Hard truths to keep Singapore's F&B going: Are all our restaurants worth saving?

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A couple of weeks ago, a list of restaurants in Singapore that were closed due to the coronavirus pandemic made its rounds on social media.

On that list included many familiar names – Salt Grill & Sky Bar (once headlined by Australian celebrity chef Luke Mangan), former radio jock Daniel Ong’s restaurant Rookery at Capital Tower, and long-running family chain Modesto’s, among many others.

While there could be a myriad number of reasons leading to them shutting down, it’s likely that most of these venues have been caught between sky-high rentals and being unable to pivot quickly enough to deal with the restrictions on dining in.

And until Singapore moves into Phase 2 of its coronavirus containment plan – which will allow a limited form of dining in at bars and restaurants – chances are that many more F&B outlets are going to end up on that luckless list.

But here’s an unpopular opinion. While it’s indeed a shame that more F&B businesses will shutter, there are only so many F&B establishments that are worth saving.

Simply put, we can’t save them all.

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For the past couple of decades, Singapore’s food scene has been growing at an explosive pace, boosted by a buoyant economy and a growing cosmopolitan populace.

From the slew of celebrity fine dining restaurants that’s sprung up in our integrated resorts to the various international burger chains looking at Singapore as their newest market to conquer, we are now so gastronomically spoilt for choice we need to rely on a good number of food recommendation apps and websites – much like City Nomads – just to help us decide what to eat next.

But with every new concept announced in our increasingly-crowded and highly-competitive dining scene, some industry pundits wonder when too much is too much.

For example, do we really need yet another cookie-cutter fast food outlet, ubiquitous pub, or run-of-the-mill ramen joint, to open at every other street corner? And just how many hotpot restaurants does Singapore need anyway?

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If it is indeed the case that things have become unsustainable, then perhaps this pandemic will serve as a wake-up call for a bloated industry that’s been overheating and straining at its edges for too long.

Businesses with weak concepts – and even weaker financials – are most likely to struggle under the relentless hammer blows from coronavirus containment restrictions; on the flip side, those who have strong business models and are quick to pivot are most likely to survive, even thrive, in these trying times.

As the Singapore government pours resources into supporting a flagging F&B industry buffeted by an unprecedented, unexpected global pandemic, we also need to come to a realisation that not all businesses can – or should – be saved.

How best then can we, as consumers, help bolster our ailing restaurant industry?

My humble suggestion? Let’s focus our efforts – and spending – on those businesses that matter to us as individuals.

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This means you should support that family-owned Western food stall in your kopitiam downstairs; it will help put their young son through school.

Purchase a few cocktails from that friend who, by a stroke of pure bad luck, has unfortunately opened his gastrobar during this untimely period.

Do a lunch takeaway from that young hawker because you want to help sustain Singapore’s hawker culture, or buy your family’s dinner from that Peranakan or old-school Hakka restaurant to keep heritage cuisine alive.

And definitely group purchase meals for the office from that eatery that is donating a portion of their takings to fund meals for dormitory workers or those in healthcare.

Basically, I’m saying we should help the food businesses you and I are emotionally connected to.

I’ve found that building my bucket list this way gives purpose to mere eating.

It’s certainly more meaningful than just “oh I feel like having ramen tonight”, or “let’s eat from here tonight because they have a cheap deal”.

Your list is likely to differ from mine; that is okay, after all our palates are different. In fact, that’s even better as it helps a bigger swathe of establishments.

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It is thus extremely heartening to see Facebook groups such as Hawkers United and Singapore Restaurant Rescue spring up to spotlight those businesses that need help, sharing their stories and menus to help us decide how best and who we should patronise.

If you’re a business owner, this is also your crucible of fire. If you’ve done enough to build a meaningful business pre-coronavirus, chances are you’ll find people rallying to your cause to help sustain you through this period.

But if your desperate call for help goes unanswered, perhaps yours is one that doesn’t have a strong enough concept, or you’re saddled with a business model that’s just not robust enough. Maybe it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

I’d like to think that if we all do this by the end of this reckoning, we’d have helped save the establishments that matter the most to us. Singapore’s food scene will emerge leaner, but all the more stronger.

So who are you helping today? It can’t be everyone; it may as well be those you care about.

This article was first published in City Nomads.