No one would argue against how food is essential. As fuel that the average human can’t go a month without before dying (the average Singaporean perhaps merely a week), you would think that the food and beverage industry could deal with a blow the pandemic delivered comparably well. After all, everyone has to eat. But throw in overused but nonetheless true keywords like ‘new normal’ and ‘unprecedented times’ and restaurants face the challenge of finding that edge over being purely essential.
For if we ate exclusively for survival, it wouldn’t justify forking out more simply to keep hunger at bay. Cue the traumatic flashbacks of minimum spend required for free delivery. No, beyond sustenance, meals provided that tiny window of comfort and pleasure we anticipated three times a day, especially amidst adapting to the chaos and the deprivations it brought.
With the recreational facet of dining compromised, brands had to remain consistent in conveying all the same touchpoints through a different medium, and quite literally fight for a space in the consumer’s heart—and belly.
“Every brand we’ve created so far has been centred around experience, from restaurant design and picking out tableware to hospitality and service, right down to music playlists. It’s always been about creating that instant emotional connection for and with guests,” says ilLido’s Beppe De Vito. “Online, it is on the other end of the spectrum where we focus on bridging that same emotional connection solely through our food.”
His latest and only online restaurant and grocery shop currently, Grammi, was born out of the circuit breaker.
Initially meant for brick and mortar, its digital transformation was a necessary pivot. This meant that the whole process—menu conceptualisation, R&D, branding—had to be expedited to roll out within two weeks. “Time wasn’t on our side and there were a lot of restraints on resources.”
Besides having to use the kitchen of one of his other restaurants in its early stages, De Vito cites design itself presented a huge hurdle. “Packaging choices available locally were limited, printers were closed, and we couldn’t turn to air freighting from our own providers.”
One could argue how the circuit breaker levelled out the playing field for all vendors. Having had to find new ways to engage with customers online via virtual cooking sessions on Zoom or Instagram, or producing content for greater interaction, no establishment is spared from the need to stand out amidst a very crowded cyberspace. Even one that had yet to launch prior to phase two.
Lucali BYGB, a collaboration between Mark Iacono’s Lucali and hospitality maven Gibran Baydoun, set to open its doors just last month.
Opening a restaurant under ideal circumstances would already be a difficult challenge, let alone during a global virus outbreak.
“From communication with local masons to trying to source and import fire brick from Malaysia while borders were shut, factories closing here and abroad made it very difficult to get the things we need,” Baydoun explains. Whether 18-inch pizza boxes, pizza risers, or the pizza man himself, standard components of a new restaurant became unforeseeably complicated within the shadow of uncertainty.
“The plan was to have Mark here training our team in person, meeting with guests and even teaching kids how to make pizzas at home,” he reveals, stating how changes had to be implemented to prioritise utmost cleanliness and safety. That, on top of the delicate balance between being financially prudent while staying true to the magic of the original concept. A Brooklyn legacy close to 15 years in the making, and one admittedly personal to the restaurateur.
“It was a time when I found myself a bit lost and discouraged with the career I had chosen while living in New York, where a friend took me to Lucali for what she called ‘a masterclass in hospitality’,” Baydoun describes how it quickly became an almost weekly routine to have a pizza with Iacono. “It felt like being born again. It reignited my fire for the type of person I wanted to be in the industry, and I couldn’t help but want to channel that spirit to as many as I could.”
Even greater then, does that very social dimension of food apply to bars and clubs. From the bottled cocktail movement that originated in China to efforts to livestream, the local scene was similarly spurred to rejig its system.
“As an entertainment entity, we were mandated to close even before the circuit breaker kicked in,” the founders of A Phat Cat Collective, the guys behind popular nightlife haunts NINETEEN80 and Pinball Wizard, share. “Overnight, the company transformed into logistics pros and had our own DJs and directors doubling up as delivery drivers.”
The team went on to expand its platform on Twitch, a primarily gaming livestream site, to host weekend sets online. “It was a whole new world with a foreign interface.” Confronted with the steep learning curve, the rookies to live streaming had to research and attempt by trial and error. “Yafith Hamid/ DJ YA5TH tried going live on his social media to explore audience reactions but had some friends commenting ‘goondu’, (idiot) thinking he went live on accident!”
Though virtual, the clubs preserved live DJ interactions, taking requests and bringing in guest DJ personalities. This includes one DJ Shortkut, who lives in the States and has the, well, privilege of waking up at 7am his time to spin for viewers. The team admits that although it’s a format out of their comfort zone, the shift has made them more tech- savvy and adapt to regulation changes on short notice.
“Plus, there are all these backend costs it takes to convert a business online that most consumers aren’t aware of.”
The team addresses that it’s a misconception that everything becomes more automated and cost- efficient. “Each platform has its own hidden costs to run, and many even take a cut of what you’re selling online. But this time allowed us to really reset, listen and distil what our customers love and appreciate about us, enabling us to cater to what they miss the most during the lockdown.”
Asia’s 50 Best Bars frequent, 28 Hong Kong Street ups the ante with its House Party experience—made up of intimate sessions, powered by Zoom, of between six and 15 participants complete with food, drinks, music and virtual hosts.
“It has been a driver of much needed revenue with the venue being closed,” general manager Justin Pallack tells, “and created a deep and meaningful relationship between the bar team and the guests.”
Brand engagement is especially vital to the bar, which held no social media account in its eight years of business, more so past the circuit breaker when the community returned to their choice of venues to visit. Thankfully, its commercial success has led to the consideration to continue alongside the bar’s simultaneous reopening in phase two.
“Not everyone is ready yet to venture out into the world. The question will be about balance and bandwidth. We have been operating with a bit of a skeleton crew for social distancing purposes, but we’re keen as long as we can attend to our in-venue guests to the highest possible standard of service.”
Another aspect consumers are liable to forget is that the social distancing rules we abide by are the same ones implemented on staff as well. Local restaurant Supply & Demand Esplanade is one of the establishments that paused operations during the circuit breaker.
“We focused on boosting staff morale by encouraging them to pick up new skills or hobbies through educational links, apps or video resources, and hosted several Zoom sessions to catch up with one another,” Cr8 Group discloses.
“The challenge was charting a clear direction in these uncertain times; a vision to impart to the staff because they are looking to us for that bearing.”
The group redirected their efforts into preparing for reopening, reviewing and refining the logistics and layout of the space as well as new ideas for the menu. Some considerations include even how kitchen and service staff would cope with wearing masks throughout the long operation hours.
Ultimately, all elements of the industry point back to the customer. The nourishment that food brings to the table (pun always intended) exceeds fulfilling a physical appetite, and the people behind big and small names are more than aware of that.
“Regardless if it’s a casual brand or Michelin-starred fine dining concept like Braci, the value is in the pursuit of quality and attention to detail,” concludes Beppe De Vito. “We are constantly asking for the feedback of our guests in order to improve and provide according to what our guests are looking for.”
It was and is a testing time for the industry, but one that has inevitably pushed it for the better. “The pandemic showed us that we cannot rely on the status quo; we have to keep trying to innovate,” De Vito says, “and I hope to see us all come out stronger and more dynamic.”
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