Makan

Restaurant owners unfazed by slowing economy

In the past three months, hotelier- restaurateur Loh Lik Peng, 45, has added four more food and beverage (F&B) brands to his Unlisted Collection empire - making it a total of 15 so far.

The new ones are Audace in Dickson Road, Nouri in Amoy Street, kushikatsu restaurant Panko in Arab Street and pop-up restaurant Bistro November in Keong Saik Road. And in September, he will open Blackwattle, in partnership with Australian chef Clayton Wells of Automata in Sydney, which is also under the Unlisted Collection group.

Mr Loh, 45, calls the slew of openings "opportunistic" and says his decision to open depends on the timing and location.

He has also had his fair share of changes - cocktail bar The Library closed last week after its lease ended and he is looking to reopen it in a new location.

Audace replaces the now-defunct Cocotte restaurant, while Bistro November takes over the space of the former Restaurant Ember. Majestic Restaurant, which closed in May, will reopen at mixed-use development Marina One in Marina South in October.

Mr Loh says: "There's no such thing as a saturated restaurant scene. The good restaurants will find their feet and the mediocre ones will not last."

According to statistics from technology firm DC Frontiers, a reseller of the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority's company registry data, 576 restaurants were set up last year. So far this year, 398 restaurants have been incorporated, while a total of 451 have exited or are exiting the scene.

Unlisted Collection’s founder Loh Lik Peng (seated) and chef Clayton Wells of Automata in Sydney are partnering to open restaurant-bar concept Blackwattle in September 2017.PHOTO: THE STRAITS TIMES

Diners are also spending less. Department of Statistics figures show that total F&B services sales were estimated to have fallen by 3 per cent in April, compared with the same month a year ago. The hardest hit are restaurants, with sales falling by 10.5 per cent, followed by other eating places, which include cafes, dipping by 0.6 per cent.

Despite the challenging F&B landscape, Mr Loh notes, people are continuing to open restaurants because landlords are more open to negotiating rent and offering longer leases.

Enticing fickle diners who are spoilt for choice is tough, though.

As Mr Ricky Ng, 46, owner of modern Chinese restaurant brand Blue Lotus, puts it: "You have only one chance to get people to come back. I want people to come back because of the food, service and location."

On Wednesday, he opened Blue Lotus Chinese Grill House at Tanjong Pagar Centre, adding to his outlets at Quayside Isle and at Savourworld in Science Park Drive. Highlights of the new Grill House menu include the three- course set lunch (from $18++), with dishes such as chilli pomelo la mian soup with crabmeat, and hot stone pork lard truffle-flavoured fried rice.

Others are changing things up to stay afloat.

Seven-year-old frozen yogurt brand Sogurt's flagship outlet in Bukit Timah is now called Kara Cafe & Dessert Bar. It still features founder Lee Li Ping's yogurt bar, but has new flavours such as strawberry thyme and maple lavender. It also offers savoury dishes, from grain bowls to salads and mochi waffles.

Ms Lee says the last two years were a struggle. "I considered closing the brand and declaring bankruptcy." But she stuck it out by negotiating terms with landlords.

At its peak, there were 12 Sogurt outlets. Now, there are just three left; at nex, Kallang Wave Mall and The Star Vista. She is also looking to supply her yogurt to other businesses as well as organise events at Kara.

Making a comeback is celebrity chef Redzuawan Ismail, better known as Chef Wan. After closing buffet restaurant 1 Market at Plaza Singapura last year, he is back with Chef Wan's Kitchen at Esplanade Mall.

It focuses on heritage Asian cuisine, with many recipes from his family. Highlights include his oxtail soup, Bibik Neo (Chef Wan's grandmother) laksa noodles and Cik Aini's (his mother) Mee Rebus.

The restaurant is applying for halal certification.

Other business owners such as Mr Shawn Kishore, 31, test the waters with a pop-up concept first. His Taiwanese eatery Five Ten in South Bridge Road will be there for just eight to 10 months.

"Being a pop-up allows us to take more risks," he says. He is looking for a more permanent space.

Others striking out in the food industry here include Ms Nuria Gibert, 31, the daughter of Spanish chef Carles Gaig, 69, who has consulted for La Ventana restaurant at Dempsey. Now, father and daughter have set up their own Restaurant Gaig, which opened last week, a spin-off from their one-Michelin- starred restaurant of the same name in Barcelona. The menu features classic Catalan stews as well as tapas and paella.

Ms Gibert, who was the restaurant manager for La Ventana when it opened in 2015, says: "We know that the scene here is competitive, but it is also very interesting for us. We have always wanted to run our own business here."

Giving a landlord's perspective on the scene, Ms Patrina Tan, senior vice-president of retail, marketing and leasing of OUE Limited, says: "You are dealing with a jaded consumer in a challenging retail environment, where F&B is not spared. A mall is no longer a pure transactional space and you have to cater to the lifestyle of consumers."

Indeed, the increased effort to court diners is a boon for consumers who are always looking for the next new place to dine at.

Business development manager Leon Ng, 36, says: "I can spend the whole week discussing where to eat with my friends because there're just too many places to pick from and everyone has a new restaurant he wants to check out.

"Sometimes, after all the discussion, we end up going back to old favourites such as Imperial Treasure or Din Tai Fung because we know that the quality is consistent."

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