still supporting us. It helps that Purvis Street isn’t a tourist destination so it has fewer crowds.”

In the meantime, restaurants like Ola Cucina del Mar are coming up with novel ways to boost business. Chef-owner Daniel Chavez has just introduced a food delivery service for the CBD area, as well as a Latin BBQ featuring Peruvian grilled dishes that can be prepared for home delivery as well.

CHANGING THE WAY WE EAT OUT

From eating out at up to 10 restaurants a week, independent marketing consultant Jill Sara says “Life is very boring now, since most of my friends are very wary of public spaces. I haven’t booked a single restaurant or eaten out except for very casual eateries a few times.” Food delivery is the norm, while her chef husband Daniel Sia of the Lo&Behold Group cooks on weekends.

For private investor and food lover Chan Kwai Sum, life – and eating – continues as normal. “Until the DORSCON level goes to red, there is no adjustment for me apart from more frequent use of hand sanitiser and not touching my face.” As for another food enthusiast who declined to be named, she is still going out as per normal and even posted an appeal on Facebook for people to exercise common sense and support local restaurants. She says, “I got a lot of response for that, which means there are a lot of people out there who are still going out and aren’t letting this control their lives.”

Of course, it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t take precautions such as avoiding buffets because of the sheer number of people in the same space.

As one restaurateur sums up, there may be a short term change in the way people socialise. “More people will hang out in each other’s homes, and you might see more private dining. And if they do go out it will be to less congested areas. People want to eat out but they want to feel safe.

But if the virus situation extends into the long term, and the initial panic subsides, people may start to think it’s not so bad and will start coming out again.”