When Loh Lik Peng received a text message from fellow restaurateur Beppe de Vito to get together just over a week ago, he did not expect that the two men would end up aggregating a 200-strong community of restaurant operators across Singapore who are equally disquieted by the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
“When Beppe contacted me, we spoke about coming together as one voice, to help each other as well as let consumers know how they can help us,” said Loh, whose stable of restaurants under the Unlisted Collection group includes two-MICHELIN-star Zén and one-star Basque Kitchen, Burnt Ends, Cheek Bistro and Nouri. De Vito, meanwhile, runs several Italian restaurants including MICHELIN-starred Braci under his Il Lido group.
Loh and De Vito began looping in fellow restaurateurs on their conversations, and within a week, the chat had ballooned to include major industry players that speak for more than 500 food and beverage venues in the city, by De Vito’s estimate.
They include the Lo and Behold (of three-MICHELIN-star Odette) and Privé restaurant groups, regional Chinese restaurant operators Paradise Group and the Tunglok Group, major hotel chain operators, as well as smaller independent restaurant and bar owners from dining clusters such as Club Street, Orchard Road and Chinatown.
“It started with the bigger groups but we wanted to open it up to everyone so that we can share what we know with each other,” said De Vito, whose phone was repeatedly buzzing with new messages from the chat group during this interview.
Supported by a handful of volunteer publicists, including De Vito’s wife Lynn, the group created the #savefnbsg hashtag, a public social media campaign to encourage food lovers and media publications to continue to support their favourite restaurants and the industry as a whole.
The group also conducted an informal survey of chat group participants and released a round of statistics to lobby for more assistance from the Singapore government and private landlords.
Several of the Whatsapp chat group participants met in person for the first time at the end of March, while “more than a hundred messages” are exchanged online daily, according to De Vito. Many share personal experiences of how they are coping with the host of issues they face, from diving revenues due to low footfall to the challenges of retaining staff amid growing cost pressure.
Others offer suggestions for collaborative action, such as a shared platform to sell dining vouchers or tips on how to pivot to doing online deliveries in a financially sustainable manner. As part of the Singapore government's heightened "circuit breaker" measures announced on April 3, restaurants, hawker centres, coffee shops and food courts may remain open but customers are prohibited from dining in them. Food service providers can only provide takeaway or delivery services.
However, food delivery companies take a 30 to 40 percent commission off orders, which can obliterate the slim margins restaurants operate on, restaurant owners say.
The most pressing issue most operators are wringing their hands over, however, is rent — and how to continue paying the often astronomical sums it takes just to house a restaurant in costly, land-scarce Singapore.
“There’s a disaster happening and landlords still think it’s not their problem,” he said, adding that he has been threatened with a lawyer’s letter from one of his landlords if he defaults on rent payments.
“The real issue here is that landlords have much more bargaining power than tenants, the economic power is largely with landlords,” said Loh, acknowledging, however, that recent measures announced by the Singapore government have helped to bring the landlords to the negotiating table.
Subsidies and Support
As part of its annual national budget announced in February, the Singapore government announced wage subsidies under its newly launched Job Support Scheme to help businesses keep local jobs. On March 26, the government announced that the subsidies will be increased to 50 percent and 75 percent for a nine-month period for firms in the food services and tourism sectors respectively. Restaurants are also relieved of paying property taxes this year, and landlords were “urged” to pass the savings on to their tenants.
A week later on April 1, the authorities further announced that they will pass new legislation on April 6 to ensure that landlords "unconditionally" pass on the full property tax rebates to their tenants. Restaurants and other commercial tenants that are unable to pay rent as a result of the financial impact of measures introduced to curb Covid-19 infections will be able to hold off such contractual obligations for at least six months under a proposed law, the authorities also announced.
A Collective Voice
Both Loh, De Vito and a subset of the group have also met with Singapore government representatives in early April to communicate their concerns and lobby for further relief measures for the industry.
“Things are changing so quickly but it takes time for us to adjust our businesses to the new measures that are now being updated almost daily,” Loh said.
After a meeting with a government agency, for instance, the men shared details on the group chat about a government grant that would pay up to 90 per cent of restaurant workers’ wages if they were sent for training courses at government-approved culinary school SHATEC during this period. Chat group participants have also exchanged details on different business loans offered by banks.
"We try to share with the group all the information we have, but ultimately, operators have to make their own assessments about whether the options suit their businesses," Loh added.
For De Vito, closing shop is not an option, even though it is costing him S$10,000 a day to keep his doors open: “We could have just shut down and done nothing, but we are staying open simply to pay salaries and avoid putting our people on the streets. Even for the staff we have unfortunately had to let go, we are still honouring their pay for this month."
Still, he is staying optimistic: he is working on launching an online-only concept that can turn into a long-term business even post-virus outbreak. “We have the time now to really come up with new ideas on what we can do in the future, and not just temporarily, which we have been putting off because we were so busy with our restaurants,” he explained.
Bib Gourmand Cantonese eatery Ka Soh owner Cedric Tang (pictured, right in photo) said that being part of the chat group has helped him to better understand the authorities’ ever-evolving measures.
According to Tang, different government agencies have communicated varying messages to restaurant operators, so everyone has a different interpretation of the regulations.
“It’s always better to have a unified and central voice to aggregate and reinforce the points we want to get across — either to the government, the media or to the public. With this group, at least there’s a chance for smaller players like us and those who may have been left out of government’s relief packages to be heard as well,” added Tang, who will temporarily close one of his three outlets to deal with the downturn.
As to whether sharing survival tips with your competitors is counter-intuitive in a demanding industry often billed as a “survival of the fittest”, Tang said that some ideas — such as enlisting taxi drivers as food couriers — need critical mass to come into fruition. “If the industry survives, everyone survives,” Tang added.
“This group is basically trying to break that stereotype. And frankly, I don’t see this [competitive] attitude in anyone right now,” De Vito added. “Everyone is trying to help everyone else. There’s a feeling that we’re all in this together, and that already helps.”
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