More Than Just Food For Thought

It may be a fight for survival, but for players in the food and beverage industry, unity gives each a stronger voice. Beppe de Vito and Loh Lik Peng — two restaurateurs whose text messages morphed into the #savefnb movement — reflect on the pandemic’s devastating impact and what it’ll take to emerge stronger.

More Than Just Food For Thought

Loh Lik Peng remembers when he began to really worry about the effects of Covid-19.

“We started seeing it earlier than most in Singapore because of our overseas operations,” Loh says, referring to his Unlisted Collection group’s network of hotels and restaurants in China, Europe, Singapore and Australia. Yet, even he didn’t expect the virus to spread so quickly from China and with such penetration. “In our hotels, we went from 90 percent occupancy to practically zero in a week. We closed Shanghai in early January, even before Chinese New Year. By February, we knew it was bad, even worse than expected. In March, our outlets in Ireland, Australia and England all shut down within a week of each other.”

At his Singapore restaurants, he moved swiftly to reduce orders of perishables and cut all external contractors. Cannily anticipating a time when we would no longer be able to dine in-house, he pivoted early and switched a lot of business towards home delivery: “We shrank to where we needed.”

  • Amò’s alfresco courtyard. Opened in 2017, it’s known for de Vito’s commitment to hearty and seasonal Italian fare
  • Unlisted Collection’s Restaurant Zén is the Singapore outpost of three-Michelin-starred Restaurant Frantzen in Stockholm, Sweden

Still, like everyone else, he reeled from disbelief. The social distancing measures bit deep, more so as these were consolidated into a more formal lockdown on March 31. The already bruised revenue streams from his 17 restaurants — which include Cloudstreet, Nouri and Burnt Ends —began to haemorrhage badly.

Nervously, Loh looked around him.

Singapore’s food and beverage industry, long a power player that adds at least $14.4bn to the gross domestic product, is anchored by some 18,000 restaurants (excluding hawkers) and employs 220,000 people. How badly must they be faring, he wondered.

Across town, fellow restaurateur Beppe de Vito was feeling equally bleak. One by one, he too had begun shuttering his six high-end restaurants and bars — including the one-Michelin-starred Braci in il Lido Group, which he’d started in 2006 — especially as working from home went mainstream in the community. Around 70 to 80 percent of his revenue at Art, the Italian fine diner at National Gallery Singapore, came from the corporate and MICE sectors, and when these began cancelling, “I started to get afraid. There wasn’t much we could do about fixed costs, so when staff left, they weren’t replaced.”

Mag’s Wine Kitchen is just one restaurant part of the #savefnbsg movement, a coalition of more than 600 restaurants

In no time at all, his days — usually spent managing menus and streamlining operations — devolved into crisis management, cajoling the kitchen brigade to hold the line, balancing the books and reopening rent negotiations with unyielding landlords. “It’s tough,” de Vito admits, his grim countenance a contrast to his usual ebullience and upbeat charm. This virus exacts its own toll, even outside a hospital room. “And if you’re trying to do this alone, it’s a real struggle.”

One day in late March, he and Loh were chatting on Whatsapp, exchanging war stories. A thread began to emerge. Their landlords were balking at rent reductions, despite the fact that for most operators in the food and beverage industry, business was down by between 50 and 80 percent — this, in an industry where profit margins during the good times are around just one to 1.5 percent. Throw in property taxes and wages, and you have a recipe for a mass wipeout. “So why don’t we face this fight together, as a group, so that we’re not alone?” de Vito asked.

Right there and then, the two men started a chat group with a few restaurateurs. Word spread and more asked to be added. Within a week, the number in the group had mushroomed to over 500. More unexpectedly, a unified voice emerged.

In 2015, the World Economic Forum had explicitly categorised food choices as a political act, and in 2020, the transformation of a single Whatsapp conversation into #savefnbsg revealed just how sophisticated, if not desperate, that activism had become.

An impassioned open letter to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on 4 April outlining the effects of Covid-19 on the food and beverage industry generated enormous publicity as much for its stark statistics (sales dropped by 90 percent in 30 days, while 88 percent of operators expected to fold within the month) as for its blunt demand for more government intervention.

A second open letter on 15 April laid bare the discontent and frustration over the high fees charged by delivery platforms and how these were cutting into already razor thin margins. “You call yourselves our partners, but we truly wonder if you know what that means.”

For Loh, #savefnbsg, then and now, was a means to an end, an added weight during discussions with the government and its regulatory arms such as Enterprise Singapore, Singapore Food Agency and Singapore Tourism Board about effective policy responses. “If you’re
an individual, chances are, you won’t be heard,” he reasons. “It’s a different story if you’re part of a larger group.”

“You see, this is why we all love the industry so much,” says Edina Hong, who runs her husband Emmanuel Stroobant’s two-Michelin-starred Saint Pierre. “Because despite the intrinsic competitive nature of the sector, we still bear witness to such positivity and unity within the community. I think #savefnbsg is a meaningful initiative… it has brought much needed attention to the plight of so many businesses.”

Now numbering more than 600 mid- to high- end restaurants, #savefnbsg has also become a de facto message board, a virtual water cooler for conversation, gripes and sharing of resources. “We’ve had restaurant owners exchange fridges,” Loh quips.

  • Loh Lik Peng
  • Beppe de Vito

It’s telling that neither he nor de Vito will take any credit for #savefnbsg. “We’re not driving it, nor did we have anything to do with its snowballing numbers. We just happened to start a conversation.”

“I never wanted it to be about me,” de Vito adds. “We’re all in the same situation.”

Be that as it may, it’s equally clear that without the pulling power of their names and their tent- pole brands, chances are, it would have taken much longer, if at all, for an insistent industry voice to coalesce. For that alone, their peers have been generous in their applause.

“Peng and Beppe are both long-time industry friends of mine,” says Stroobant, “and I have always had a high level of regard for them as individuals who have contributed immensely to the industry over the years. It is absolutely heart-warming to see major industry players like them pull their weight and resources to rally the community in this time of need.”

Restaurant Zén’s French toast grande tradition

For many, it is a relief to see a self-appointed committee step up to speak out on the real situation threatening F&B right now.

Daniel Sia, culinary director at The Lo & Behold Group, tells me “it’s encouraging to see restaurateurs stand together to petition the government for financial aid and voice the needs of the industry. Hopefully, connecting in a contactless world and sharing freely with like-minded owners will create a better environment for employees to thrive, and be hopeful post-Covid-19.”

Interestingly, while #savefnbsg may capture Sia’s wistful hope for a better future, it has also exposed a hidden vein of humanitarianism and philanthropy within the food and beverage industry. For in the midst of all this talk about the (self-serving) need for rental adjustments, property tax rebates and service staff levies, passing almost unnoticed have been the extraordinary expressions of solidarity by some restaurateurs for the wider community affected by the virus.

Exhibit A is Straits Clan Community Kitchen which, with the support of The Lo & Behold Group, prepared 450 meals a day during the circuit breaker period for migrant workers at Goldmine Energy Tuas factory-converted dormitary and Eng Soon dormitory. Exhibit B — Samia Ahad, whose Coriander Leaf kitchen turned out meals for frontliners at Singapore General Hospital and Changi General Hospital, alongside twice weekly food drives to two migrant worker dormitories. And there are many others, mostly unheralded.

It may be a cheesy sentiment, but as de Vito points out, “If we don’t pull together, we won’t survive.”

He and Loh, like all their peers, are hard at work at the coalface, trying to find solutions and new ways to do business to try and stay alive. As this story goes to print — with Singapore slowly emerging from its lockdown — Covid-19 continues to make devastating cuts.

And while no one has yet worked out what the new normal looks like, it’s equally clear that all the rules have changed.

“You can’t just open a restaurant anymore,” says de Vito, who is planning a casual concept eatery with a decentralised kitchen in a low-cost — as yet, undetermined — suburban neighbourhood. “You have to work with fewer staff. You can’t have fresh produce flown in daily from Italy, nor can you have 200 to 300 ingredients in the kitchen like you used to. So, you need shorter menus and not over-provide, because people will have more desk lunches.”

Meanwhile, the lobbying continues, says Loh. “We’re exploring different delivery platforms such as taxi drivers, especially as we look to increase home delivery options over dine-in, even post-lockdown.”

These days, he is busier than ever. “Every day brings challenges. And because my company has a global presence, I must react differently. Australia and China are just coming out of lockdown, but the UK is still in its mitigation phase.”

If nothing else, the resilience demonstrated by Singapore’s food and beverage community is inspiring on every metric, especially on the hawker front. Coinciding with #savefnbsg’s first letter in early April has been the work of Hawkers United – Dabao 2020, an online community comprising over 270,000 hawkers, some food and beverage establishments, and consumers.

“We connect with hawkers,” says Jill Sara, one of the volunteer organisers who works in PR. “We help them perform simple functions to promote their stalls online, and help them with whatever issues they may be facing as best as we can.”

In other words, unity is key, a fact not lost on Lynn Yeow-De Vito. Another veteran food and beverage PR specialist, she is de Vito’s wife and one of the lead volunteers managing #savefnbsg.

“#Savefnb was born out of a ground-up movement. This crisis has united the industry in a way I’ve never seen before.”

A generation from now, when historians look back on 2020 with a considerably cooler eye, they will note at least two incontrovertible facts. One will be the unprecedented economic, social and emotional havoc that was wrecked by an implacable invisible foe. And the other will be how communities spontaneously sprang up around the wounded and weakened; how leaders like Loh and de Vito emerged to rally and lead and, by their example, show that in the face of so much uncertainty, it was still possible to respond with grit, courage and, yes, kindness — a word not normally associated with the cut-throat restaurant world.

For now at least, even post-lockdown, challenges remain.

“I think it’s important to acknowledge the reality of the state that the food and beverage industry is in,” says Stroobant. “Not all of us will escape unscathed from the economic fallout. But my hope is that we can all remain passionate about what we do, and press on.”

This story first appeared in the June/July 2020 issue of A Magazine.

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