'Borrowed close to $2 million to cover operational costs': Gillman Barracks F&B tenants asked to retender or leave

Masons co-owners Rob Coldman (right) and Karen Yeo at their restaurant in Gillman Barracks.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

SINGAPORE — Food and beverage tenants at Gillman Barracks have expressed concern about having to give up their spaces after the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) on Tuesday (May 24) launched tenders for their sites.

Creamier Handcrafted Ice Cream and Coffee, Masons and Handlebar wish to remain at the arts cluster off Alexandra Road after their leases expire early next year.

The owners of the F&B establishments told The Straits Times that the tenders were a blow, coming just after business started to pick up when Covid-19 restrictions were eased last month.

Two out of six F&B tenants — Naked Finn and BurgerLabo, both owned by Mr Tan Ken Loon under the Naked Finn Group (NFG) — were given direct tenancy.

Five other sites — 5A, 8, 9A and 10 Lock Road, and 45 Malan Road — were launched for tender on Tuesday. The results of the tenders are expected to be announced on Sept 30.

Four sites are occupied by Creamier, Masons, Handlebar and Hopscotch. The block at 9A Lock Road used to house Timbre @ Gillman and is currently vacant.

Mr Rob Coldman, 58, owner of Verve Holdings, which runs Masons restaurant, said: "I'm happy for Naked Finn and BurgerLabo, but I'm shocked that the rest of us have to retender."

He added that the company borrowed close to $2 million to cover Masons' operational costs over the past two years.

5A, 8, 9A and 10 Lock Road, and 45 Malan Road — were launched for tender on May 24, 2022. 
PHOTO: The Straits Times

"We saw it as a worthwhile investment as Masons has been at Gillman Barracks since 2012, so this came as a blow as we thought we'd been through the worst."

Creamier co-founder Khoh Wan Chin, 46, said she had requested direct tenancy but was told that if there were interested bidders for the site, it would be put up for tender.

"We love the location even though we knew setting up shop there in 2016 was challenging due to low footfall. Covid-19 restrictions have also affected business," she said.

"We worked hard to let people know about our outlet in Gillman Barracks — it took us about three years to get a stable weekend crowd. All tenants should have been given the same treatment."

Handlebar founder Jan Pek, 53, said she was disappointed as the company had forked out about $1.5 million, taking a year and a half for renovation works before moving in about six years ago.

She said: "The business already suffered over the past two years because of the pandemic. Every month, we are losing at least $100,000. If we don't get the tender, all our efforts over the past six years have been wasted."

The results of the tenders are expected to be announced on Sept 30, 2022.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

ST was not able to reach Hopscotch for comment.

The three F&B establishments will tender for their sites, which will have a longer upfront tenure of five years, renewable for a second term of between two and three years.

The tenders are part of SLA's plans to rejuvenate Gillman Barracks into a lifestyle enclave, and it is looking to introduce more unique dining experiences and workshops in the area.

SLA said it will consider whether proposals for the sites incorporate green initiatives into business operations as part of its push to make Gillman Barracks an eco-friendly precinct.

The tenders will be evaluated by price and quality, with a higher weighting placed on the quality component.

In response to queries on why Naked Finn and BurgerLabo received direct tenancy, an SLA spokesman said NFG is well regarded locally for its high-quality cuisine.

It also put Singapore in the global culinary spotlight by being included in Essence of Asia's 50 best restaurants in 2021 list, she added.

"Over the years, NFG has also introduced its brand of gourmet creativity to Gillman Barracks' tenants and visitors, planning colourful culinary festivals," she said.

"The Economic Development Board supported SLA in the current duration of direct tenancy since NFG contributed to the creative vibrancy of the Gillman Barracks precinct and invested significantly in its facilities to complement its growth."

Mr Tan, 47, said Naked Finn, which has been at Gillman Barracks for about 10 years, has strict seafood criteria.

"We source our own seafood and we don't touch anything critically endangered, such as some tuna species," he said.

On SLA's rejuvenation plans, he said: "It's about time for infrastructure upgrading as both my outlets do not have toilets."

Meanwhile, art galleries are looking forward to Gillman Barrack's transformation into a lifestyle enclave as it could bring more footfall.

Art galleries are looking forward to Gillman Barrack's transformation into a lifestyle enclave as it could bring more footfall.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Founder of Yeo Workshop, Ms Audrey Yeo, said she thinks it is good to mix art and lifestyle concepts. The gallery has been at Gillman Barracks since 2013.

"Art can sometimes be perceived as high brow, so the general public would need an access point into the arts scene — which would be the new F&B and lifestyle options," she said.

Richard Koh Fine Art gallery director Christiaan Haridas said new covered walkways would improve footfall.

"Usually when it rains, it deters people from coming because it's open area with little shelter," he added.

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Undergraduate Samantha Goh, 23, said that although Gillman Barracks is a 10- to 15-minute walk from Labrador Park MRT station, she would still visit the area for its F&B offerings such as Creamier.

"I would visit the art galleries if they are more connected to the F&B outlets, and it'll help if there are more directories and sheltered walkways," she said.

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.