High-end in the heartlands

Housing estate residents more used to a daily diet of chicken rice and fishball noodles are seeing more gentrified options in their neighbourhood hawker centres and kopitiams.

Not your regular food court


The Pinnacle@Duxton
1 Cantonment Road

Open 10am to 11pm daily


Chefs Immanuel Tee and Enoch Teo both share a certain affinity with coffeeshops. They each launched their first stalls in one - chef Tee with Immanuel French Kitchen at Salut Coffeeshop in Bukit Merah, and chef Teo with Le Petit Paradis at Alibabar Coffeeshop in Katong.

So it comes as no surprise that the pair of new business partners have chosen to start their new joint-venture - an affordable French dining brand, Garcons - at the newly opened upscale food court named Essen.

"One of the owners is a friend of mine, and he shared with me his plan for this place. It's a half-residential, half-office crowd, so it's a very ideal space," says 28-year-old chef Tee, who just a few months ago opened his second outlet By The Fire - a Western grill, on top of his flagship.

He adds: "Our philosophy from Day One has been to serve restaurant-quality food in a more affordable way, without compromising on quality. Everyone's wallet is getting tighter but people still want to eat, so we're creating food that fits their needs."

Essen is located at The Pinnacle@Duxton, and it has 150 seats indoors, with an upcoming 80 seats outdoors. The space used to be an air-conditioned food court selling traditional fare such as economy rice, but now it houses stalls such as Garcons, an Italian eatery La Stalla, and a fusion seafood joint Wild Wild Catch.

One of its owners is 36-year-old Walter Woo, who also runs the drinks stall at Essen. He and his business partners took over the place about one year ago, and decided almost right off the bat not to open a regular food court.

"Here we are surrounded by many hawker centres, and a few other coffeeshops, where prices are definitely cheaper. So we had to do something very different, we wanted a concept where people will come specially for the food," says Mr Woo, who used to work as a property agent.

For stall owners such as chef Tee and chef Teo, the draw of opening in upscale food courts is clear - it's a more cost-efficient way for young entrepreneurs like themselves to get a footing in the F&B industry.

"You spend much less effort and money on things like marketing and other aspects, and instead you can focus more attention on the product itself. It's not that we compromise on quality, our quality is the same as in a restaurant but we can offer low prices because we have fewer overheads," says chef Teo, 25. He now runs Enoch's European in Katong, just a few doors from where Le Petit Paradis used to be.

"This kind of concept is much more cost-efficient. You spend much less effort and money on things like marketing and other aspects, and instead you can focus more attention and time and effort on the product itself," says chef Teo, 25, who now runs his own restaurant, Enoch's European at Katong, just a few doors down from where Le Petit Paradis used to be.

He points out: "Singaporeans value variety very much, that's why a concept like this can work. Say if I come with a few friends, I can have French, another can have pasta - the beauty is the stalls help one another and there's a synergy there."

Mr Woo also believes that upscale coffeeshops such as Essen are likely to become more common in the future, and reveals that his business partners are in fact already on the lookout for more suitable locations.

He says: "It first started from the hawker centre, after that it evolved into the coffeeshop, and then the food court. So something like Essen might be the next trend, and there might be a new term for it than upscale food court - it might have its own nicer name."

Making a comeback

Sunset Lane

Blk 106, Clementi Street 12


Block 106 on Clementi Street 12 is unlike other blocks around it. It is an office block, surrounded by residential HDB flats, which is why it is able to house a cluster of nine different F&B outlets on the first floor.

This cosy enclave of tucked away eateries makes for an ideal destination for the crowd-averse diner, and was once considered a gem in the West by those who knew of its existence. Some of the restaurants that have been there since the "glory days" include Smokey's BBQ, Rocky's Pizza and Megumi Japanese Restaurant.

Of course, like most trending places in Singapore, its popularity died down over the years, so when new landlord Aquilyne Capital Pte Ltd took over about nine months ago, director Derrick Kuek decided it was about time to refresh and revamp the area.

"When we took over, there were only about five tenants left. It was a chicken-and-egg situation because some previous tenants moved out and the master tenant's contract was ending so they couldn't bring in anything new. Our first task was to fill up the vacant units," explains Mr Kuek, 57.

In the last couple of months, he has brought in a line-up of new tenants to add life to the area, including a boutique coffee roaster called Tiny Roasters, and a Brazilian churrascaria named Carne & Caipirinha, among others.

His other tasks included brightening up the place by repainting the walkways and renovating the worn-out al fresco dining space.

For Tiffany Joy Chan of Tiny Roasters, moving her shop to Sunset Lane was a no-brainer, since she had always lived and gone to school in the area and was familiar with its reputation. She says: "I grew up in a time when Sunset Lane was more prestigious, before Tiong Bahru, before Dempsey. This was the spot to be at that time. It lost popularity but people still have an affection for it even if it's not so mainstream anymore."

Sharing her sentiment is Ng Kim Kee of Carne & Caipirinha, who recalls how he used to visit the F&B cluster to patronise a steakhouse named GrillOut. He is confident that the new mix of upscale eateries like his will eventually help the area reclaim its following.

"In Singapore, crowds tend to frequent one place for a few years, then they stop going to that place and move on. We've seen Boat Quay come and go, Clarke Quay, Mohamed Sultan, Dempsey. Now I think Club Street is the big thing, but their time will come to slow down as well. We believe (Sunset Lane) will soon become one of the places Singaporeans will come to, because this casual al fresco dining sort of atmosphere is something you rarely find anymore," says Mr Ng.

Not to mention, eateries at conventional malls have slowly been losing their draw over the years anyway, observes Aquilyne Capital's Mr Kuek.

"People are finding it hip to open in a housing estate - I see this as an up-and-coming thing. Because it creates a story. If you open in a mall, what's so new about that? Isn't that what everybody does? But opening in a little quiet neighbourhood, it makes people wonder. It makes them think the operator must be very brave, and strongly believes in their product," he says.

Unique food concepts

Bedok Marketplace

348 Bedok Road

Open noon to midnight daily


Everyone knows Singaporeans will go the distance for good food. Sean Goh's popular eatery Bark Cafe is one example. Although it's sited within Changi Museum, and is almost impossible to access without a car, it is often packed on weekend nights with fans of its signature fried chicken wings and crayfish hor fun. So it did not seem like such a daunting task at all when he took over the now-defunct Kampung@Simpang Bedok - a second-floor hawker centre previously run by a social enterprise - with the goal of bringing life back to the place.

Two main challenges include it being accessible only by stairs, and how it is surrounded by many already popular cheap eateries such as Spize and Jalan Tua Kong Lau Lim Mee Pok.

"We decided not to do another hawker centre because we know there are already a lot of good quality hawker centres in the Bedok area," says Mr Goh, 37.

"Instead, we tried to apply the same principle that we did to Bark Cafe - having unique good food. We try to offer something upstairs that is not available downstairs, because if you serve the right kind of good quality food, people will take the trouble to get to you. They will want to travel the distance," he says.

Mr Goh and his business partners took over the place about a year ago, and he now runs it mainly under BC Food Concept which also runs Bark Cafe. After doing some renovations to spruce up the place and update its decor, they reopened it as The Bedok Marketplace last December, starting with a line-up of mostly traditional hawker centre fare like claypot frog porridge and wanton mee.

Down the road, Mr Goh also added more interesting food concepts just to mix things up a little, such as a yakitori stall named The Burning Oak that prides itself on serving high-quality meat, Ballistic Meatballs which specialises in handmade meatball dishes, and a pie bakery which does local flavours like beef rendang, laksa, and bandung, called SPies & All Things Nice.

Right now, there are still four out of 18 stalls that have yet to be filled, but Mr Goh is adamant on taking his time to find the right tenants who would fit well into his concept. His criteria includes creativity and a unique selling point, so they wouldn't clash with an existing tenant and be able to draw customers.

One good example is Ballistic Meatballs, says Mr Goh, which has built up a fan base for its unique crispy chilli crab meatball dish (S$10.50) - the meatballs are made of crab meat served with chilli crab sauce and fried mantous.

Business has so far been encouraging, as the place attracts young people in the evenings who come for drinks and a meal with friends. "We have regulars who come a few times a week." He adds:

"We're still on the look-out for someone who can come and say they can fry, say, char kway teow but not in a traditional way. Today you see a lot of people taking local cuisine and trying to turn it into an interesting fusion. That uniqueness is what we are looking out for."

This article was first published on August 15, 2015.
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