99 Duxton Road 6221 5343
When all Singaporean - and foreign - restaurateurs can talk about are manpower restrictions, high rentals and F&B saturation, it takes one with nerves of steel - or blind optimism - to open an eatery in this cut-throat environment.
Enter then, the undeterred owners of MEATliquor, the first overseas outpost of the UK boutique restaurant chain that has soft-opened this weekend in Duxton Hill. (It officially opens on June 3)
Founded in 2009 by Scott Collins and Yianni Papoutsis, MEATliquor opened in a nondescript street behind a shopping mall on London's Oxford Street. It was an immediate sensation for its outre interiors, loud brassy music, messy burgers and impressive alcoholic menu of killer cocktails.
Within a very short time, new branches popped up in Covent Garden, Brixton and Hoxton, and further afield in Brighton and Leeds.
The restaurant's strictly no-reservations policy generated hour-long lines outside the low-key entrance. Lined with crazed drawings of skulls on female bodies, owl heads on tuxedoed mannequins and garish splashes of colour, the dimly lit interior - courtesy of Shed who has also worked on the Duxton Hill restaurant - looks as if it was dreamed up by someone high on illegal foliage on the set of True Blood before the frenzied vampiric feeding scene begins. In other words, instant Instagram fame.
Collins and Papoutsis are gambling that the fickle Singaporean diner will not just take to MEATliquor's surprisingly small menu of fat burgers dripping with meaty juices, deep-fried pickles and oozy mounds of chilli cheese fries - he will come back for more.
"We've done a lot of research," says Mr Collins of the new 4,000-plus sq ft restaurant which will seat around 120-130. "This has been quite a gamble for all of us."
By "us", he's referring to not just his UK partner, but also MEATliquor's local partner, The Blind Group, which operates the restaurant and bar, Oxwell & Co and Ann Siang Hill cocktail bar, Operation Dagger.
"We had been approached by untold companies around the world including the UAE to open a branch," Mr Collins says. "The Blind Group's Jacques Dejardin who was Jamie Oliver's operations director and a friend from the UK asked us to come to Singapore to have a look. He said there's nothing like MEATliquor in Singapore. Within 12 hours of being here, I loved it."
Cleaving close to the philosophy of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it", the Singapore version of MEATliquor is set up to resemble as closely as possible the UK model, operations-wise at least. "Our model is fast turnover, with people in and out," says Mr Collins.
To ensure the retail DNA is encoded correctly, a core staff of six from the UK - including MEATliquor's head chef, general manager, operations manager and a couple of senior wait-staff - are in Singapore as part of the opening team. "The very punky decor, the cocktails and staff are what make us unique," says Mr Collins.
Of course, there are slight tweaks to the menu which was tested in the upstairs kitchen of Tippling Club around the corner; its owner and chef, Ryan Clift, is a friend. For instance, the buns used in London don't hold up to Singapore's humidity, so they've been replaced with glazed demi-brioche.
Likewise, UK beef has been supplanted by grass-fed USDA Angus, while local tastes are reflected in new dishes such as sambal chicken wings and fried soft-shell crabs.
And here's the interesting part. Despite the reputation, Mr Collins is quick to point out that MEATliquor is not a burger restaurant. Which is technically true - only about a third of the menu comprises burgers. However, that third makes up 70 per cent of MEATliquor's sales. In London, that translates to around 4,000 to 4,500 burgers a week.
At around S$20, a burger costs about 10 per cent more than it does in the UK, a conscious pricing decision. "We don't want price to be a barrier," says Mr Collins. For now, the restaurant will not take reservations as a rule, "but we're going to test it. We may take bookings for groups of six or more."
And just to drive home the fact that opening a restaurant is no walk in the park, not least in Singapore, Mr Collins concedes that there have been staffing issues. This explains why MEATliquor is open only from Tuesday to Saturday, from 5pm. "This way, we keep the same crop of staff," Mr Collins explains, adding "Singapore will differ from the UK in that it has a late liquor licence, so it can stay open till around 4am."
While it may be premature to speculate on MEATliquor's expansion plans, it's difficult to miss Mr Collins' optimism beneath the caution. "We've never done this before. We want to see how Singapore works out first. We never plan too far ahead. We can't run before we walk, but being in Singapore has been a sequence of happy events."