Running a successful restaurant is no easy task, even on a regular day. Throw a global pandemic in the works, however, and that endeavour becomes a herculean one. The coronavirus crisis has wreaked havoc across all sectors of the economy, with the food and beverage (F&B) industry one of, if not the hardest hit. Many F&B establishments are facing a drastic drop in customer traffic as people are urged to stay home, compounded by the recent tightening of measures to minimise movement and human contact.
Among those affected is Restaurant Ibid, the debut venture of Masterchef Asia winner Woo Wai Leong. “We noticed a drop in guests (and corresponding revenue) the moment DORSCON Orange sounded,” says the lawyer-turned-chef. But thanks to shrewd foresight and strategic creativity, Woo has deftly steered his restaurant in a new direction, and as such is not just coping but thriving in the current climate. “We built a wholly new menu centred on providing tasty and hearty food at decent value. We experimented with different types of containers, we theorised how to do the deliveries ourselves… We mapped out how the restaurant would be set-up for this [Circuit Breaker] eventually, and started ordering in extra storage like fridges and heating boxes for the car.”
Ahead, we speak to Woo about life and business during a pandemic, what the future of F&B might look like, and the simple pleasures in life that get him through every day.
What does a day in a life look like for you now that we are under the Circuit Breaker?
Ever since Circuit Breaker measures were introduced, our days have changed rather drastically. Instead of arriving in the early afternoon for our dinner service, we now come in the morning to start preparing for our lunch pickups and deliveries.
[10am] My day starts working with my kitchen team to ensure food is prepped and packed accurately while I consolidate all the orders, plan a delivery route that optimises speed and fuel-efficiency while making sure we arrive at the drop locations within an acceptable window of time.
[12pm] I drive all deliveries myself in my car which we’ve kitted out to hold both hot and cold food. I personally deliver all the food so we can keep the spirit of hospitality alive. I do so in enhanced PPE — N95 masks, gloves, with constant sanitising in between drops.
[230pm] After returning from lunch deliveries, we start preparing food for dinner. I will take the time to get some admin done, do some marketing on our social media, check in with our lunch guests to see if they enjoyed the food, plan new menus, photoshoots etc. We then start the whole process again for takeaway/deliveries for dinner!
[830pm] Once dinner deliveries conclude, I’ll head back to the restaurant where the kitchen team will likely be prepping to get our food stock up for the next day. We will have our first meal as a team together, there isn’t much time in the day to really have our staff meal so I’ve been picking up food on my trip back depending on which part of the island I’m at. We eat well at the restaurant.
[10pm] By now, the team would likely be home and resting. I’ll be planning the next day’s orders and also other things like the new menu, promotions, and scheduling rest days with my head chef.
[11pm] Day done. Head home. Much needed rest. Perhaps some gin on ice.
How have you adapted Restaurant Ibid since the pandemic began?
We noticed a drop in guests the moment DORSCON Orange was sounded. At that point, we started working on a plan for an eventual lockdown (or basically, Circuit Breaker). We built a wholly new menu centred on providing tasty and hearty food at decent value. We experimented with different types of containers, we theorised how to do the deliveries ourselves so that we don’t have to pay 25-30% to a third party delivery system. We mapped out how the restaurant would be set-up for this eventually, and started ordering in extra storage like fridges and heating boxes for the car. This was all done pre-Circuit Breaker.
In order to make sure our menu and the dishes in it were ready for a lockdown scenario, we had to test them out. We started our takeaway and late night dinner menu whilst running our tasting menu in the earlier part of the evening. This way we could scrutinise each dish and make improvements before we had to start takeaway and delivery.
How do you see this impacting the future of F&B?
I think this has the potential to forever change the restaurant industry. In the short term of a few months to a year, the economic aftermath will likely see many, many restaurants shutter up, few restaurants have a war chest that can take a beating of more than a couple months. I believe that the industry-wide haemorrhage will take its toll a few months after Circuit Breaker measures are lifted.
In the long run, there will be fewer restaurant openings as more and more people become aware of the thin margins to be had in the food business. Social distancing compliance may become a norm for the next year at the very least, which means most restaurants will see at least 33% of their seating capacity made redundant. Restaurant operators will likely have to take a good look at their operating expenses to make the restaurant business more sustainable in the long run.
I believe that the people in a restaurant are it’s greatest asset, and we will have to find a way as individual operators and collectively as an industry to see how we an save jobs and livelihoods. To date, I have neither touched wages nor ordered any unpaid leave, these are things that should only be touched as a last resort, and at that point, only after a full and frank discussion with the people to whom such measures will ultimately affect. I wish this was true for the greater part of the industry but I don’t think it’s happening. I really cannot say at this point whether one approach is greater than the other, everyone is really just trying to survive.
Is there anything that we as citizens can do to help save F&B in Singapore?
If you want to save F&B in Singapore, I suggest ordering directly from the restaurant/eatery, avoid the apps that charge a chunk of money for their services. Some eateries will need their services if they don’t have the necessary skillsets, time and ability but if you can order direct, I urge you to do it.
If you can manage it, do a takeaway but don’t be shy to ask for delivery, that’s why it’s there. If you really want to see your favourite eatery survive, recommend it to friends and family, put it up on social media, order food as a gift for someone you care about. This will help give traction to your favourite eating spots. It won’t save everyone, but at least this gives some of us a fighting chance.
What would you recommend from your menu and why?
I would go for one of the meal sets, it’s a boatload of food that will leave you with leftovers (never a bad thing!) and generally covers savoury all the way to sweet. I personally love the desserts too — ginormous decadent cookies, mochi cakes that will make your mom swoon, and just delicious ice creams, they all make great gifts!
We are in the midst of changing up our menu; there’ll be even more tasty things there. We’re looking at the first week of May for launch.
What do you do to wind down or treat yourself when you’re able to catch a break?
I don’t really get much in terms of breaks or off-days (my team finally ‘forced’ me to take a couple days off after working everyday 3 weeks into the Circuit Breaker, so I have time to answer these questions!) but if I do, I like to do some cleaning in the house, catch up on some sleep, catch up with friends both at home and abroad, simple things to remind myself that there is still a world worth working for and getting back to.
On days at work, I look forward to the silence of the kitchen when everyone has left for the day, it allows me to collect my thoughts and gives me room to breathe. If I’m done with deliveries, I look forward to the wonderfully written and produced BBC audio documentaries on the radio.
Like I said, simple things that help me get through the everyday.
Any music or songs that you have been listening to to keep your spirits up?
I’m always open to new music. If I hear something I like, I’ll identify the track with an app and put in a reminder to listen to the album in its entirety the next time I’m driving or working through paperwork. For old reliable, I love the acoustic work from trance group Above & Beyond, it’s been my go-to music for when I need to bleed off the adrenaline and stress of the day.
Any quick at home recipes to share?
It’s amazing what you can do with instant noodles or a rice cooker. I believe there are plenty of recipes out there already, and almost everyone is a baker and a chef at home now so I don’t know how meaningful my contribution will be.
But if I can encourage folks to try something, it’s to get more fresh vegetables and find ways to preserve them, whether through lacto-fermentation (salt and filtered water) or by pickling.
If you want to try pickling, it’s pretty easy to get into: 1-2-3, 1 part sugar, 2 parts vinegar, 3 parts water. It’s a ratio I learnt from a cookbook many years ago (L’Astrance in France). Once you have the basic ratio, you can change the vegetables, sugar, type of vinegar, even the water element (think tea). Lots of fun!