5 Lessons We Learned From The F&B Industry In The Time of Covid-19

Since phase 2 reopening on June 19, many restaurants have seen an surge in dine-in customers, with some outlets reporting snaking queues. It’s clear that Singaporeans are “dying” to get out after two months of being stuck at home baking sourdough and making Dalgona coffee.

This was a stark contrast in April when restaurants and bars were thrown into a limbo and forced to cease dine-in services during the Circuit Breaker period. Tools for Tough Times (TFTT) was launched during this time and moderated by Ivy Woo, Managing Director of Food News to support the industry through a series of Facebook Live sessions. As we ease ourselves into the post-Circuit Breaker phase, here are some key learnings which will continue to be relevant and helpful to F&B owners, chefs and diners.

If you have missed any of our sessions, head over to https://www.facebook.com/FoodNewsAgency/videos/ for the full videos. Lastly, a huge shout-out to all our industry friends and partners who took time out to share their knowledge and advice with us.

#1: Prepare for the unexpected
It’s a tough time to be a small restaurant owner but even tougher if you own multiple F&B concepts in Singapore – rentals and staff salaries are just some of the woes. A crisis like this forces entrepreneurs to react speedily and introduce painful but necessary changes to save their businesses. Hence, one of the first things Guo Guoyi, Co-Founder of Jigger & Pony Group, did was to study the trends in other countries, modify them for her business and figure out how to manage the cash flow buffer to tide through at least till the end of the year. For Loh Lik Peng, Founder of Unlisted Collection, the immediate actions he took was to cut external costs, casual and overtime hours, monetise existing assets and speak to suppliers and landlords to get better credit terms, discounts and rental deferments. He emphasises the importance of being transparent to your employees. “You got to show them the full P&L – they can see what’s going out and what’s coming in. And if your employees know that you are fighting tooth and nail to support them, when the inevitable comes they will be more appreciative and supportive,” says Lik Peng.

Key takeaway: Do whatever it takes to minimise the damage to your business and keep an open line of communications with your staff .

#2: But plan for the long term
Yes, the pandemic’s ripple effect will impact businesses for a long time to come and F&B owners need to implement strategies that will put the company in a more stable position beyond the crisis. Howard Lo, Founder of Empire Eats Group and Co-founder of Liberty Spirits Asia, believes F&B businesses must invest more in establishing a stronger online presence. “F&B websites are very basic right now and function as ordering tools. They need to be more interactive and act as an awareness generator and virtual storefront where people can have experiences.”

Rifeng Gao, CFO and Head of Strategy of The Lo & Behold Group shares that the crisis was a good opportunity to create an impetus for change and to rally people around it, which led to him and his team launching a 200-day business transformation plan. Apart from being radically frugal in the short term, the plan also involves reimaging what hospitality in future would look like, examining employee and customer touch points and finding ways to attract talent.

Key takeaway: Focus on mid- and long-term survival too.

#3: Tap into the power of branding
During challenging times, businesses with a strong brand foundation will be more resilient. And when it comes to building a brand identity and story, consistency is key. Tammi Tay, Head of Brand Development at Grain Traders, acknowledges that while the process takes time it’s well worth the effort. Brand advocacy can be a very powerful form of marketing. Marketing Director of The Lo & Behold Group, Tania Chan, shares that having a base of loyal customers can prove to be a key revenue driver during a crisis. Victor Lim, Creative Director of Sunday Folks and Creamier, believes that while businesses have to adapt by employing alternative strategies, the brand purpose should remain the same and not be compromised.

Key takeaway: Building authentic connections with your consumers is even more important during a crisis.

#4: Identify your support system
Apart from tapping the Jobs Support Scheme, the F&B industry can also seek support from various avenues, including Singapore Nightlife Business Association, 50 Best For Recovery programme by the organisation behind The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, and the newly formed Singapore Cocktail Bar Association. It is also important to keep your ears peeled for the latest developments and announcements from various government bodies. Nasen Xavier Thiagarajan, Vice President of Singapore Nightlife Business Association, shares that their members are advised to seek existing government schemes to tide through this challenging period and cushion some monetary pressure while waiting for the nightlife operators to resume their operations.

Key takeaway: While the road to recovery is a long one for the F&B and nightlife sector, businesses can find support from the various funding and programmes launched by industry partners.

#5: Invest in Employee Well-Being
Employees are one of the greatest assets in a business and nowhere is this more critical than in a service oriented industry like F&B. A stressful work environment can cause burnout so it’s essential to build mental resilience to ride through the crisis. Dr Raymond Ong from MHC Asia Group shares that employers should keep their staff morale high with open and honest communication. At the same time, employee well-being needs to start with the employees. “They need to have a more positive outlook and to understand that the current situation is not their fault. We are all in the crisis together,” says Dr Ong. For employers, the MHC BetterHealth app (more information at www.mhcasia.com) also provides quick access to a network of healthcare providers, services and products to help navigate challenges that their staff may be facing.

Key takeaway: Lead with empathy and help your employers weave self-care into their work day.