SINGAPORE: While many Singaporean families end up eating at restaurants to celebrate Chinese New Year, the business is still a tough one to survive. Restaurants across Singapore are picking up different ways to keep their business alive.
Business at Spring Court, for example, is still booming - even after more than eight decades.
From its beginnings at the now-defunct Great World Amusement Park, to its current location in Chinatown, one could almost say the restaurant grew up with Singapore. However, its colourful history has not been without its challenges. Managing Director Soon Puay Keow joined her husband's family business in 1978 and she was determined to see it through tough times.
“When I first started out at Spring Court, I told myself that the business was to be successful and not be a flop,” she said. “So no matter how difficult it was, we were determined to overcome all the challenges. Hence, I put in my very best."
“In any business, you can't just do it halfway and give up. Once you start, you have to try your best to properly operate it, and treat your customers with sincerity, know what they like, show them respect and even remember their names. Also, as for the quality of our food, it has to be of a good standard and not treated casually. Hence, we have to manage the operations properly,” she added.
While there is pressure to keep up with culinary trends, Madam Soon believes that authentic dishes are also important.
For her, a restaurant does more than just serve food. It can also help to relive memories.
Said Madam Soon: “What Spring Court serves now is traditional Singaporean-style cuisine. What we call it is traditional-style and it's no longer easy to find this kind of traditional taste, you really can't find it anymore. However, Spring Court has decided to preserve the traditional style, the original tastes.
“Why do we want to preserve it? Because some customers might have migrated for decades, but when they come back, they still like to eat those dishes ... they will come back to the restaurant and we hope that they will feel that ‘the taste has not changed and the same feeling is still there’. In this way, we will know that the flavour has been preserved and not been changed just because of the change in times.
“Of course, we also have to change with time, but we still have to preserve certain traditional tastes. This is why many customers still come to Spring Court.”
BRANCHING INTO DELIVERY
While Spring Court seeks to keep its customers coming back, over at Old Hong Kong, the food has been going out to them instead.
The 10-year-old restaurant once operated six outlets with different dining concepts, but a manpower crunch forced owner Victoria Li to revamp the business model.
Old Hong Kong started offering daily food delivery services one and a half years ago.
While Old Hong Kong's dine-in menu offers a wide variety of dishes, its online delivery menu offers more than 600 items to choose from. Everything comes specially prepared and packed, so that it reaches its destination just the way the chefs intend it to.
Ms Li said: "For home delivery service, the most important thing is the kitchen. You have to keep the food standards good, so right now what we do is we put all the labour, the quota, into the chef section.
“For logistics, we just outsource to other companies that maintain delivery. So I can manage the food standard and keep good standards for the customers. But if you’re talking about the service line, right now, I believe that most of the service line standards are dropping, because of no manpower.”
With the new business model, the restaurant said it has seen substantial savings in running costs.
Said Ms Li: “Frankly speaking, if you just have the dine-in business, maybe you will end up losing. Not just depending on how much your profit is, maybe you will lose, because the rental is so expensive, the labour cost is so high. But right now, you have the home delivery service, you don't need to pay for six restaurants’ rental, but you can keep the labour from 10am to 10pm.
“That means that you don't need to pay for the rest time. Last time, even when (there was) not much business going on in the afternoon, you still need to pay the salary. But now, the busiest time is what used to be the rest time - from 4pm to 5pm. So for efficiency and effectiveness, right now it’s much better.
“If you compare the revenue of the home-delivery service with the dine-in, it's more than double.”
MAXIMISING USE OF VENUE
Another well-known name in Singapore's Chinese restaurant scene is Dragon Phoenix.
Its founder, Master Chef Hooi Kok Wai, is believed to have created the modern yusheng recipe that we know and enjoy, with three other well-known chefs.
While most Chinese restaurants focus purely on Chinese cuisine, Dragon Phoenix has revamped its operating model by moving its branches into a hotel and clubhouse. This means that it can cater to buffets, as well as business tea breaks.
Mr Chris Hooi, executive director of the Dragon Phoenix Restaurants, said: “We have to keep on evolving, to accommodate the economic situation and the market needs. For Dragon Phoenix, we try to expand our market by actually training our staff to be more diverse to cater for different events.
“Since we are in a hotel now, we also cater for things like buffet lunches, tea breaks and things like that. And even in Temasek Club, we do also provide for a lot of different varieties of events, so the team has to be more dynamic. You have to widen the knowledge in the culinary aspect, to cater for a more diverse customer base.
“We had to redesign the workflow - but of course not at the expense of compromising standards - and invest in newer, more intelligent, kitchen equipment that can multitask. Overall, the operating model in the kitchen has changed, especially the workflow. We’ve 'slimlined' the workflow, to increase more productivity.”
Mr Hooi added: “As for the business model, we don’t only cater to B to C - which is the end-user consumer - we also cater to corporates, which is B to B as well. In both models, we have a merger and actually the market share has enlarged. With a larger market share, and a new design of workflow and manpower planning, in a way the productivity increased so that we could actually cater to a larger market, with the same number of manpower."
Mr Hooi said the restaurant group has seen its revenue increase by about 30 per cent after the change.
However, he also said that it has to work at keeping its market share. “Looking at the current economic situation, the restaurant industry can be quite challenging, and of course with the manpower crunch … But there's also a bright side to it, because Singaporeans are getting more and more adventurous due to higher exposure.
“So restaurants have to carve their own niche to fit the individual segments of the customers. Like for us, we are trying to live up to our legacy because we have iconic dishes, like yam ring, chilli crab, yusheng and things like that. On the side, we still have to be innovative to actually create something new, to be relevant, that's the most important.”
While restaurants may need to evolve to cater to changing tastes and clientele, hard work and good food remain two key ingredients in their recipes for success that stay the same.