SINGAPORE — Ask any F&B owner, or dabbler, even for that matter, and they will all tell you the same thing—that being in the industry is no easy feat. They will tell you of the long hours in the kitchen, the unreasonable customer demands, and the countless hoops they have to jump through when hiring workers.
Take all these, pair it with a razor-thin profit margin, and one can begin to grasp the unforgiving reality facing the operators in this segment of Singapore’s economy. Throw in a pandemic and watch as only the strongest, wealthiest, most resource-abundant players survive. Give it a year, and you’ll see everyone else whose liquid kitty can only see them through a handful of months slowly thin out their team and reduce wages temporarily. At least until things start looking up, failing which, they have little choice but to shutter.
A year and a half later, since the free fall of the F&B industry that started in March 2020, F&B businesses see little cause to celebrate. Restaurants are left to the mercy of government bodies that know little of the ins and outs of the industry, enacting regulations that are theoretically sound but wholly and entirely impossible to execute.
It doesn’t help matters either when, at the first sign of the pandemic spiralling out of control, the group that takes the first instant hit is the F&B folks.
Is it any wonder then that F&B owners were vexed when it was announced, once again, that the government was going back into Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) and that all food places are mandated to stop dining-in service.
Eating and a host of other activities such as indoor exercises, singing, and playing wind instruments were considered high-risk activities that could cause quicker transmission of the more contagious Delta variant of COVID-19.
To voice their concerns and frustrations at the ever-evolving restrictions and rules, over 500 restaurants and local companies came together to form the #savefnbsg initiative. In a letter signed by members of the group and sent to Minister Lawrence Wong and Mr Gan Kim Yong, they urged the COVID-19 Multi-Ministry Task Force to develop a more sustainable model for the F&B industry that is now “at the point of decimation”.
The signees of the #savefnbsg speak up
Cedric Tang, a third-generation restaurateur and owner of Ka Soh and Swee Kee Restaurant, signed the letter hoping that it added some weight to the cause and amplified the urgency required of the government.
He welcomes the latest announcement at the mid-point of this second round of Phase 2 (HA), which allowed up to five vaccinated customers to dine together. He shared with Yahoo Lifestyle SEA: “As a Zichar restaurant, our business depends on larger groups of diners as a significant customer base are families. A larger group also allows for higher per person spend, which is imperative to optimise the use of space within the restaurant.”
“This letter gives a fuller picture about how many people and businesses are actually affected by the closure of restaurants. The food service employs about 200,000 people in Singapore,” Martin Bem, founder and managing director of Ponte group, shared. “We haven’t even included food suppliers, contractors and other businesses within this ecosystem.”
In true, predictable fashion, prior to the official announcement of the relaxation of measures that start on 10 August, the government shared that they were considering having differentiated treatments between vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. This caused a maelstrom of reactions in Telegram groups of Singapore anti-vaxxers, who cry foul and shared that this amounted to discrimination.
Are differentiation measures between individuals fair?
For Lim Hui Nan, co-founder of Empire Eats Group, these differentiation measures are a step in the right direction as it “allows businesses to start on the road to normalcy while still protecting the population segment vulnerable to the virus.”
Martin added that socialising over a meal is a basic, fundamental human need and that minimal restrictions for fully vaccinated guests would be only fair. “I understand it’s still a personal choice, but so is going out to eat. Why should everybody be told not to go out just because there is a small minority who chose to stay home?
Martin is even considering allowing admittance only to vaccinated guests when they can fully re-open for dining-in. “It would just be a safer environment for everybody. We want to make the experience in our venue as safe as possible,” he added.
By allowing only vaccinated guests to dine at restaurants, Bober Ismail, director of Chix Hot Chicken, hopes that the measure will encourage fellow Singaporeans to speed up their vaccinations.
“Hopefully, these privileges accorded to vaccinated individuals will give other Singaporeans a renewed purpose to vaccination and move them towards living a life with new normals,” he said.
“Restaurants bear the brunt of the measures.”
Even though grateful that they’d be allowed to welcome back dining-in customers, these restaurant owners I spoke to worry if the government will react as rashly as they did a month back when cases started to creep back up. “We go the extra mile to make everything as safe as possible,” Martin explained. “There were no cases linked to any dining-in restaurant, but still, we bear the brunt of the measures.”
Cedric shared Martin’s sentiment. He can’t help but feel penalised for being completely compliant with all the COVID-19 Safe Management Measures (SMM), regardless of the myriad of changes they had to keep up with.
“The government failed to see how we bore the brunt in handling and helping to explain the measures to customers. Yet we are constantly being policed by various enforcement agencies and personnel and even penalised for infractions when a warning would have sufficed,” Cedric said. “Overly complicated regulations are also a source of problems that lead to difficulty and complications with operations.”
Martin added that early in 2020, he felt that the Singapore government handled the pandemic much better than any other country. But toward the end of the year till today, the handling become increasingly confusing with very complicated rules, quick shifts in priorities, short-term changes, and at times, contradicting orders.
“Additionally, there is always only a few days between the announcement of measures and the actual implementation,” Hui Nan said when asked about the government’s handling of the pandemic. “This often results in ambiguity which leads to arguments between customers and restaurant staff.”
“And then, after we had sunk in so much time and resources to train the outlets to implement the seating, it was swiftly removed, and we reverted to P2HA.”
Bober concurs. “These unpredictable and often sudden changes make it hard for us to plan our stocks and ordering in of ingredients, causing a lot of wastage,” he laments.
“Staff and workforce planning are affected too, and that’s before we take into consideration the worker’s mental health & morale. They worry over the possible loss of income and their livelihood being in jeopardy. It makes it hard for them to plan for the future.”
Mandating rental support
The biggest worry for any F&B owners and operators is, naturally, rent. In the letter, the first recommendation by the #savefnbsg team is to mandate that landlords share rental obligations between the Government and tenants.
The team is also asking the Government to “consider a mandate of six weeks worth of total rental rebates to be given directly to the tenants of all government and privately-owned properties as the closure of dine-in businesses impacts everyone in the sector.”
“Encouraging landlords to provide rental support instead of mandating it lead to many landlords continuing to charge full rent during Phase 2 (HA),” Hui Nan added. “This puts further strain on a restaurant’s cash flow.”
Other recommendations in the letter include provisions for 60 per cent of JSS (Jobs Support Scheme) support for all employees regardless of nationality, to be extended until 30 September 2021. This is in response to the considerable lack of support by the Government, who are “treating them as if they don’t exist in the local workforce”.
According to the letter, the burden of supporting these workers, who form a large portion of the workforce in the F&B industry, has fallen solely on the local companies to bear since the last Circuit Break and during these past months of Phase 2 (HA). The signees recommend a full foreign worker levy waiver and a complete waiver of work permit related fees.
Making decisions in consultation with the F&B industry
It’s not hard to imagine that a lot of the measures mandated by the government to the F&B sector was crafted without much input from the very people in the industry itself. One need only refers to the confusing and highly segmented measures put forth five days before Phase 2 (HA) was re-enacted, which makes sense, in theory, but fails in execution.
Cedric believes that the F&B industry and their relevant association should have been more involved in drafting any measures that directly affect their livelihood. “We are at the forefront in dealing with measurements that are implemented within our establishments, anyway,” he remarked.
But, to be fair, Martin understands that the situation is constantly shifting, and everybody learns something new about the pandemic every day. “What would be important now is to arrange for a fair distribution of the burden between the government, restaurants, and landlords. After these very challenging 15 months, our cash reserves are all consumed, and most operators are extremely stretched.”
“Future handling should focus on measures that are simple to understand and clear to enforce,” Hui Nan suggests. “If the onus is primarily placed on the restaurants to enforce social distancing, some smaller players strapped on manpower might understandably feel that it is an unfair burden to bear.”
“The measures need to be drafted with an empathetic understanding of the “learner profiles” of the folks implementing them on the ground.”
Hui Nan adds that it would greatly help if such measures were drafters in consultation with F&B operators.
“Savefnbsg, with its informal coalition of seasoned operators from small players to large, would be the perfect focus group.”
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