S'pore's F&B scene may look like it's thriving online, but it's being devastated by Covid-19

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | June 06, 2021, 05:15 PM

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COMMENTARY: At the end of April 2020, lawyer and restauranteur Tay Eu-Yen penned her thoughts about the immense effect that Covid-19 and Circuit Breaker had on the F&B industry.

One year since the end of Circuit Breaker in Singapore, many restaurants and F&B businesses are facing similar struggles to what they dealt with during that time, due to the restrictions on dining in during Phase 2 (Heightened Alert). 

Tay first started in the F&B and nightlife industries 16 years ago, with the well-known nightclub, The Butter Factory. She went on to co-found the Singapore Nightlife Business Association in 2012, and is the legal advisor to the Restaurant Association of Singapore. 

Tay also co-founded Coterie Concepts, whose flagship business Sum Yi Tai — a Cantonese tapas restaurant-bar — operated in Telok Ayer for nearly six years before closing down in November 2020, six months after Tay wrote this piece.

Mothership and The Birthday Collective are in collaboration to share a selection of essays from the 2020 edition of The Birthday Book.

The Birthday Book (which you can buy here) is a collection of essays about Singapore by 55 authors from various walks of life. These essays reflect on the narratives of their lives, that define them as well as Singapore's collective future.

"Weathering Unprecedented Times in Singapore" is an essay by Tay, first published in The Birthday Book, about the devastating impact of Covid-19 on the F&B scene, but also the heartening support of the community and government during this time. 

By Tay Eu-Yen

In the months leading to the circuit breaker (a.k.a CB, an ironically apt acronym), I found myself contemplating the question of business survival.

As our restaurants geared up for Chinese New Year bookings only to face panicked cancellations and indefinite postponements, what loomed ahead was uncertainty. In the early days of the pandemic, survival was a nagging concern.

Would we be able to make up the revenue lost from big events? That background whine grew into a louder worry as imported Covid-19 cases grew.

With rotational teams and "work from home" policies, people traffic decreased dramatically in the CBD (where our restaurants are located). Would we be able to attract even half of our usual crowd when the odds were stacked against us?

Would restaurants survive circuit breaker?

Then, that already maddening hum became deafening when things came to an abrupt standstill.

Very quickly, entertainment outlets were forced to close and restaurants were expected to pivot to take-out and delivery. Dining in was no longer an option, not even with the social distancing rules put in place a week earlier.

I remember watching the Prime Minister’s speech live on YouTube with my seven-year-old daughter. As she startled delightfully over the prospect of home schooling for a month, I knew that the question of survival for restaurants had drastically changed in nature.

The question was no longer about how to increase revenue to sustain the business, because there was no more revenue to speak of. No matter how hard we worked, take-out and delivery would make up no more than 5 percent of normal sales.

The existential question confronting restaurants was now an imminent one. Should we stay on to fight this war?

The crushing impact of the CB has exposed the vulnerabilities of the F&B industry. Razor-thin margins from having to cope with exorbitant rents and customer price sensitivities endowed by the information age meant that most restaurants had no capital reserves.

F&B scene has already collapsed

When I first started out 15 years ago, selling an experience was the heart of F&B. When did that transform into selling a social media presence?

I digress, but the point is that competition among F&B outlets on social media gives the false impression that the industry is thriving despite high rentals, price wars and manpower difficulties. It is not.

Now, the Covid-19 crisis has plunged us into a deep dive that will drown most of us, while food delivery platforms piggyback on our plight to profit from high delivery commissions.

Meanwhile, landlords delude themselves into believing that there will always be another F&B tenant if we cannot pull through. For some, the devastation of the F&B scene has not sunk in.

I assure you that the scene has already collapsed.

Solidarity with F&B industry

Yet there is solidarity in the nation’s response to this collapse. An informal coalition we call "Savefnbsg" has a membership of around 250 restaurateurs representing more than 500 F&B outlets; we chat every day on WhatsApp and share tips, news and woes.

We lobby, petition, and stand together, putting aside competition to fight for what our industry stands for. There are also other platforms, like Singapore Restaurant Rescue, which has garnered 56,000 posts so far, and SG Restaurant Support.

Customers, both regular and new, have shown us extraordinary love by ordering deliveries and purchasing vouchers, sending words of encouragement to our employees at the front-line.

Most importantly, the government has been steadfast, trying its best to balance the interests of public health against the economy; of corporations against individual employees; of personal freedoms against community interests.

With the Temporary Measures Act and its Jobs Support Scheme (JSS), the government has given us something to stand behind.

We stand behind more than the policies themselves, which require a delicate balancing act that will not and cannot benefit all of us.

Yes, there will always be haters, people who cry out injustice—“not fair!”—and people who think they would have done differently had they been in the government.

There are also those, like me, who lament the shortfall in certain policies while celebrating their overall cogency. We call for bolder steps, like capping the commission percentage that food delivery platforms are allowed to demand to 15 percent (like San Francisco has done) instead of the current 30 percent, and mandating that landlords charge rental based on an agreed percentage of gross turnover for the CB period.

We call for more empathy, like understanding that JSS rebates are but a fraction of what we need to survive. We call for more trust, like doing away with personal guarantees on small loans to credible, befitting restaurants with a good track record.

Government has demonstrated composure

But what cannot be denied is that our government has demonstrated unwavering composure in these unprecedented times. Years of preparation for pandemic readiness have paid off, enabling our leadership to steer us out of these woods.

The Covid-19 crisis turns the spotlight on the merits of every government’s social contract with its people. Whereas Singapore has often been criticised for its unwillingness to expand certain freedoms, it is obvious that what matters most, in times of unexpected and constant change, is that everything works.

From decisive law-making to expedited government payouts; from automated application forms to customised advice; from centralised home-based learning to concerted childcare for those in essential services, Singapore has managed to transition into the CB as though it has had several dress rehearsals for this scenario.

It is a relief that our government has been built on a model of social contract that can assure us protection against a descent into chaos.

It is that, which we stand behind.

Paying it forward

I continue to keep my restaurant open for take-out and delivery although I see the rubble around me: employees I have had to lay off, salaries I have had to suspend or slash, suppliers I try to pay but cannot, and the mounting rent that my landlord has stubbornly refused to waive.

I keep it open to sustain livelihoods as best I can, and to keep a small light on for all of us. Our restaurant started a movement where we would "pay it forward", donating one hot meal to The Food Bank Singapore with every $25 cash voucher purchased from us.

With this movement, we add a little more fuel to the fight against Covid-19. The idea that we can contribute keeps us going.

The aftermath is going to stretch years, and our restaurant may be shuttered when this is over, but I believe Singapore will survive this and will emerge stronger.

Perhaps global dynamics will shift and Singapore may no longer be as strategic a hub as it was pre-Covid-19, but I am confident that we, as a people, will rebuild all that we have lost.

Top photo via Sum Yi Tai.