How Singapore’s restaurants are weathering the Covid-19 storm, some better than others

Mirazur, Circuit Breaker, three-Michelin-star Odette

Last month Mauro Colagreco arrived in Singapore ready to roll up his sleeves for a three-month residency at Mandala Club.

Colagreco is chef of the three-Michelin-star Mirazur in Menton, France, and the stint in Singapore is his first pop-up restaurant outside Europe since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Just as Colagreco and his 12-person team in Singapore were gearing up for the launch of his nature-driven, moon-cycle-aligned Lunar Menus on May 14, the Singapore government called a halt to in-person dining at restaurants for a month from May 16 under what it called a Phase 2 Heightened Alert (P2HA).

By then, close to 9,800 seats had been sold for the Singapore residency of the restaurant that ranked No 1 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for 2019. To cater to the overwhelming requests for the reassignment of reservations, Mirazur’s Singapore pop-up was extended beyond its intended August 11 end date, to September 4.

Mirazur, Circuit Breaker, three-Michelin-star Odette

Mauro Colagreco in his garden in Menton, France. Photo: Matteo Carassale

Despite the setback, the chef remains positive. “I am very happy that we will be able to reopen again to share our love and passion with our guests in Singapore,” he says. “We need to unite and stay together in this unusual world situation, and trust our government to do their best to protect the people.”

Colagreco duly repacked his bags and left for Menton only four days after arriving in Singapore to prepare for the reopening there of his signature restaurant, which had been closed since October 2020. He plans to fly back to Singapore after the measures there are relaxed.

Amid a fresh wave of Covid-19 cases, restaurants in Singapore scrambled to return to delivery mode, having gained experience during last year’s Circuit Breaker (CB), an enforced nationwide lockdown from April 7 to June 1, 2020. Restaurants reopened on June 19, 2020.

“We pivoted back to Odette at Home by the second day of P2HA, having had our systems in place and packaging ordered in advance so we could react quickly in the event of sudden changes,” says Julien Royer, chef and owner of the three-Michelin-star Odette.

Royer says he didn’t start the delivery and takeaway business expecting to make money. “My primary focus was to ensure I could keep my 40-strong Odette team employed throughout,” he says.

Mirazur, Circuit Breaker, three-Michelin-star Odette

Le P.B.S. Paris-Brest Paris-Singapour by Odette at Home, Singapore.

The chef says the reception regulars as well as new guests have given to Odette at Home has been “extremely heartening”.

During the CB, Odette’s desserts were especially popular and often ordered as gifts. Favourites include Le P.B.S. – a duo of classic choux desserts called Paris-Brest and the locally inspired Paris-Singapour, with gula melaka (palm sugar), coconut and kaya (coconut jam) replacing the traditional praline.

There was also strong demand for family-style main courses such as Singapore chicken rice-inspired whole roasted poularde de Bresse served with Niigata rice, Albufera sauce and kombu salad. These dishes will remain on the restaurant’s delivery menu during P2HA.

Mirazur, Circuit Breaker, three-Michelin-star Odette

Whole roasted poularde de Bresse by Odette at Home.

In addition to keeping his staff occupied with Odette at Home, Royer was also able to schedule additional training sessions and test new recipes. With the down time, his team was able to spend more time cooking staff meals and caring for the community; during the CB in 2020, they delivered 300 meals to health care workers, industry peers and low-income families.

“We were fortunate to have amassed a steady local following since our opening in 2015 – about 80 per cent of our total guest pool are locals,” says Royer. Despite the lack of tourists during the CB, he says that Odette’s takeaway model last year brought in about 40 per cent of the restaurant’s usual dine-in revenue.

Grateful that demand is being sustained, Royer says delivery business this year has been “moving at a slower pace” compared to the CB period last year.

Mirazur, Circuit Breaker, three-Michelin-star Odette

The interior of Mandala, Singapore.

Like Odette, the city’s other fine-dining restaurants have escaped the lockdown relatively unscathed – with a few exceptions – thanks in no small part to the government’s Job Support Scheme (JSS) that helped food and beverage operators ride out the pandemic.

During the CB, a group of upscale restaurants – including Odette, Jaan, Iggy’s, Preludio and Braci – also banded together to sell Tough Times Tickets (TTT), essentially dining vouchers that guests purchase now at discounted prices and redeem when in-person dining is allowed. The tickets sold like hot cakes, and with the recent P2HA, the TTT scheme resumed, this time involving a bigger community of restaurants, including Lolla, Rhubarb, Nouri and Tippling Club.

Casual restaurants are not in so fortunate a situation, with many hit hard. Hong Kong’s Mak’s Noodle closed its Singapore flagship outlet at the Centrepoint shopping mall in Orchard Road in February, and soon after the P2HA was announced, the 82 year-old Swee Kee Eating House announced it would close its shop on Amoy Street, where it has operated for 26 years.

Mirazur, Circuit Breaker, three-Michelin-star Odette

The exterior of Swee Kee Eating House. The shop has closed after 26 years on Amoy Street, Singapore.

“We have sustained substantial continued monthly losses since Singapore implemented the CB last year,” says Cedric Tang, third-generation owner of the now-defunct Swee Kee, a brand well-loved by Hong Kong celebrities and tourists alike for its Cantonese-style fish soup.

Tang, whose company Ka-Soh owns two contemporary stir-fry restaurants in the suburbs, says restaurants in the Central Business District and other central locations are “heavily reliant” on office workers, and they accounted for about 80 per cent of Swee Kee’s revenue. With working from home mandated by the government, he says the dining crowd vanished.

“While there was a glimpse of potential recovery, the recent outbreak of Covid-19 cases in Singapore and the implementation of P2HA restrictions has again wiped out the lunch crowd, and this time the takeaway crowd,” Tang says. “We are unable to afford the continued losses – with work-from-home again the default, the recovery will take at least six months.”

Mirazur, Circuit Breaker, three-Michelin-star Odette

Swee Kee’s signature sliced fish noodle soup.

Hawkers have not been spared, either.

“When Singapore entered into the CB last year, my business was badly affected,” says Gerald Tang [no relation to Cedric], third-generation co-owner of the hugely popular Tai Wah Pork Noodle at Hong Lim Food Centre.

“Because of our location in the CBD, business was very slow in the morning as there was hardly any office crowd for breakfast,” he says. Although the stall welcomed a reasonably healthy lunch takeaway crowd, business would thin out after lunch.

Mirazur, Circuit Breaker, three-Michelin-star Odette

Minced meat noodles with vinegar from Tai Wah Pork Noodle in Singapore. The restrictions have reduced the number of office workers, a large part of the customer base. Photo: Evelyn Chen

While Gerald Tang used to operate his minced meat noodles stall with his father and brother from 7.30am to 7.30pm daily, he decided to shorten his operating hours to close at 3pm shortly after CB started last year.

With slower breakfast turnover and shortened operating hours, his sales revenue plunged by about 40 per cent, even with delivery. “We are on a delivery app but its help is minimal,” Gerald Tang says. “We are not located in a residential area and the app only targets orders from a two- to three-kilometre radius.”

Despite the respite after CB ended, work-from-home continued to be the default arrangement in Singapore until April 5 this year, when up to 75 per cent of staff were allowed to return to their workplaces.

“Business was just starting to get better before the recent P2HA,” Gerald Tang says with a sigh.

Still, he is thankful for the support of regular guests, some of whom live far away. “They still come down to support us and buy our noodles to send to neighbours and friends,” he says.

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