F&B insiders in Singapore: Julien Royer of Odette, Vijay Mudaliar of Native, and Petrina Loh of Morsels on bracing the crisis of a pandemic
A new age
As Singapore continues to brave the pandemic in phase 2 of the circuit breaker, more people are taking the chance to dine out again, while responsibly embracing their pre-COVID-19 lifestyles. But can things truly go back to the way they were before?
Some restaurants have chosen to innovate in order to survive in the post-COVID-19 era, turning to Zoom cooking demos, partnering up with delivery apps, and providing fancy Michelin-starred meal kits, proving their zeal in tackling the unforseen crisis. In this period of rapid change and innovation, we've spoken to some of the top chefs and bartenders in Singapore to find out what has changed for dining in the new normal.
First up, we have Petrina Loh from Morsels at Dempsey Hill, a rustic barnyard-style restaurant that serves up nourishing and creative grub that's ingredient-driven.
How did you have to pivot the business with the effects of COVID-19?
The real crisis hit when we went into the circuit breaker. Before that, I was already trying to build a takeaway website as I foresaw a real crisis on its way. During this time, I also did quite a fair bit of beta testings, because with takeaways we need to ensure that our food could travel, as not every dish could. However, because circuit breaker was announced rather abruptly, I was forced to launch the website right away. I built the website using Shopify and with pictures from our own in-house photography; it was manageable. But as I'm not IT trained so it was a painful process trying to figure the coding. When we launched the website, there were bugs, which I would only fix when people were sleeping, that meant calling Shopify's helpdesk in the wee hours of the night.
In line with Morsels' business motto, I refused to use plastic, so I started procuring biodegradable takeaway containers. It was imperative for me, I can't imagine the plastic mess we would be in after COVID-19, if every restaurant used plastic containers. To me, it's also showing to your customers the commitment you have as a business. To make the best of these times, we challenged ourselves to do something different, and think out of the box. This allowed us to reach a wide spectrum of customers, from expats living alone to families. For the most part, we innovated on ethnic cuisine, since we felt that customers would enjoy having comfort food during this solemn period. Personally, I was focused on producing food for nourishment, and for a family-style of dining; I think our weekly noodles were a popular favourite.
Was there a great impact on the revenue with Morsels? And how did you overcome it?
Of course, we were greatly affected. Firstly, doing delivery/takeaway for us was akin to starting a new business, or building another business. Revenue was down 60% even with deliveries, so I was really thankful for the JSS and government rental relief.
For deliveries, I did them myself to reduce cost. I did the math — driving my car to do the deliveries could shave a substantial amount off. As deliveries picked up, we also tied up with a limo car company, The Collective Good, whose drivers were out of jobs because there were no tourists.
What does the new normal look like in your restaurant now?
We were taken by surprise at the sudden reopening, but since then things have normalized for us. We lost about 15 seats due to safe distancing measures, and we now have to cope with early closure and stopping sales of alcohol from 10.30pm. Nevertheless, I'm thankful we are able to reopen. Now, for every table, we have hand sanitisers provided and the motion of checking in via Safe Entry and having temperature checks have become the norm. On our part, we need to make sure that we take care of our staff, our guests and make sure we keep the place clean and sterile. I do think the worst is not over yet, so we need to be extremely vigilant in how we interact with others at the restaurant.
In my new menu, which will launch after National Day, you'll see that I've focused a lot on wellness; the choice of ingredients in the dishes are mostly healing spices to help us all build a stronger immunity. After all, I've always been a strong advocate for "you are what you eat". Of course, fermentation remains to be a constant fixture on the menu.
What keeps you going, in this industry?
This is one of the toughest challenges I've had by far. However, to me cooking is an art and a science, it is also nourishment — these are my passions. Also, I'm a small business and my team have to feed their families; I feel responsible for them, which means I have to keep pushing to survive. I always view the cup as half full, hence, unless I'm crippled with bad health, I would like to still be part of this industry. It is unique, it brings people together, it feeds people and it makes someone's day. Some days are very challenging, especially those days where I was rushing around a lot doing deliveries during the circuit breaker. However, when a guest sends a meal to a friend who is depressed and expresses how grateful that we are able to make someone's day, it puts a smile on my face.
Next, Julien Royer from Odette tells us what it's like to run his famed French restaurant during the circuit breaker period and what he foresees for his team in the future.
How did Odette cope with the circuit breaker and how has Phase 2 been like for the team?
During the circuit breaker, we created a new concept, 'Odette at Home' — it was a new way to enjoy quality food with loved ones. While it was a challenge for the team, I'm so proud of everyone's passion in making this happen. The restaurant is home for us, and the staff are so pleased to be back serving our guests in the restaurant.
What have you guys learnt from this pandemic? And how has it changed operations?
Operations haven't changed so much, as we always had plenty of space in between tables and looked to maintain the highest of standards within cleanliness of the restaurant. Right now, we remain committed to our part in protecting everyone in our community and have implemented some new safety practices to see us through in the long run.
Diners are looking forward to dining out again, what are their chances in scoring a coveted reservation at Odette?
We've been very fortunate and still remain fully booked over this difficult period, but the lead time for reservations has reduced, and are no longer two months in advance. Now, we are seeing many new diners at Odette since the reopening after circuit breaker.
What's next for Odette?
The priority has always been the same for Odette, to focus on the people that have supported and who work alongside us in creating a truly memorable experience for all our guests
To wrap it up, we speak to Vijay Mudaliar from Native, from the list of Asia's 50 Best Bars and World's 50 Best Bars. He shares his vision with us, and what it's like to run a bar in Singapore.
How has COVID-19 changed the business and operations at Native?
It has definitely seen us divert the way we run our operations. During the circuit breaker, we had to find different ways to connect with our customers via deliveries and masterclasses on Zoom.
How did you guys overcome the difficulties and obstacles during the circuit breaker?
When the circuit breaker came about, we overcame the situation by changing our business model into a delivery option. We had some of our best sellers in bottle form and had kombucha and cocktail masterclasses via Zoom.
What's next for Native?
We've seen our plans change. Currently, we've extended our drinks and food menu since people tend to stay in the venue for longer due to the 10.30pm cap. We're also finding new ways to connect with our customers such as introducing our microgreens program — where we pass them our compost and seeds to grow their own microgreens for garnishes on either food or drinks. This has been rather well received.
What has been the biggest lesson since the pandemic hit?
We've realised just how dependent we are of each other and why need to stick together. The F&B industry has come a long way and I think that by working with various other industries, we will see a lot more diversification in the way we work and with that, be able to stay afloat. As seen during the circuit breaker, the F&B industry also needs the help from IT companies, from online delivery platforms to logistics companies helping with deliveries.
What do you think diners in Singapore can do to support the F&B scene in Singapore? As more and more restaurants are still struggling despite phase 2 opening up.
Due to the 10.30pm closing time, try to arrive earlier at your favourite spots. Also turn up for your reservations on time; no-shows are not cool! It really affects the industry at a time like this. Besides heading out, also try to support venues that are still not open by buying vouchers, getting deliveries, and ordering takeaways.