SINGAPORE: For years, business has been brisk at Hjh Maimunah, a popular kampung-style restaurant located in one of the city's oldest Malay settlements, Geylang Serai. The restaurant is especially lively during Ramadan - with a record 2 million people visiting the annual Hari Raya Bazaar in the area last year.
This year, for the first time, the annual bazaar and many other Ramadan events planned islandwide have been cancelled due to the threat of COVID-19. With that, and the soon-to-be enforced "circuit breaker" measures announced on Friday (Apr 3), halal restaurants are feeling the heat.
Ms Mastura Didih, one of Hjh Maimunah's third-generation owners, said sales across her outlets dropped 20 per cent in February. It dropped further to 30 per cent this past week.
She said the sales impact was expected, given that most of the restaurant's customers are tourists and people who work in the neighbourhood, but the safe distancing measures - like many other measures introduced since the outbreak began in January - were sudden.
"Everything happened so quickly that we had to call an emergency meeting on the staff's day off. We had to tell them we needed to change the way we do business," she said.
Before the announcement on Friday, Ms Mastura told CNA the company was already expecting walk-ins to dwindle and the decision was made to expand their delivery service. Hjh Maimunah is currently available on Deliveroo for some parts of Singapore and offers catering services for orders S$150 and above.
But starting next week, customers can order on Hjh Maimunah's own online platform powered by Oddle, with minimum orders set at S$35 and delivery charges starting from S$7. The company is also hoping to take in tingkat orders (one week of lunches or dinners) on this platform.
"We had planned to launch this in Ramadan because we were getting requests for daily deliveries but because of the COVID-19 situation, we decided to launch earlier," said Ms Mastura.
The expanded delivery comes at a ripe time, with "circuit breaker" measures to prevent further spread of COVID-19 set to take effect Apr 7. On Friday, the Government announced the closure of all workplaces except for those providing essential services such as food and medicine.
Restaurants can only remain open for takeaway and delivery, not dine-in, until May 4.
Those establishments allowed to remain open have to continue to adhere to safe distancing measures, such as a 1m-space between people.
Hjh Maimunah is a popular option for catered festive food, which it typically delivers or prepares for self-collection on the eve of Hari Raya. Dishes like sambal goreng pengantin, sambal udang and rendang are prepared fresh for those who do not want to go through the laborious cooking process that the Hari Raya feast involves.
Because of the safe distancing measures, Hjh Maimunah will have to take in fewer orders this year.
"For delivery on Hari Raya eve, we will probably do only 50 customers - first come, first served. For self-collection, we prepared 500 orders last year, but this year we will only be taking 200," she said.
To make up for it, the company is jumping on a new business opportunity - frozen food.
"We opened a second factory recently that we've been using to process frozen food for our own kitchens. We'll start selling frozen food out of that factory in May during fasting month, for those who can't do their shopping in Geylang," said Ms Mastura.
Already in the delivery game is Flame Cafe, which began offering its zhi char and Western menus, as well as its signature pagoda steamboat platters online earlier this week for a flat delivery fee of S$4. However, customers have to make their order by phone two days in advance.
"We didn't have much time to plan, the limited gathering announcement was quite abrupt. We came up with a plan in something like 24 hours," said sales and marketing manager Ida Isnin.
The cafe had seen "quite a big drop" in walk-in customers, said Ms Ida, adding that the lunch crowd alone was reduced by up to 40 per cent.
"We usually see a few families dine at our restaurant for dinner, but recently we were seeing just one or two tables occupied," she said.
TOURIST HOTSPOT ARAB QUARTER A "GHOST TOWN"
Over in the Arab quarter, a tourist hotspot also popular during Ramadan, at least three restaurants jumped on the delivery bandwagon this week.
After sales spiked from the launch of its delivery service in March, Fatpapas' marketing and communications executive Annabelle Francis said the team decided to launch the same service for their sister outlet Wakuwaku Yakiniku. Previously, both restaurants drew such consistent crowds that they had to implement a queuing system.
"We suffered a dip in numbers because of COVID-19, but our deliveries have definitely gone up. It did so well that Wakuwaku Yakiniku also became available for delivery on Apr 1. For Ramadan, we're staying optimistic and plan to offer an exciting festive delivery menu," said Ms Francis.
In nearby Bussorah Street, popular Italian eatery Positano Risto also launched a delivery service on its website with a wide range of menu items including risotto and lobster thermidor, with no delivery charge. Those who self-collect will get 15 per cent off their order.
"We never planned to do delivery at such a scale. We only started thinking about it on Mar 22 and decided to launch it as soon as possible. There was a sharp decline in revenue that week," said general manager Mohammed Taha. "Overall we have seen a 70 per cent drop in our in-house revenue."
Mr Mohammed Taha said the biggest change was having to shift the mindset of their staff in terms of the restaurant's core business.
"We had to transform from a dine-in service to a place where the revenue stream will mainly come from delivery. Front of house staff will have to go from entertaining customers to packing food. That's a major change in their roles," he said.
"We have hired more delivery personnel and will hire more if the need arises," he added.
Another badly hit eatery in the area is I Am Cafe, which saw a 90 per cent drop in customers compared to before the coronavirus outbreak.
There is usually a queue on the five-footway for a table at the cafe located at the intersection of North Bridge Road and Haji Lane, but the tourist hotspot has turned into a "ghost town", said owner Jamuri Busori, who said he has no idea what to expect in Ramadan.
"Our place is usually quite packed during iftar, but it remains a big question mark if anyone will come out to eat this Ramadan. People are afraid to go out. Even though we have taken extra measures, such as opening up our events area to offer more space between seats, people are not coming in. I'm clueless as to how things are going to be this Ramadan," said Mr Jamuri.
I Am Cafe has digitalised much of its operations since 2018, with customers encouraged to make even dine-in orders via their mobile devices. But amid the outbreak, delivery is now available islandwide, with S$10 specials and 20 per cent off the total bill.
DELIVERY PLATFORMS "OVERWHELMED"
Koh Nang Kam, a Thai restaurant in the Kampong Glam district, said that with revenue reduced to a third on a weekday and by 80 per cent on previously busy weekends, it had hoped to jump into islandwide delivery as well, but this was delayed because delivery platforms appeared overwhelmed by a surge in such requests.
"We are in talks with Oddle to integrate a nationwide delivery into our official website. We may be able to launch this in two weeks because their technical team is overwhelmed with the surge in applications for such services," said manager Abdul Hadi Jamalludin, adding that the restaurant has submitted an application with GrabFood and is still awaiting response.
Not everyone is hopeful that delivery is the solution.
For Rasa Istimewa, delivery figures have not gone up, even though all its outlets have been available on third-party apps like Deliveroo and Foodpanda since before the outbreak.
"I won't say that deliveries have gone up. People are staying at home so they probably have more time to do their own cooking, so delivery has not really gone up," owner Larry Tan told CNA.
Rasa Istimewa has three outlets including one in SAFRA Jurong, which is linked to one of the biggest COVID-19 clusters in Singapore.
"The SAFRA Jurong outlet is more seriously affected compared to the ones in Woodlands and Pasir Ris. We saw an almost 70 per cent drop in diners," said Mr Tan.
Still, the company is persisting, pushing discounts and free delivery on some platforms.
"It's very demoralising," said Mr Tan. "We hope the Government can help more than what they're offering now. Even if the curve is flattened and the situation stabilises, it will take months for customer confidence to be restored. We're in this for the long haul."