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A leader never lets a crisis go to waste, says Chope CEO
WHAT CAN CHOPE, a restaurant reservation platform, do when dining out has turned into dining in? When the number of restaurant closures is rising by approximately 50 per cent? When post-lockdown diners may be paranoid about standing in a queue or sitting close to somebody they don’t know?
In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, CEO Arrif Ziaudeen lost some sleep over the possibility that Chope was losing its relevance to its 5,000 restaurant clients across seven markets. But just as the virus rapidly enveloped the globe, Chope swiftly adapted its technology to address the changing circumstances, engineered delivery solutions for its clients’ new takeaway offerings, and worked with government bodies and F&B organisations to try and keep the industry’s head above water.
Nimble as it may be, Chope has been forced to cut costs through furloughs and pay cuts, as other companies have done. But Mr Ziaudeen is confident his 9-year-old startup will weather the storm and cross its 10th year mark safely – and see the F&B industry rise again to its previous highs.
As the leader of your company, how are you coping?
It's been difficult, of course. Our revenue is very much tied to our restaurant clients’ performance. We've seen something like a 60 per cent drop in revenue because of the circuit breaker… But a leader never lets a good crisis go to waste. And I figured out early on that we needed to spin up a delivery business. For the past seven years, I’d been saying, there’s no way we're going to do deliveries, the scene is just crowded, the fundamentals don't make sense. I’m very data-driven and I’d analysed the data.
But then, all of a sudden, one Sunday afternoon, I said, we have to do it, the industry needs it. Can we get it up by Tuesday? Can we do a Google Doc or whatever but by Tuesday please? I want you guys to work non-stop for the next three days to get this new business up… Now what we’ve found is that 42 per cent of restaurants actually did not do delivery prior to this crisis. And for us, we generally tended to think of the food delivery business as a pretty saturated industry, with some large incumbents in the market such as Deliveroo and GrabFood.
But what the crisis has revealed to us is that it's not saturated, and that it's just the beginning of this revolution. We’ve been able to connect the dots between the restaurants who want delivery and the drivers looking for more work, because there’s been a gigantic drop in people taking taxis. Meanwhile, restaurants have figured out how best to package their meals and keep them fresh for the duration of the travel.
So in some ways, the crisis has been a moment for me to go back to my startup roots when we weren't so worried about next quarter’s EBITDA forecast, and just really go back to asking ourselves, what do restaurants want, what do diners want? Let's move fast, let's get this thing done, let's test it, and if it fails, let’s move to the next thing. So in that way, it’s been exciting to adapt, take all the negative energy and turn it into something positive and creative. But of course, it's been incredibly stressful and depressing too.
Chope was on a very healthy growth trajectory. In nine years, it expanded from its Singapore base into seven other markets. It now has 5,000 restaurant clients. Revenue for 2019 was S$31 million, up from 2018’s S$19.5 million. No doubt 2020 has halted that trajectory. Any thoughts on how you might rescue growth?
I think there are a few ways to answer this question. First, while a number of restaurants are closing, the vast majority are not closing. They're persevering and they're going to reopen when phase two starts. And at that point, we play an important role as a champion for this industry where, along with other stakeholders, we're working together with Enterprise Singapore and various governmental bodies to restart and rejuvenate dining out in a responsible way. By responsible, I mean making sure the restaurants can operate again while at the same time not bring about a new wave of infections. So that's one answer.
The second answer is that, while we do see an increased number of closures, these tend to be restaurants that weren’t performing well to begin with. The restaurant industry has a particular characteristic, which is that something like 30 or 40 per cent of restaurants drive 70 to 80 per cent of the traffic in the entire industry. So my take is that the strong will survive, and the ones that need more help are the ones that were already on the brink. And I guess, if anything, Covid-19 has accelerated their closure.
Meanwhile, Covid-19 has also accelerated the pace of restaurants taking on technology to develop new revenue streams, not just in terms of delivery but also other creative ideas. For instance, some restaurants are setting up online grocery stores so their customers can have access to their ingredients that are not available in supermarkets such as Cold Storage or NTUC. So we're actually seeing a lot of diversification. And I think our job is to support our restaurants as they venture into that new online space.
What other tech solutions are you offering to the industry?
I feel that a lot of our technology was already primed for future regulations with regard to safe distancing. The first is table management. I think it's going to be a very important part of dining, in that there are going to be all kinds of levels, from one-metre distancing between individuals, to maximum party sizes of five. And every restaurant is different, because some restaurants may have one long bar running through them – so does that count as one table, or five?
So these are opportunities for our team to act almost like consultants and help apply what we’re learning to see how to formulate solutions… Because we’re looking across 5,000 restaurants and we are able to quickly aggregate questions and take them up to Enterprise SG and STB and get their responses and suggestions. So I think that's the role that we play, where our product solutions and technologies can be implemented to help solve these problems.
We’re also able to help restaurants with queue management, which allows you to join a queue virtually on Chope’s app, which can notify you when it's time to come and pick up your food, or come and sit down in the restaurant. Previously, I think restaurants didn't see a need for such a system. It was a case of, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But now there's clearly a need for these solutions to be deployed more widely.
Chope’s recently co-authored a white paper on the pandemic’s impact on Singapore restaurants. There are some striking findings, but which stood out for you?
That 62 per cent of restaurants that have continued to operate on a takeaway and delivery basis have seen significant falls of 50 per cent or more in revenue compared to the same period last year (April 2019). And that, at the current rate of cost and revenue during the lockdown, 42 per cent of restaurants will not be able to operate beyond two months. And 81 per cent will not be able to operate beyond six months.