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COVID-19: F&B businesses welcome Phase 3 announcement, say customers hungry to dine in bigger groups

COVID-19: F&B businesses welcome Phase 3 announcement, say customers hungry to dine in bigger groups

A woman reads a newspaper at a cafe at Marina Bay Sands shopping mall in Singapore on Jun 19, 2020. (Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman).

SINGAPORE: Local F&B establishments have welcomed Singapore's move to allow bigger social gatherings in Phase 3 of its reopening, following a "circuit breaker" period that saw most businesses shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Ministry of Health announced on Monday (Dec 14) that social gatherings of up to eight people will be allowed when Phase 3 begins on Dec 28. 

This is up from the current five people allowed, said the ministry in a press release that followed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's address to the nation, in which he described Singapore's move towards Phase 3 as a "calibrated, careful move".

Speaking to CNA, Mr Sum Chee Min, who is the chairman of Sum Kee Food, described the announcement as a "plus" for his company’s two zi char outlets.

For example, more diners means that more food will be ordered. 

READ: Singapore to start Phase 3 of COVID-19 reopening on Dec 28

READ: COVID-19: Social gatherings of up to 8 people allowed from Dec 28, further reopening of activities in Phase 3

“If there are only five persons, all they can do is to order small portions … but now they can have a larger portion, and more variety on a communal basis,” he said. 

“The increment of five to eight people is definitely a plus ... for people like us," he added. “Definitely there will be an improvement in the earnings, but it will not be a recovery to what it was before the COVID (pandemic).”

Mr Sum noted that since the announcement, he has received calls from customers asking if they can begin making bookings for Phase 3. 

“My customers ring up, they are very happy … They also want to know: ‘Will everybody be rushing in and we don’t have a seat?’"

READ: 12 new COVID-19 cases in Singapore, all imported

The same is the case at Yan restaurant, a spokesperson told CNA. It has already received 10 new bookings for tables of eight, from the start of Phase 3 until the Chinese New Year period.

"Many dishes at Yan are good for sharing, which makes it easier for such groups to try a larger variety of dishes," said general manager Shek Chi Kuen. "We can expect our revenue to increase with more diners at the table joining us to celebrate the year-end festive season, as well as the upcoming Chinese New Year period."

A Catalan restaurant told CNA it was already seeing high demand before the announcement, but bookings for larger groups have started to trickle in.

"As soon as the PM announced the starting of Phase 3, we received some phone calls making bookings for eight people," said Ms Nuria Gibert, restaurant director at Restaurant Gaig. "Some other guests are changing their existing bookings to increase the number of people."

Dr Martin Bem, founding managing director of the group that runs LeVeL33 and Erwin's Gastrobar, said the change will allow many more options for customers. 

"That is indeed an important change for us. Take a couple outing, for example - a couple could go out only with another couple ... Now there are so many more options," Dr Bem said.

"Not surprisingly, we received the first reservation requests for eight pax just after the announcement was aired."

In response to queries from CNA, the Restaurant Association of Singapore described the announcement as “welcome news” to the F&B industry. 

“We welcome the Government’s move to allow the larger group size of eight for social gatherings, from Dec 28. We have been waiting for the authorities to allow us to seat more people at each table in our restaurants and for the return of larger families per seating,” said a spokesperson. 

“This new move will certainly help improve and sustain the F&B businesses, thereby preserving F&B jobs, as we move into 2021.”

The association said it had hoped for Phase 3 to begin in time for Christmas. 

“The social distancing and safe living measures we have adopted for some time now are part of the preparations we have to transit into the third phase,” noted the spokesperson.

“While we had hoped for this phase to be opened in time for Christmas, we understand that the authorities may want the longer lead time to ensure that everyone is prepared to receive more diners at the tables.”

"LESS FRICTION WITH CUSTOMERS"

Mr Jeremy Reynolds, who is group managing director of craft beer importer and distributor Eastern Craft, said that the announcement is unlikely to result in a big increase in sales for Eastern Craft's four bars and restaurants.

He pointed out that the restriction of at least one-metre spacing between the tables will be the main limiting factor on sales. This restriction has not changed.

READ: Bucking the trend, some F&B businesses open new outlets despite COVID-19 downturn

“Everybody understands why we have this spacing issue. And I think everyone understands that the spacing issue is going to go on for quite some time. So the distance in between tables is something that isn't changing and unlikely to change for some time,” he said.

“And that's the main (thing restricting) how much business we can do each night.”

With Eastern Craft’s bars and restaurants doing relatively well at the moment, Mr Reynolds noted that the main benefit of the move to increase gathering size would be "less friction with customers".

“For some reason six seems to be a bit of a magic number, there are often groups of six … we have people come in with six and we have to turn them down. And people get angry, unfortunately, even to this day, you would expect people to know the rules, but they still get angry,” he added.

READ: For F&B outlets, COVID-19 is a wake-up call. Here are seven changes they can make

For F&B businesses that largely rely on footfall from office workers, such as RED Noodle and Bottle Bar, the move is also unlikely to have much impact.

“Our bar and restaurant is located in the office area, actually to be honest even if you say you allow eight, it might not necessarily mean better sales or revenue for us,” said owner Tan Zhi Wen, who noted that business has dropped by about 60 per cent from 2019.

“If people are not back in the office, we don’t expect sales. What we are seeing is that it still might be the same.”

F&B businesses that CNA spoke to also noted that there was not much of a need to make significant changes such as reconfiguring layouts in preparation for Phase 3.

Mr Reynolds said that at Eastern Craft’s bars and restaurants, outlets have already been set up to maximise space within the current restrictions. 

“I don't think any of our outlets are making any changes frankly. At some of our outlets, we've kind of designated tables for however many people it can accommodate,” he explained.

“We might have a couple of tables that can take six people (that) previously were limited to five, or maybe we were just using them for four ... So in theory that will give us now one more person occasionally (in Phase 3).”

The same is likely to be the case for Sum Kee outlets, added Mr Sum.

“It’s still the same amount of tables, we are not putting back the old tables that we have taken out … It is just (adding) chairs,” he said. “It’s not much preparation because we have lived with it already  … It will not be a problem.”

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Source: CNA/mt(hs)

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