'Revenge dining' trend props up Singapore restaurants, but will it last?

Patrons having lunch at ABC Brickworks hawker centre.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Designer Tan Yuan Yun headed to Singapore ’s Telok Ayer district last Friday evening for a meal with three friends, only to be shocked to find that most outlets were fully booked.

She eventually secured a table at a bar-restaurant in the area, but was told she had 45 minutes to finish her bowl of noodles and whiskey highball before the next reservation was due.

“I was a little baffled at how the restaurant was so filled,” the 26-year-old said. “I understand that because of the coronavirus restrictions in place, it has limited seating capacity, so while I was disappointed, I was not annoyed. I will make reservations the next time I go out with my friends.”

In Singapore, sprawling lines at restaurants and bars have become an increasingly common sight since June, when the city state exited its two-month partial lockdown that was put in place to stem the spread of Covid-19 .

Since then, retail shops have been allowed to operate, and dining at restaurants has been permitted – albeit with strictly enforced safe distancing measures, such as a maximum of five people to a table and positioning tables at least a metre apart.

These rules, restaurant owners say, have significantly reduced seating capacity, leading to longer wait times for patrons. But analysts have also attributed the delays to an emerging trend of “revenge dining”, in which Singapore’s 5.7 million residents – suffering from cabin fever on an island two-thirds the size of Hong Kong – are diverting cash they would have spent on travel to dining out and shopping.

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According to official statistics for June, total retail sales – excluding motor vehicles – jumped 42.8 per cent from the previous month, while food and beverage sales increased by 19.9 per cent.

The food-sales trend continued in July, going up by 29.2 per cent, with a slight dip of 3.4 per cent in August.

Singapore’s central bank noted in its October macroeconomic review that the rebound in sales across the two categories was due to the “uptick in demand” for discretionary goods, which was badly affected during the country’s so-called circuit breaker.

The island nation has not banned outbound travel, but residents have been deterred from leaving by limited flights, global border restrictions and a government warning that those who return to Singapore will bear the full costs of Covid-19 treatment.

‘Absurd is now the norm’

Events and operations manager Yvelyn Seow, 26, who considers herself a foodie, said she now consistently made weekend reservations at least seven days in advance after taking up to two months to get seats at certain popular eateries.

“It can get frustrating as booking so long in advance can be unpredictable – something may pop up out of nowhere and we would then be forced to cancel and re-book, and wait for months again,” the 26-year-old said. “Before Covid-19, booking a week in advance would seem absurd but now it seems like the norm.”

Keith Koh, founder of British gastropub Lad & Dad, acknowledged that business had picked up since the partial lockdown, during which his earnings dipped by some 80 per cent. Koh said that even though he was only operating at about 90 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, diners seemed more willing to spend – something he attributed to their inability to travel while border curbs remained in place.

Similarly, Praelum Wine Bistro general manager Gerald Lu said the post-lockdown crowd had been “pretty steady”, and that business had almost matched pre-Covid=19 numbers. The bistro was typically fully booked over weekends, he said, up to three weeks in advance, but there was a slower stream of customers on weekdays.

“It’s not completely full but it’s brisk and it’s good and it’s something we appreciate. No matter what, nothing [is worse than] that two months in lockdown,” Lu said, adding that the seating capacity in his restaurant has been reduced by 25 per cent due to the safe distancing rules.

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He also pointed to how spending per customer had increased compared with before the pandemic, and said there had been more “exploratory customers” who had time on their hands and were keen to check out new food establishments since they were unable to travel.

Lim Jialiang, who runs a craft beer distribution company, said his business was slowly recovering but noted that it was still some 20 per cent lower than before the pandemic. Some of the 20 bar owners that count him as a supplier had told him that work-from-home arrangements resulted in some people drinking more.

“I would say the 10.30pm [cut-off time for the serving of alcohol] is good because it discourages barhopping, so people tend to concentrate their spending on one outlet,” Lim said. “There is definitely also an element of support that Singaporeans are showing but I feel this stretches to the smaller, independent establishments.”

People cross a street at the shopping district of Orchard Road amid the coronavirus outbreak in Singapore.
PHOTO: Reuters

Will the spending last?

Song Seng Wun, an economist at CIMB Private Banking, said the surge in dining demand could have been the reason for the record numbers of food and beverage outlets that opened in September.

That month saw 366 outlets open, up from 336 in August, although Song also noted that 215 such establishments had ceased operations in September.

“This is an example of how the new pandemic normal has created more business opportunities,” he said, adding that restaurants are rapidly readjusting their strategies to attract greater footfall.

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Even so, analysts are wary of concluding that the uptick in domestic consumption is sustainable and that restaurants have fully recovered from the economic downturn.

Ang Swee Hoon, associate professor of business administration at the National University of Singapore, suggested that while many Singaporeans were using money set aside for travel for “revenge dining”, this trend would taper off when those savings dried up and the reality of a belt-tightening economy set in.

“Presently, the economy seems resilient because of government support and subsidies. Singapore, as an international entrepot, will see its economic fortunes dependent on how other economies do,” she said. The city state’s government has committed a fiscal injection of up to $100 billion to tide businesses and residents through the pandemic.

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Song, the economist, also noted that Singapore’s food industry had in the past also depended on tourists, and that until international travel curbs are eased, it would not be business as usual for most food establishments.

Ang said the Singapore-Hong Kong travel bubble, set to commence towards the end of this month, could be the light at the end of the tunnel. However, she said that given how there was still a cloud of fear and worry over international travel, she did not foresee things returning to normal until a Covid-19 vaccine was out.

She added that the pandemic would result in a further consolidation of businesses, in which top-quality restaurants drew larger-than-usual crowds and those that failed to retain patrons were forced to close. “The ones that survive will be the ones that satisfy what diners want – a tasty meal with good value,” Ang said.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.