Will These Restaurant Empires Survive the Covid-19 Crisis?

It has been a crazy long month, perhaps because the days have been melting into one big daunting ground-hog day situation. The quarantine buddy and I sit down to a decent meal ordered from a chi-chi restaurant. Heeding the concise re-heating instructions, we were able to produce a rather impressive spread, stained with colours that far outstrip the gloomy grey walls in our shoebox apartment. As we bring make-shift wine glasses to our lips, he laments about not being to remember his last proper dining-out experience in Singapore. Being the luckier of the two, I have been incredibly fortunate to have been able to squeeze in a 2 week long trip earlier this year before the full-blown effects of the Covid-19 pandemic caught on. The tri-country gastronomic adventure culminating with a tour of chef José Avillez’s restaurants in Lisbon, dining in good company at 2-Michelin star Belcanto for lunch before settling in a for coltish cabaret gourmet experience, tight corsets and stripper heels included.

This is not an open case of gloating. It is just a demonstration of how fast things went downhill. A month after I returned back to familiar territory, Portugal announced a state of emergency on March 19. Belcanto had since shuttered its doors and haven’t shown signs of reopening in the near future. It is clear that the Golden age of the restaurants are over.

Evidently, the food and beverage scene is taking a good battering from forced closures and expenditure slump, with independent restaurants, cafes, hotel bars dropping like flies. How are restaurant empires coping with these adversities? Black Sheep Restaurants in Hong Kong and Unlisted Collection in Singapore are two such celebrated groups in the thick of Asia’s two most expensive real estate markets. We speak to co-founder Syed Asim Hussain and founding director Loh Lik Peng, respectively, to find out more.

Syed Asim Hussain | Food's Future Summit — Food's Future Global
Syed Asim Hussain (Image credit: Food’s Future Summit)

As chain restaurants are besieged with potential multiple closures, restaurant empire Unlisted Collection in Singapore have profited off their varied ‘hospitality team’ constitution during this crisis. Finding “strength in diversity”, as put by Lik Peng, as a result, options for courses of action are increased but “it also adds complexity in terms of coordinating our actions.”

When asked about the decision to stay open and pivot his fine-dining restaurants to execute take-away and delivery menus, Lik Peng explains the company’s stance. “We assess this on a case-by-case basis for our various restaurants. I think our approach has been to try to mitigate losses and delivery allows us to cushion these losses by adding revenue during the circuit breaker period,” he says. Even 2-Michelin Star Restaurant Zén is giving delivery a new haute meaning by condensing their usual lengthy tasting menus into 5-courses, par-cooked and delivered straight to your door step with detailed instructions on the finishing. This means bending the norms of their typical raison d’être of providing diners with a Class-A hospitality experience. Adaptability is key and “we have to come up with new menus and new ways of doing things,” says Lik Peng.

On the other hand, in Hong Kong’s central district, the Black Sheep restaurants are displaying herd behaviour – banding together on the restaurant’s dedicated delivery platform. From 2-Michelin starred Belon to all American diner, Burger Circus. The ultimate goal, even through the crushing losses is to “keep everyone healthy and employed,” says Hussain.

Burger Circus - An All-American Diner | Hong Kong
Burger Circus: An All-American Diner

Tackling the issue of health risks for his workers, he maintains that they are given an option to take a leave of absence if they are not comfortable working in the restaurant. Meanwhile, the more significant risks of the livelihoods of his workers being affected compels the company to dismiss closing shop or furloughing teams altogether. Despite trying times, the duo remain positive. “The more nimble a restaurant is, the better they are to emerge on the other side of the crisis,” asserts Hussain. Black Sheep restaurants, just like the whole industry in Hong Kong have had to endure the repercussions of the virus right on the heels of the social unrest. Yet he displays encouraging optimism, “we’ve been in this agile state the last three quarters, so restricting and readjusting will not be difficult.”

As the F&B sector try to divine what the future holds, chefs and restauranteurs are banding together to aggressively lobby governments, commercial partners and landlords for subsidies, tenancy protection and rent assistance. “We have been advising policy makers here with true recommendations that could benefit the industry as a whole,” Hussain tells us. “I feel that Hong Kong has come a long way in establishing itself as a global restaurant city in the last few years, hence it is in all of our interest to preserve what makes the dining scene here so diverse and dynamic.” In Singapore, Loh Lik Peng spearheads #SaveFnBSG with fellow restauranteur Beppe de Vito of IlLido Group. A call to action that rallies for support from consumers to order directly from eateries.

“We have to establish what at the new world order is like and then we can build strategies around that,” says Hussain. Instead of moping around, take the time to rethink business models. We need to embrace technology and doing so, anticipate the new normal. “When the dust settles, we are are expecting less destination travelling,” says Hussain who is convinced that despite there still being a space for celebratory dining experiences, “we will have to consider that our guests will have less disposable income.”

While some fine-dining establishments may struggle balancing out expectations of their guests when the world rights its axis, Lik Peng believes that delivery services will remain an integral part of consumerism patterns. “The once common occurrence where people come out to dine-in large groups? This may change permanently,” he says. Especially in countries where the rental market rates are astronomically high, “We cannot afford to put all our eggs in a basket,” he says.

That being said, the duo optimistically agree that the restaurant industry will never go out of fashion. The diners will eventually trickle in, and when they do, they will want to be served. “Restaurants are the last non-digital frontier and when the dust settles, the work we do in the restaurants will be even more important,” says Hussain. He dispenses advice that weigh like bricks, but summarises the heavy truth, “We all need to understand that the framework we exist in will be different over the next few quarters. You cannot wait for things to get back to ‘normal’ because if you are waiting for 2018 conditions to return, you will not make it through this.”


Follow Sihan’s journey in spirits, here.
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