We Get Up & Nothin' Gets Us Down
Cuisine & Wine Asia|November-December 2020
Looking forward. It’s a phrase that you can easily splice into the literal meaning: the one where you look at what’s literally ahead of you in your path, or in the future. You can also interpret it as the feeling of optimism, of anticipating what is coming with the new year or in the future. This year has been a bit of a rollercoaster with regards to covid-19, especially with the impact of the disease on the food & beverage industry. Perhaps then it is time to slow down and give thanks, reflect, and talk about what we might see in the future.
Champa Ha

Chef Cheryl Koh has been having a rather eventful year. The pastry chef, who runs Tarte by Cheryl Koh along with the Les Amis group, was a bit thrown off when Covid-19 struck, but has admitted that the pandemic wasn’t all bad news for her and the team.

“If anything, this pandemic has forced us to adapt and change,” Chef Koh admits via an email interview. “We have adopted and adjusted to new and improved practices that have actually helped our team to grow. I do not know if there will be specific practices we are looking to put back, but we will have to go through a similar process of gradual change during this recovery process.” What did help with the business was the amount of support Tarte got from their loyal customer base, which then helped them develop and changed the way they operated. “During the Circuit-Breaker period, more people were buying our pastries and products as gifts for friends, family, and colleagues — as a way to uplift spirits, celebrate birthdays and remember anniversaries. The Circuit-Breaker period has also altered the way we operate and manage our delivery. Island-wide delivery has done very well for us during the circuit breaker and even after. We were able to reach out to a different demography who have not had any sweets from Tarte before,” she explains.

So what are some things she’s learnt from this year that would do well with the business? Well, for one thing, she and her team are more firmly confident in the idea of digitalization and takeaway for F&B businesses. Delivery and takeaway options, she states, are here to stay. “Every establishment will also have to refine their operational process to better cope with delivery, takeaway, and dine-in orders,” she suggests. “At Tarte, we are also working on improving our packaging to better the delivery experience. Concepts need to build a better brand experience that will match both dine-in and delivery to set themselves apart.” Cafes like Tarte by Cheryl Koh have been affected pretty aversely by the virus, such as in terms of labour, sales, as well as ingredient sourcing issues. This has not been helped by the safe distancing measures, reducing seating capacities by a good amount and thus also sales. Chef Koh is cautious about the situation, but admits that being a dessert pastry chef has helped with regards to business. “The demand for desserts and sweet treats has thankfully remained high as customers are willing to spend more for gifting.” She goes on to explain that the trend of sending food as gifts is growing, and has especially done so during the break. “Concepts that can create a better delivery gifting experience for birthdays, surprises, and gifting will gain more traction,” she theorises. “WITH THE TRAVEL RESTRICTION IN PLACE, CONSUMERS ARE ALSO MORE WILLING TO SPEND TO PAMPER THEMSELVES AS WELL AS THEIR FAMILIES.”

Chef Ming Tan of Slake agrees with Chef Koh in the sense that the period set by Covid-19 was a, 'sorely needed forced period of innovation and development.' “Chefs and their teams were able to experiment for a casual slice of a consumer segment that requested accessibility and familiarity, and the slowdown in business gave many of us a chance to come up with new ideas and products,” he explains in an email interview with us. “A substantial portion of the industry that depends on events and tourists has suffered massively, and those without the resources or will to reinvent themselves have shut or are about to shut.”

So how has the restaurant industry managed to catch a hold of survival? To Chef Tan, it was all about the digital space. With more consumers having to embrace digital apps in order to survive, he felt that the industry has to do the same in order to meet market needs by finding new ways to sell food and dining experiences. “This forced ‘break’ gave us the breathing room and space to approach all sorts of new ideas and developments with an open, accepting attitude,” he extrapolates. “You may argue that since sales were slow for a time, the opportunity cost was lower too and hence time spent on development as a cost centre didn’t quite cost as much. I hope that businesses will continue this flow of innovation, even as our industry gets back on its feet.”

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