SINGAPORE: The owner of a local food delivery service has acknowledged he is unable to pay eateries what he estimates could be hundreds of thousands of dollars owed for food that has been delivered, stating that poor business, high overheads and stiff competition has forced his company to shut down.
"Honestly, it’s not that I’m not trying to pay them - it’s really that I can’t do anything," What To Eat owner Benson Lo, 40, told Channel NewsAsia on Thursday (Nov 15). "I hope I can repay them but I really have no means."
Mr Lo said he is focused on paying off staff salaries and larger chunks of his debt, and is looking to declare his company bankrupt. "If they want to sue the company, it’s really beyond my means," he added. "I will just leave it to (the bankruptcy process)."
F&B OUTLETS OUT OF POCKET
His comments come as dozens of food and beverage (F&B) outlets said they are owed money for food delivered through What To Eat, noting that the company has vacated its office and Mr Lo has been uncontactable. Some have left angry comments and scathing reviews online.
What To Eat is still listed by the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority as a "live company", although its website and social media pages have been taken down. Mr Lo's office and mobile numbers are not in service.
The Garden Slug owner Joseph Lim, 43, told Channel NewsAsia his company is owed at least S$700, with payments stopping in February. He last got a response in August.
"It’s very disappointing," he said. "Give people an idea when you want to pay them back, not just escape and hide. This is people’s hard-earned money."
A partner at Annabella Patisserie, who only wanted to be known as Mr Lau, said he has written off the S$1,000 he is owed, adding that he would not approach the authorities.
"Usually we try not to (contact the police)," the 38-year-old said. "We understand how other people feel if we do that. That’s how SMEs (small- and medium-sized enterprises) work."
While Mr Lau said he has been able to write off the debt due to the "manageable" cost price of his products, he acknowledged that other F&B businesses might not be able to.
"I’m more worried about customers paying money online then they don’t receive the product," he added. "They thought it’s the merchant, but actually we are not getting paid."
Nevertheless, Mr Lau said he believes What To Eat has run into financial problems and is "not running away".
Still, a shareholder of a hawker stall in northwest Singapore decided to take matters into his own hands. He said he managed to recover the S$1,000 he was owed by confronting Mr Lo at his office on Geylang Road and waiting at a coffee shop he thought was run by him.
"If he really has real financial difficulties, he should at least let us know and not avoid us," said the 30-year-old, who asked to be identified only by his initials KA. "Don’t wait until your so-called partners come and chase you until things turn sour, then you start to pay money."
"I'LL BE SPIT ON BY THEM"
It was at this coffee shop that Channel NewsAsia tracked down a weary-looking Mr Lo. He said he was renting a stall there as his only source of income to raise his three children.
Previous attempts to reach Mr Lo at his office proved unsuccessful, with the next-door tenant saying he had moved out and that people had come looking for him stating he owed them money.
"I’m really at the stage where I’ve given up everything," Mr Lo said after leaving a small room he was sleeping in at the coffee shop. "I sold all my personal things to pay off my staff’s salary."
While What To Eat showed promise after its launch in 2013 with more than 100 F&B partners, Mr Lo said orders started dwindling as investors pumped money into competitors like Foodpanda.
"We are local and it's hard to fight with them," he lamented, noting that his company also suffered a "big burn out" last year after its attempted expansion to Malaysia fell flat.
But the alarm bells really started to ring when Mr Lo discovered that the company owed a single business about S$100,000 after not paying them for almost a year and a half.
Mr Lo said he does not know how this happened, suggesting that it could be due to accounting issues with either party.
"During that time, they started asking debt collectors to disturb us," he said, adding that he was forced to use funds reserved for other establishments to settle the spiralling debt. "This big chunk that snowballed made me unable to sustain the business."
Mr Lo said he would be harassed by loan sharks at his office and at home, pointing out that it did not "look good".
"They’ve been very aggressively coming over," he said, adding that he would ask them for more time. "I told them this is a business thing; they shouldn’t come to my house."
His biggest regret is not shutting shop sooner, although he said this was because he did not want to leave his employees stranded, almost all of whom, he said, were foreigners.
"During the end of September, I really struggled so much; I didn’t know whether I should stop," he said. "If I stop, (my staff) can't find jobs."
When asked why he had not gathered the F&B owners he owes money to in order to explain his situation, he replied: "I tell you, if I gathered them I’ll be spit on by them.
No one can guarantee that a business will succeed, added Mr Lo.
"Honestly, this is business," he said. "Trying to sustain this business has sucked me dry."