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Rent, salaries, Covid-19 testing: How F&B bosses are coping with restrictions

feather blade famous eunos bcm empire eats buttler koffee singapore

It’s no secret that we’ve been thrown in for a loop with the constant barrage of COVID-19 restrictions. It’s been a rollercoaster ride since 2020, and it looks like we’re not getting off anytime soon.

Of course, no one has sat through the highs and lows of COVID-19 as much as the F&B industry. They have been battered, bruised, and sadly, not everyone has made it through unscathed. 

Now that we have reverted to Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) and some normalcy has resumed, we spoke to some local F&B owners about how they have coped with the measures thus far and whether more can be done to tide through the choppy waters ahead. 

A necessary online pivot 

When it comes to saving the F&B industry, there has been no louder rallying cry than the one to support our hawkers.

From the emotional pleas on Facebook by KF Seetoh, to the emergence of various Facebook groups to encourage people to get their lunch from the hawker centre, we have tried our best to save our hawker culture — but is it enough? 

F&B COVID-19 restrictions, delivery and ta pau services
Image Credit: juiceonline.com

Having seen a 25 per cent decrease in sales during each Heightened Alert, Ler Jie Wei of Famous Eunos Bak Chor Mee is relieved that dining-in is now allowed again and business amongst his four stalls have begun to stabilise.

With the pivot to delivery platforms and the advent of group buy, these two areas now make up a significant portion of Famous Eunos Bak Chor Mee’s total sales.

The same can be said for Leong Sheen Jet, owner of The Feather Blade and RAPPU, who saw an increase in revenue during the circuit breaker period and both Heightened Alerts.

“We were fortunate enough to experience a surge in overall sales. This we believe, was in part due to our islandwide delivery capabilities, so anyone from anywhere in Singapore could enjoy both RAPPU and Feather Blade”, Sheen told us.

Butler Koffee amid F&B COVID-19 restirctions
Butler Koffee’s brick-and-mortar store/ Image Credit: Butler Koffee Instagram

Indeed, a pivot to online delivery might be the saving grace many F&B businesses need. Take Alicia Yap of Butler Koffee, who runs a speciality mobile coffee cart service, as an example.

Pre-Covid, Alicia served her winning drinks at different events, including weddings, conferences, grand openings and exclusive private events, but saw nearly zero income when the pandemic hit.

Like most coffee joints, Alicia turned to leverage on our never-ending addiction to cold brew and the ease of online ordering. It seemed like her hunch paid off.

“At the beginning of March 2021, we decided to start a physical store to continue our coffee business, while we wait for more events to return in the future,” she said.

Mandatory Covid-19 tests for employees not a huge stressor 

Picture of COVID-19 test kit
Image credit: AFP/Fred Tanneau

With the resumption of dining-in, the safety of the patrons and staff is on everyone’s minds. With employees requiring mandatory swab-testing every two weeks, it’s surely an additional burden for F&B owners.

Jie Wei breaks it down for us; with nine members of staff and part-timers coupled with each test kit amounting to S$9 to S$10 per person, it adds up. Thankfully, the government provides these test kits for free, so that’s one less thing for F&B owners to worry about.

While the safety of everyone involved is of the utmost importance, Howard Lo, director of Empire Eats, the group behind iconic brands such as Standing Sushi Bar, Tanuki Raw, Salmon Samurai, and The Secret Mermaid, is also concerned about the welfare of his staff.

“Staff morale and mental well-being have taken a beating during Covid-19,” he said, adding that the group is committed is to no layoffs and keeping salaries intact relied heavily on government grants and schemes.

Are the existing gov’t grants and schemes helpful?

Just when these F&B owners have found their footing, a new wave of COVID-19 cases have hit, and they find themselves underwater again.

The life rafts the government has sent their way in forms of grants and schemes have not been perfect, but they’ve been able to help fledgling businesses such as Alicia’s.

“Yes, these schemes have been very helpful to small businesses like ours. For example, when we started our new store at Kreta Ayer, we received 80 per cent of grants for our new machines and cashier system”. 

For Jie Wei of Famous Eunos Bak Chor Mee, government schemes have certainly helped offset pressing costs such as foreign labour and wages. “We are also glad that the schemes from the government reflect that they understand the pains that the industry is going through”.

The government has a shared sense of empathy for F&B owners, which is heartening for Howard. “The continued salary support after circuit breaker was great recognition by the government that business will not bounce back immediately and that this is a long slog”. 

Still, not all life rafts are perfect. “Even with the support from the government, most are barely getting by,” said Jie Wei.

Howard shared his sentiments. “This time, the salary support was reduced, there was no support for foreign workers, no waiver of foreign worker levy, and no requirement of landlords to lower rentals”.

Gov’t needs to ease the sale of alcohol and music restrictions

Elderflower Sangria from The Feather Blade
Image Credit: The Feather Blade

For Sheen, he hopes to see the easing of the alcohol sale restrictions, which is currently banned after 10.30pm.

This extension will “definitely be a huge boost to the industry as many of our friends in the bar scene, for example, rely on a significant portion of their income during those hours,” he explained.

He also finds it unfair that gyms and fitness studios are allowed to play music whilst their patrons exercise without masks when music is still not allowed to be played in F&B settings. “Music is definitely missed by most as it is an integral part of the dining ambience,” he stressed.

Howard concurs with these two statements. “With the vaccination rate approaching 80 per cent, I hope that the government will relax more restrictions”, he said, particularly pointing out the extension of alcohol sale and the playing of music.

Our F&B industry has certainly been put through the wringer by COVID-19. While have most have been resilient and adaptable, it’s a tenuous situation that we hope they ride out relatively unscathed. 

Featured Image Credit: The Feather Blade / Chinatown Food Street / Microsoft / C.R Tan via Chun Tsubaki

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