Chefs, bartenders, and business owners from Singapore, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur share their take on 2020 with Set the Tables, and what needs to happen to move forward in 2021.
Collaborate, support local, togetherness
Chef Chalee Kader, chef-owner of 100 Maheseth, Holy Moly, Mickey’s Diner, WANA-YOOK(2021) and many more
Our businesses have had to adapt to the pandemic by understanding the locals’ needs and adjusting our communications to be more directed towards the locals through all our channels i.e. social media and all the way up to our restaurant menus. It has also made us realize that we have to not be wasteful with our Human Resources, and to make the distance from the kitchen to our guests as short as possible – we do this by even having the kitchen staff serving tables or, as we’re seeing more of these days, chef tables, omakase, countertops. This minimizes expenses, loss in communication, and keeps the food message as true as possible.
Moving forward we hope the government can give us some security as all of us in the F&B and hospitality industry make up and contribute a significant amount to the country’s income.
Together with the number of jobs the industry provides, it deserves to be cared for more thoroughly.
As an organisation, we’ve had to pivot and find multiple ways of getting food to our guests. The entire industry is also learning about changes in marketing channels that link consumers with relevant brands in a meaningful way.
The next challenge approaching hospitality soon is the cost and availability of labour and the changes in policy or business environment that food businesses operate in.
Angel Ng, co-owner of Three Piece Shaker & co-founder of MY Bartender’s Handshake
Frankly, for the first time in many years – we are fully abiding by the governing rules. Depending on how we play the rules, sometimes we can get away with some loopholes. But this time, it’s serious and the rules are firmly implemented. We’ve also had to adapt to serving more of our local clientele.
I am supposed to open my own bar this year but the licensing has been affecting us quite deeply. Although that plan is shelved, for now, it’s given me the opportunity to consult other bars and to gain new perspectives. For example, learning about cigars at The Cabinet.
There’s no blame on the government but it’s my hope that at least communications from government bodies be clear with all of the SOPs without the constant back and forth.
Having said that, due to this lockdown, our principals (the suppliers) have been trying to sell cocktails online – this helps in terms of branding but unfortunately,
To keep the bar industry afloat, it is really up to each bar to sustain their own businesses by themselves.
There is only so much that we can do to support each other peer-to-peer when all of us are trying to keep afloat ourselves, and that’s the honest truth.
The government is not going to help with payouts, so what else can we do for ourselves?
Chef LG Han, chef-owner of one Michelin starred Labyrinth Restaurant
Our marketing strategy, price points, and the way we create our dishes have always been catered to a global audience. We’ve always had a good mix of local clientele with tourists. For my restaurant, ever since the borders shut down, 2020 was about understanding our local market, and tweaking the price points and product mix to suit them. We brought back luxury premium products, while maintaining our philosophy of showcasing local ingredients. We also launched a delivery menu with more accessible price points.
This year was about having to balance philosophy and what is good for business in this time of Covid-19.
It’s about building a sustainable business around the local market that is now the only clientele we have, and also taking on the responsibility in protecting the staff’s rice bowl.
Financial support from the Singapore government has been good. Policies and the speed towards grant access have been timely. The downside of it, in the process of making jobs available for Singaporeans only, they’ve rolled out more aggressive policies with the tightening foreign workers’ quota which entails a shortage of manpower since the borders closed.
It is a challenge to hire local manpower, especially for junior level in this industry. We hope that the government will be able to tailor policies specifically towards the service industry, which would ease up the challenge of hiring manpower.
Vicharee Vichit-Vadakan, co-founder of Kinnest Group: The Commons, Roast, Roose, Think Beyond, Home Space Market and many more
This year has been and continues to be, the most testing of times.
I’ve found that revisiting what matters to me, keeping our company’s purpose and values close at heart, and letting it guide me through each decision has been very helpful.
I hope that consumers will look beyond all the deals and the noise, and choose to support good, local businesses that they love. I hope that the government would also lend a helping hand to the smaller players in a way that is meaningful and sustainable.
Chef Drew Nocente, chef owner of Salted and Hung
2020 has been a crazy year! My team and I had to dig deep and do whatever we had to do to survive. I’m proud of my team for doing a great job adapting and making changes for the business to thrive.
I feel the restaurant industry and local tourism needs everyone’s support in this difficult time.
One thing for sure, we need to focus even more on our craft and unique offers in terms of selections
May this be liquor selections, and in being bolder in creating innovative cocktails. Every bar is doing takeaway and customers have direct access in comparing offerings and prices online. We need to be more curated in our offerings, rather than selling the same thing.
This pandemic has made us more appreciative of spending time with people that matter the most. People are more intentional with their time and want to have good quality time when they’re out. Our bar space and offerings need to fulfil that experience.
Jerrold Khoo, Bar Manager, Jigger & Pony (World’s 50 Best Bars)
I realised, and saw firsthand, how a robust industry could become fragile, almost crippled, overnight.
I was also struck by how hospitality professionals have pivoted where necessary, and as quickly as possible, to save their businesses and their staff. And I respect how the cocktail bar community found new ways to share their craft despite the rocky landscape.
At Jigger & Pony, we thought of new ways to deliver happiness in a pandemic, quite literally with our cocktails in pouches through our delivery platforms. This was the spark for PONY, our premium bottled cocktail brand handcrafted with pride by the bartenders at Jigger & Pony that just launched in November (2020).
In time to come, I want to set up a modern hospitality and bartending school where aspiring bar professionals can learn the trade properly and earn certification. At the same time, non-bartenders can take up this course as a side interest to create drinks for themselves or their loved ones at home. Ultimately, I hope this can help to strengthen the overall professionalism and reputation of the work we do.
Chef Napol “Joe” Jantraget, one michelin-starred 80/20 BKK
As all the chefs and restaurant owners around the world are experiencing and having a difficult time with the pandemic, we are experiencing the same. Because of so much uncertainty, we have to come up with quick and “right” decisions. It’s not easy to do so and we never know whether we are making the “right” decisions.
All chefs and restaurant owners need to encourage each other to survive and keep going no matter what type of establishment you are in – fine dining, casual dining, street food etc.
The Community Circuit Breaker, Singapore’s version of a lockdown, that ran from 7 April to 1 June, made me realise how much we have taken our social interactions for granted. Bars and restaurants provide people with spaces to socialise. It is when we can no longer physically go out and interact in these spaces that we realise how precious this is.
It is always important to groom young and aspiring bartenders, just like in any other industry. Providing quality training is imperative.
COVID-19 needs to end, or be better controlled on a global level so that we can start travelling more freely again – not just for our own enrichment, but for the international bar community to connect again through activities like guest shifts. The pandemic has put a stop to almost all travel, and bars across the world now have virtually no guests visiting from overseas.
Word-of-mouth from guests fuels the bar industry, especially through social media when travellers post about their favourite places to drink. This also helps us as bartenders to find out about new bars around the world. In addition, hosting events such as guest shifts can connect new international guests to new bars they have never been to before.
Tay Hui Ying, Director of Marketing for Platform Hospitality Group: Entier French Dining, Botanica+Co. and many more
On a positive note, 2020 has stretched the potential of our business and helped us to gather our courage in making swift and far-sighted decisions. New revenue avenues were quickly explored and implemented, and to our pleasant surprise, they had impactful results. None of these could have been possible without our dedicated team of staff.
2020 really showcased the importance of our people.
In general, it’s not just F&B that’s economically affected, everyone is affected to a certain extent. In this climate, I think everyone can show more empathy and understanding towards one another. One example, follow the restaurant’s SOPs on social distancing, try not to make it difficult for them by demanding to be different. More importantly, don’t take advantage of the situation – I have encountered a guest who asked for half price of something, citing that F&B is now badly hit and we should take his bargain (of course, we politely declined).
2020 has definitely been a year of firsts, continuously we keep trying new things. We never thought before to go into food delivery, but we adapted and came up with an entire new spin-off named JOJO’s for delivery. Which now seems to be turning out as a blessing in disguise with potential growth opportunities. I think we recognised our strengths more than ever – we are a young and ambitious team with plenty of ideas and this year truly tested our capabilities with how fast we can turn those ideas into realisation and make it (sometimes) successful.
I think the best way this industry could be supported is by media and other F&B operators.
Collaborate, promote each other and don’t give up. I think never before has there been more of a sense of togetherness.
Renyi Chin, co-founder of myBurger Lab
From a ‘capitalist’ standpoint, we learn to be really lean and cut off whatever ‘fat’ we had. Lots of staff privileges had to be retracted during the tougher months. The downside is lowered morale which we had to find a way to navigate through.
The F&B scene in general needs to band together more to collaborate and help one another.
Chef Sricharan, Head Chef of Nadodi
I still remember 18 March 2020 when we closed Nadodi. The downtime was a good time for us to reflect and figure out how to grow. It was a blessing and also a challenge. We had to pivot into delivery for the first time – how can we transform our signature dishes into casual dining while keeping the price point reasonable? Hence the Briyani was launched to cater to family needs. We also launched an initiative where all my chefs would cook from their own respective home kitchens, and share what they were cooking with each other. That kept the guys motivated. I am grateful to have such a team who stood up to the challenge and kept going.
Every dish is made by hand and we do our best. The industry will only grow if there is a bit more kindness, a bit more compassion towards the industry
May it be fine dining or casual eats, to give respect to the people who serve the food to make the world a better place. And support our local farmers. Our kitchen now is more focused on sourcing locally, about 80% of our produce is local.
Pinsuda “Ann” Pongprom, consultant, previous Head Bartender of Bamboo Bar at the Mandarin Oriental (World’s 50 Best Bars)
It makes you appreciate the support of local guests and how much they impact your bar. In Thailand,
I hope bars are appreciated more for what they do for the economy and how we fly the flag for the industry we are in.
Chef Mui, Head Chef of Chocha Food Store
Chocha’s philosophy has always been focused on local ingredients since it opened its door a few years ago. However, the pandemic has pushed us into taking even more urgent steps ahead on advocating the use of more local ingredients, in-support of the community as it makes more sense. When people can’t move around freely, you will start to look at things closest to you.
People should continuously support local and neighbourhood businesses.
It doesn’t matter whether it is a high-end restaurant or a hawker stall, everyone needs support on a daily basis. If the whole industry could move forward together, it will definitely bring us through to the next season.