Hard times are no stranger to executive chef Haikal Johari, of MICHELIN-starred Alma, a restaurant located in Singapore’s Orchard district. Following a serious motorcycle accident in Thailand five years ago, which left him paralysed and largely wheelchair-bound, he found his way back into the kitchen, creating and tasting food, managing the restaurant’s operations and nurturing younger chefs.
Carrying the same steadfast and positive attitude that has seen him through the past few years, Johari worked together with his restaurant team to come up with solutions to help Alma tide over the Circuit Breaker period.
When new restrictions were introduced that prohibited restaurants from receiving dine-in customers, the venue serving modern European cuisine with Asian inspirations had to scramble to set up a new takeaway system, and also find ways to stay connected with their customers.
Interacting with guests again
Despite the physical distance, Johari has found himself speaking with his customers a lot more than usual during this period.
Before the Circuit Breaker, Johari was mostly stationed in the kitchen and would hardly leave his spot to interact with diners, unless they insisted.
"I will ask my chef de cuisine, Sufian, to go out, or my sous chef, Jun Kai, to ask them about the meal," he says. "I also want to nurture my younger chefs to go out, to be confident, and to talk about our cuisine and what we do."
When the Circuit Breaker kicked in, however, the restaurant started offering pre-order special menus on Fridays and Saturdays, which come with instructions on how to heat up the food at home. Johari would text and call his customers to walk through the steps with them and make sure they enjoy their meal.
"For me, it was another way of knowing people, knowing my customers and communicating during this tough period. You don't always have to communicate physically, you can do it through food," Johari said.
A balancing act
While technology has its benefits, Johari believes that a healthy mix of new technologies with old-school practices, works best for his restaurant.
When the Circuit Breaker started, Alma swiftly signed up to be among the ranks of MICHELIN-recommended restaurants on online food delivery platform, Grab — a move that has helped to expand their clientele.
His restaurant manager, who is also the sommelier for Alma, makes wine recommendations on their Instagram and Facebook pages through videos, taking customers through the finer points of wine-making and detecting wine notes. By leveraging these platforms to share their expertise, Alma was able to bolster their alcohol sales.
However, the extensive array of food and beverage options offered online also had a drawback: Customers can become spoilt for choice, Johari believes.
“When you go online, there are so many other restaurants. Initially you may have wanted to order from a particular restaurant, but after you see a restaurant here and another restaurant there, it makes you even more fickle-minded," he explained. "In the end you end up not ordering from the actual restaurant you wanted."
Johari adopts a similarly pragmatic approach when navigating various social media platforms.
While online interest is great for marketing, it does not always lead to an increase in offline sales, Johari explained. “Even with the Instagram, Facebook, maybe you have certain amount of likes and everything but it doesn’t convert into sales. Let’s say we have 200 likes, maybe only 10 from Singapore, the other 190 from all over the world. They won’t order from us. It’s more for presence, but talking about sales right, it doesn’t generate sales.”
Taking on a more targeted approach, Johari posted flyers around the Orchard district that the restaurant is located in.
This idea came from an experience he had, coming home one day from work to discover a brochure at his house from a well-known fast food chain. It grabbed his attention immediately.
He wondered: “They have all the avenues, applications, commercials on TV, Instagram, Facebook but they are still sending hand copied brochures to houses.” Seeing some merits to this more old-school, offline approach, he printed flyers and with some help from his wife and staff, posted them around the restaurant’s neighbourhood.
Though fully aware that people might discard them, Johari says, “Sometimes you have to do something a bit different, a little bit more outstanding. We don't know which is the right way and which is the wrong way, but at least we try.”
Finding strength from within
The team at Alma has grown closer together over the Circuit Breaker, having spent more time together, and weathering the challenges that the pandemic has posed to the restaurant industry, together. “Working in a kitchen, the hardest part is managing people, because everyone has a different background. [But now] everybody has to fight for the same cause to survive,” said Johari, who shares gladly that he has not had to retrench any member of staff during this period.
Despite having to take pay cuts, members of his team continued to report for work — sometimes even on their day-off for no pay — and dedicating 100 per cent of their efforts to the kitchen.
The testing times have provided an opportunity for him to reflect on the philosophy of restaurant work and his life’s purpose, Johari said. “In life, as in the restaurant business, I think sometimes we need to ask ourselves deep down, what are the things we really want. What is the aim of the restaurant? Is everyone in the same boat with you? ”
Supporting, working, and persevering through hard times together, Johari has watched the team’s mission strengthen in harmony. He says proudly: “After this whole ordeal, I appreciate every single one of my staff even more.”
This article is the third in a 4-part series that looks at how Michelin restaurants in Singapore have banded together as a community, pivoted their businesses and introduced new innovations to continue raising the bar for exceptional dining experiences in Singapore during the city's efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19.
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