by Tristan Chan
Singapore — There’s no other industry, than F&B, that has a more pronounced impact brought on by Covid-19. For the dining industry, it’s particularly complicated whether it’s restaurant operators or hawkers that have to turn around dishes at breakneck speed.
Some 93 per cent of restaurants have witnessed declining revenue and 78 per cent of those polled are not confident of staying open for more than six months should things not improve, according to a survey conducted by restaurant reservations and dining delivery platform, Chope.
In April, the Singapore government announced the Jobs Support Scheme as part of the 2020 National Budget. Food services businesses including hawker stalls qualified for 75 per cent wage support for the month of April and 50 per cent support for eight months.
National agencies are also introducing initiatives to help with food establishments struggling with reduced footfall. Enterprise Singapore announced what it called a Food Delivery Booster Package last month to assist food and beverage businesses by offsetting 5 percentage points of the commissions charged by Deliveroo, GrabFood and Foodpanda for orders delivered between 7 April and 4 May.
This was later expanded to cover businesses not on board the major food delivery platforms by allowing them to save 20 per cent on their delivery costs if they fulfil orders through third-party logistics firms. Independent drivers though are not eligible for the grant.
Stallholders at hawker centres can also apply for a one-time S$500 grant to help with the costs of signing up to delivery platforms.
Self-help groups formed to aid small F&B businesses
When Singapore first entered a nationwide lockdown known as the ‘circuit breaker’, two community groups created on social media — Hawkers United Dabao 2020 and Singapore Restaurant Rescue — have been instrumental in giving food operators an opportunity to promote their offerings to a spoilt-for-choice audience.
When the shutdown order came, Melvin Chew, co-owner of Jin Ji Teochew Braised Duck and Kway Chap, felt compelled to turn the crisis into a new opportunity. He created a Facebook group called Hawkers United — Dabao 2020 — to help hawkers and customers connect to arrange takeaway food orders and home delivery. (“Dabao” is a colloquial term in the Cantonese language for takeaway).
A second-generation hawker, the 42-year-old said the total sales at his Chinatown Complex stall serving duck and pork offal, has been halved since the health crisis started.
Since its creation in early April, the group has grown to more than 250,000 members. Chew started the online group because “a lot of hawkers and people in food and beverage won’t be able to survive. If you want to survive you have to accept the use of technology, you have to engage in social media and you have to do home delivery.”
Chew mostly is concerned about elderly hawkers who are left behind by their inability to navigate the Internet or social media. However, more Singaporeans are choosing to cook at home because of longer waiting times and similarly food centres which aren’t as accessible by public transport are seeing dwindling patron numbers.
For Charlotte Wilkinson, founder of Side by Side and a marketing and innovation consultant, the volume of homegrown restaurants that did not have any digital tactics or marketing support, gave her the idea to start Singapore Restaurant Rescue. The group, which currently numbers some 70,000, allows restaurant operators to retain more of their profit share, as the delivery fees are charged by the restaurant themselves rather than the delivery platforms.
Wilkinson adds that the Rescue group also gives drivers employment opportunities. On Restaurant Rescue, posts were made on the behalf of drivers looking for work. In these posts, drivers would indicate their whereabouts and restaurants would self-match by responding to drivers that were nearby.
Sourcing and recruiting drivers is a considerable challenge and will need broader options, says Wilkinson. “Food outlets need more options for drivers, be it dedicated drivers for higher end places to group-based platforms for those who need quicker turnaround. I understand that some of the platforms got so busy that it was 60 to 90 minutes waiting time for their food to be picked up. Some were also only able to book vans and not a motorbike, so individual routes seemed to work better for them!”
Singapore Restaurant Rescue is designed clearly as a form of community support and for this, Wilkinson does not allow reviews or non-constructive comments to be part of the group. “We were also very clear we wanted no bad feedback to affect businesses, this wasn’t to be a review page so any venue with difficulties adapting shouldn’t be publicly shamed potentially destroying a business so all feedback should be made to the venue. However all good feedback is shared within the post for that venue, which inspires others to order specific dishes.”
Wilkinson is sceptical that dining out will become less viable after the circuit breaker comes to a close. She says, “It will change some mindsets but when we are back to normal it will be a challenge for small businesses to cater for dine in customers and online orders at the same time, many have said the only way they can home deliver is because staff can focus on prep when no customers are around. However the innovation we have seen in terms of sous vide style food to be reheated, cocktails in plastic bags delivered I think could be an opportunity for some places to add to their revenue streams.”
Chung Deming, founder of modern Singaporean restaurant the Quarters, echoes the sentiments of Wilkinson. “Eating out is part of our culture and that will never not go away. Whether that is permissible and impact of new measures on social distancing result in higher prices that have to be passed onto the consumer would make dining out more expensive would affect accordingly.”
More help needed for F&B businesses from Govt
Government subsidies for small business owners need to be more equal, say Nick Olinik, founder of Nsquared Barbecue, located in Timbre+, a food court in Ayer Rajah Crescent. As these premises are managed by JTC Corporation, and aren’t a government-managed space, the small business subsidies do not apply to Olinik. “Be it National Environmental Agency (NEA) owned hawkers or privately owned ones, all stallholders face the same difficulties. There is no reason why there should be different levels of assistance handed out. Information provided needs to be more readily available and not as vague as it is now,” adds Olinik.
Apart from more equal access to subsidies, some F&B operators argue the grant isn’t effective in giving struggling delivery drivers the required support. Farhana Mattar, chief executive officer of Taste of Kult says delivery options will need to evolve after the circuit breaker closure, as “once the grant is over, the cost of delivery will be 20% higher, which makes the entire revenue stream, difficult to continue.”
Be it taxi operators or private food delivery vendors, savings to businesses through this grant do not actually cover the expenses incurred by the company, according to Mattar.
She adds, “The grant at best, helps businesses to keep the delivery option moving. For Lalamove, a courier service, it is a bit more time consuming. Businesses have to pay the full price first, and then get reimbursed later. However, for Comfort for instance, it’s pre arranged, where customers pay the amount after the subsidy has been applied.”
Rental schemes should also be introduced to review rentals that are manageable for F&B schemes, says Mattar. “The situation is set at very high rents with undefined hikes, putting all businesses at risks. The current grants makes it hard to keep a business afloat.”
The need for change in existing F&B operators
The age span of hawkers, where many lack digital savviness, will be another obstacle, says Lionel Chee, Singapore’s ambassador to the World Food Travel Organisation. “If you were to take the whole landscape of hawkers in which the median age is 59, more than 50% of hawkers do not have a cash register. If every hawker takes up a cash register and embarks on this programme, it will definitely drive up the cost.”
Chee adds there isn’t enough awareness regarding safety and health regulations, something which needs to be followed up on after 1 June. “Food delivery companies, personnel or logistic companies are not covered when there is a food poisoning case. The consumers themselves do not have any insurance too if something were to happen from picking up to consumption. The delivery people are not even properly trained for managing food poisoning cases.”
Apart from new dining options or building awareness of cuisines, Chung feels it is imperative that such groups on social media also address mental well-being of those in the F&B industry. “The need for mental well being is crucial in this time. What should come next are campaigns to educate the importance of a sense of fairness and support for service providers. There can be less focus on what promotions and discounts should be given but how consumers and the F&B community need to work together for the betterment of the service providers that deserve recognition.”
On the aspect of digitisation, Mattar said, “The major challenge for restaurants, and especially the ones that have been primarily functioning their business as dine in ones, is to provide a longer term delivery or logistics solution. The quota for foreign hires, is still impacting this industry deeply, as foreigners are the majority of F&B hires. Digitisation of services is another vital area to help F&B companies operate successfully. Currently, there are companies hoping to connect F&B outlets with logistics companies. Yet, a more regulated approach, will widen the hiring practices and management of the industry, and enable more F&B outlets to participate in delivery service, without the huge surcharges to both customer and F&B outlets themselves.”