REPORTS of the F&B industry’s death earlier in 2020 have been greatly exaggerated, and for the next six months at least, expect dining out to continue as the national pastime. So say Singapore restaurateurs who believe the strong rebound of the past few months will continue even past the traditional peak festive season.
While there are caveats — with restaurants catering to large functions, CBD eateries and certain quick service concepts still hobbling along – it’s still not going to be easy to snag a weekend reservation at a hot restaurant anytime soon.
“We are looking ahead to 2021 with guarded optimism,” says Desmond Lim, chairman of the Les Amis group, who expects those already on solid footing to continue that way, while “segments dependent on tourism and those affected by WFH – especially in the CBD – would probably continue to be badly impacted.”
“Well-loved brands will continue to do disproportionately better,” says Wee Teng Wen, founder of the Lo & Behold Group. “In addition to strong local support, Singapore has also attracted many well-heeled visitors who continue to stay here well into 2021 – they have been a great support for our dining scene. Even when borders gradually open there could be a net inflow, as Singapore is comparatively safer and doing a brilliant job of attracting events such as the World Economic Forum.”
Loh Lik Peng, founder of The Unlisted Collection, believes that while business looks good in the new year, things might slow down in the later half of 2021. “Once borders open and people start travelling again we might see a drop, especially for the higher end of the market. Things have held up well because people have been spending money in Singapore instead of overseas. Joblessness has been kept to a minimum, allowing economic activity to resume quite strongly. If any of these legs gives way, then you will see a drop again, as we’ve seen in many other places so we should be cognizant that the recovery is fragile.”
Vadim Korob, managing director of the CBD-located Zafferano, agrees, adding that while business over the festive season was “unprecedented”, 2021 will be a very challenging year, “especially for large restaurants like ours that depend on corporate booking and private events”, he says. “There will probably be a gap between the ease of travel restrictions and commencement of full scale events. This will be a tough period for us.”
Sushi will still top the popularity charts as Japanese cuisine continues to dominate, “especially at the upper and fine dining end of the market,” says Mr Lim. “The market might be distracted by the odd entrant from various shores such as most recently Sri Lanka, or interesting well known new-to-market brands, but they will not form a significant proportion of demand.”
With the recently acquired Unesco heritage status for hawker food, Mr Lim sees a renewed interest in humble bak chor mee, char kway teow and the like. “I see a new crop of younger hawkers taking the plunge into this segment, and with the support of government agencies, there’s growth potential here. With the eventual resumption of travel, inbound tourists will add a new dimension of interest in and demand for local street food.”
Pop-ups, chef/personality-driven concepts that are great Instagram fodder will also be in, adds Mr Lim, along with eateries promoting sustainability. Delivery will still have a strong presence with WFH as a default, although its share will shrink. But delivery concepts that focus on semi-home cooked, frozen or sous vide meals could have an edge over conventional takeaway.
The coming years “will see a renewed emphasis on sustainable eating from an environmental and ethical standpoint”, says Unlisted’s Mr Loh. “This virus jumped species so animal husbandry and environmental concerns will be more important.”
Alternative meats will also be a bigger part of the dining picture. That means “cell-cultured, engineered food and alternative proteins will all come to the fore in coming years,” Mr Loh adds. “We can’t be hurtling down the same path of more and more consumption of wagyu and lobster.”
“Chef-driven concepts will continue to fare strongly as people now more than ever will seek out experiences that generate a sense of authenticity and intimacy post lockdown,” says Liling Ong of the Cicheti Group. “Demand for comfort food will remain strong as the work-from-home/stay-home mindset leaves many still accustomed to a new, slowed down way of living.”
That leaves room for the delivery business to grow, believes Cynthia Chua, founder of the Spa Esprit Group. “Affordable concepts like cafes, bistros and bakeries will continue to see an uptrend, as will the demand for comfort and convenience when it comes to delivery,” says the owner of Tiong Bahru Bakery and Open Farm Community, among others. “It’s up to operators to fine tune their delivery offerings to match consumers’ needs. DIY kits won’t be as popular now that people can dine in restaurants. There’s a strong case for restaurants to include delivery-specific items alongside their regular menus that have a stronger value proposition such as family bundles or fresh bakes and groceries.”
With strict safe distancing measures in place, it’s tough being in a business that literally feeds on conviviality, says Zafferano’s Mr Korob, of the challenges facing the industry. The other issue is the same bugbear: manpower. “Despite the recent retrenchments in hotels and some restaurant chains, it is still very challenging to employ Singaporeans who are willing to work in the food and beverage industry, even though the positions are offered at above market rate.”
Once the government’s Jobs Support Scheme (JSS) runs out in March, “the average F&B business will struggle to remain profitable,” says Mr Lim. There are several reasons for this: more competition as malls add more F&B to their tenant mix; salary competition for rank and file positions as restaurants re-employ staff who were terminated during CB; a shrinking pool of manpower as work pass holders mainly from Malaysia aren’t able to return; and of course rentals.
Even with Phase 3, the addition of three more people to the previous maximum of five per table doesn’t change things much apart from “letting us fit sensible groups in our private rooms,” says Martin Bem, managing director of the Ponte Group which owns LeVeL33 and Erwin’s Gastrobar. “As long as bigger groups are not allowed for say, corporate functions, and alcohol is not allowed to be sold after 10.30pm, the positive impact is not extensive.”
The general mood is “combative and optimistic as we’re well aware of how much lies shattered around the world and how it’s going to take years to recover,” says Mr Loh. “Singapore has been a bright spot for us in relative terms so it’s about trimming the sails and being ready for a recovery.”
Niche eateries like the Spanish restaurant Gaig are all cheers after coming out of “the worst year of our life”, says restaurant director Núria Gibert. The owners had put all their savings into expanding their space just before CB, but after some heart-stopping months, the restaurant rebounded strongly in Phase 2 and ended the year more profitable than before Covid, thanks to government support and higher turnover from the bigger space.
Other groups are also cautiously expanding with new and revised concepts. Les Amis will expand existing brands such as Tarte and Peperoni, and open a new Japanese steakhouse and Texan barbecue, and revive its old Lazy Gourmet brand of convenient sous vide meals for the home. Ms Chua plans to open another outlet of Tiong Bahru Bakery in Fort Canning Park “which will be our most ambitious outlet yet, skewing towards the art of sourdough making, along with an academy focusing on sourdough fermentation”. The eco-conscious restaurateur is also adding an in-soil farm to Open Farm Community to boost the ‘grow your own food’ movement.
Dr Bém in turn is building up the Ponte Group’s online and delivery business, particularly its new bakery brand Locaba, which has been seeing good traction for its keto-friendly, vegan and low carb baked goods.
Whatever happens in 2021, the F&B industry will prevail for a very simple reason: “People just love to go out and share a meal with friends,” says Dr Bém. “The need to socialise over food and drinks is an incredibly strong need for us humans.”