People are 'dying to get out': Restaurants see dinner crowds as Singapore enters Phase 2 of reopening
SINGAPORE: Restaurants were filled out on Friday (Jun 19), the first day of Phase 2 of Singapore's reopening after a two-month-long COVID-19 "circuit breaker".
Phase 2 was announced on Jun 15, after which modern European restaurant LeVeL33 set the date for its own reopening.
Just minutes after the rooftop restaurant at Marina Bay Financial Centre made its announcement, bookings and enquiries started streaming in and "did not stop", said its founding manager director Dr Martin Bém.
“I suspect this is not only for the view but that guests may feel also a bit safer in an outdoor and obviously ventilated environment,” he said.
“Plus I think they were just dying to get out, and get a meal and a drink outside their homes.”
Phase 2 allows for customers to dine-in at restaurants instead of having to order takeaway. However, diners will have to be in groups of no more than five people and tables have to be spaced 1m apart.
On Friday evening, steady crowds were seen at some of the popular F&B outlets.
Mr Cheng Hsin Yao, the owner of Picnic Food Park at Wisma Atria that houses brands like Omakase Burger and Supergeek, said its restaurants also received reservation requests within minutes of the big announcement.
However, with the reduction in the number of tables available, the number of reservations the restaurants could take were also reduced.
Restaurants managed by Picnic Food Park had also begun an ordering system that required diners to order on their phones using QR codes.
“It’s web-based and we won’t annoy you by asking you to download yet another app,” said Mr Cheng.
Even so, staff were on hand to explain to diners how the system worked and also to troubleshoot issues, he said.
The company said that as of 8.50pm, it had served a total of 150 dinner guests.
LeVeL33 saw 134 reservations made for Friday's dinner. Some walk-in customers had to be turned away due to the lack of capacity.
Among the changes observed at the restaurant was its menu - the restaurant was serving just one menu instead of multiple ones like it used to, due to safe distancing measures for kitchen staff.
On top of temperature-taking and contact tracing, each table was also served by the same waiter throughout the meal and sanitary wipes were provided.
HUGE DRAW DESPITE ADDITIONAL SAFETY MEASURES FOR BUFFETS
Self-service buffet lines are not allowed during Phase 2. Communal amenities such as drinks dispensers or common condiments are also prohibited.
But that did not stop buffet restaurants from opening and eager diners from showing up to queue.
When CNA visited popular hotpot chain Haidilao's Paya Lebar Quarter outlet at 6.45pm, its manager said that the seats in the restaurant were all taken and that groups with more than two guests would have to wait at least two hours to be seated.
Haidilao only announced its reopening on Jun 17 but already, most of their restaurants are fully booked until Jun 21.
In the queue at the Paya Lebar outlet on Friday evening was Mr Jason Chang, who said he had taken a queue number that afternoon while he was out for lunch.
The 23-year-old said he decided to head out for dinner because "it is the first day" of the reopening, but added he would not be dining out much in the future as he was still working from home.
Staff at Haidilao were seen engaging in crowd management at a waiting area, which was equipped with six tables. Once the waiting area was full, a worker would take down customers' contact details and inform them they would receive a call when seats became available.
As communal amenities were not allowed, workers were also seen helping customers get condiments and fruits. Those who wanted to customise their own sauces had to fill in an order form and a member of staff would bring the sauces to them from the kitchen.
Earlier, at 5.30pm, there were eight people waiting outside the I'm Kim Korean BBQ restaurant at the School of The Arts (SOTA). All of them had reserved before coming.
One customer told CNA he had been a frequent patron of the barbecue restaurant and had made reservations immediately after Phase 2 was announced.
Mr Kevin Chui, the general manager of Kingdom Food Group which owns I'm Kim, noted the extended waiting time, given that it was no longer a self-service buffet.
Changing to an a la carte buffet menu, which requires customers to use an order sheet, is "tedious and unproductive", he said.
“We only had two days to redesign the workflow and last-minute recruitment as a la carte buffet style will require much more manpower.
“This in turn increases our operating cost by almost 20 per cent while on the other hand, our sales will drop by 40 per cent to 50 per cent due to the spacing requirements," he added.
Mr Chui said he had to hire five more people to join his service staff for the SOTA outlet so that customers could be given their food promptly. Two workers were also going around serving drinks and preparing sauces, which was not needed before.
“There are customers who ask, why can't I serve myself? But they just have to swallow it, just like we do,” said Mr Chui.
As the waiting time was now longer, the restaurant extended its dine-in time limit - which was typically one-and-a-half hours - by 10 minutes.
Despite the changes, I'm Kim maintained safety measures remained its "greatest focus". Patrons had to log their visits on the digital check-in system SafeEntry and their temperatures were recorded by staff.
“We are also doing more vigorous cleaning to ensure our restaurants are not just safe for customers, but also for our own working team members,” said Mr Chui. “On top of that, we also wish to ensure our customers are satisfied with our food and service.”
Over at conveyor belt sushi restaurant Genki Sushi, there were acrylic shields for counter seats, which can be adjusted according to the size of the group.
Common touch points such as booth seats and the iconic kousoku trains that deliver sushi to customers were wiped down thoroughly and disinfected after every group of diners had left.
“We have also temporarily stopped the iced water dispenser service. Condiments and cutlery will be served to diners,” said Genki Sushi in a response to CNA's queries.
When CNA visited the Orchard Outlet at 4.15pm, workers were seen wearing face masks under their face shields.
There were at least nine people milling about outside the restaurant, waiting for a queue number.
A 17-year-old customer who only wanted to be known as Shiddah said she waited up to 45 minutes for a table, which was twice the time it would have taken before. But she said it was worth the wait as she and her friends had all been "craving Japanese food".
“I feel relieved that we can finally head out together but we are also extra conscious of safety measures in place,” she said.
DELIVERY AND TAKEAWAY DEALS HERE TO STAY
Deliveries and partnerships will remain a key strategy for a while longer as restaurants manage their new workflow and try to recover the losses made during the circuit breaker.
F&B establishments have also been discouraged from offering special discounts for at least the first two weeks of Phase 2. This is to avoid the potential to attract crowds, authorities had said in a joint advisory on Jun 16.
Several F&B joints that CNA spoke to said that they will continue providing attractive online promotions and islandwide delivery for their customers.
For instance, Korean fried chicken restaurant chain Chir Chir Chicken partnered with bubble tea chain The Alley over the circuit breaker to offer set meals online.
“When it was announced that bubble tea shops would not be able to operate as standalone stores, we recognised the demand (for bubble tea) that would arise and saw an opportunity to establish a mutually beneficial partnership with The Alley,” said Chir Chir Chicken’s spokesperson.
The response was “overwhelming” and even though the demand gradually tapered towards the end of Phase 1, sales were “consistent”. Hence, the partnership will continue not just for deliveries but for dine-in as well.
“The Alley beverages will be available on our menu at our 313@Somerset and Jem restaurants,” its spokesperson added.
Not all bubble tea collaborations would continue, however. Restaurant chain Collin’s will stop offering Gong Cha bubble tea in Phase 2, and dim sum place Yum Cha will also cease its partnership with Milksha bubble tea.
“Our restaurants are not designed with enough working space to accommodate a proper bubble tea offering. It could be done when there was no dine-in as space was aplenty,” said Mr Jonathan Lim, chief development officer of Collin’s.
Other businesses who experienced success through active promotion of food online intend to continue doing so even as their outlets open for dine-in.
Mr Kenneth Koh, the owner of En Sushi, started offering 1-for-1 donburi bowls and paying for Facebook advertisements to “stand out”.
“Everyone was going online and all the offerings looked the same. I’m a small little shop and I had to separate myself from the long-standing brands,” he said.
Mr Koh recalled earning just S$60 on the second day of the circuit breaker, which was an all-time low for the business. However, after offering online deals and a flat charge of S$5.90 for islandwide delivery, he was earning S$6,000 on his best day.
Despite a popular reception on En Sushi’s first day of reopening, Mr Koh said he would still “concentrate full-force” on delivery.
“I feel that human behaviour will change. The number of people coming out to dine will not be like before,” he said. “But I might be wrong."
For now, he will continue with the 1-for-1 promotion, but reduce the number of offerings by one third and change the deals every few days.
Mr Cheng of Picnic Food Park agreed that digitalisation, and delivery and takeaway options are here to stay, “love it or hate it”.
"We’ve done a lot of work creating some amazing packages and bundles tailored specifically for our delivery and takeaway guests and we anticipate that to take up at least 50 per cent to 60 per cent of our business on a permanent basis,” he said.
"The food business has always been a location business. And everyone’s primary location now is 'at home', so that is where the future of food will be.”