The Les Amis Group is using the experience of dealing with the coronavirus to manage its existing restaurants and to open new ones, says chairman Desmond Lim. These include a new casual concept in Shaw Centre called Lemak Boys selling laksa and nasi lemak (above) and a new Tenjin outlet in Raffles City.
Years from now, if the dust ever settles, people will remember how, in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic affected every industry, permeated every psyche.
How the food world will evolve in this new normal is now taking shape, as restaurateurs grapple with going forward after the carnage wrought by Covid-19.
The Les Amis Group, which has 30 establishments under 22 brands in Singapore, is using the experience of dealing with the coronavirus to manage its existing restaurants and to open new ones.
Between now and early next year, it expects to open nine brick-and-mortar restaurants. The group’s chairman, Mr Desmond Lim, tells The Sunday Times that seven of these had been committed to before the pandemic hit. The other two came from opportunities that presented themselves and are ways to test out new ideas.
He says candidly that were it not for government programmes such as the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS), in which wage subsidies are given to help firms retain local workers; and rental rebates from landlords, there might not be a platform to test out any ideas. So dire was the situation.
“I am thankful to the Government,” Mr Lim says. “The JSS helped us a lot. Without that, and some of the rental rebates, we wouldn’t be around today. A 26-year-old business, and 400 jobs, gone.”
He adds that the group kept its staff and was able to keep pay cuts small because of government help.
“We are looking to return the pay cut hopefully by the end of the year,” he says. “The reason we are above water is because of the support from the staff.”
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Five of the restaurants the group had committed to opening are at Shaw Centre, where its flagship restaurant, the three-Michelin-starred Les Amis, is located. For the most part, the changes involve the group’s established brands, and there are two new offshoots.
On the second floor, in the 2,500 sq ft space vacated by SK-II spa, will be two restaurants. The flagship Tarte by Cheryl Koh will move from its current premises on the same floor to the new space; and there will be an expanded La Taperia, the group’s Spanish restaurant. That bigger space will also take in La Taperia Wine and Tapas.
The Les Amis Group is using the experience of dealing with the coronavirus to manage its existing restaurants and to open new ones, says chairman Desmond Lim (above). These include a new casual concept in Shaw Centre called Lemak Boys selling laksa and nasi lemak and a new Tenjin outlet in Raffles City. PHOTOS: LES AMIS GROUP, ST FILE
Both are expected to open in the second half of November.
Changes are also happening on the third floor of the building. The space now occupied by Indigo Blue Kitchen, the group’s Peranakan restaurant, will be split in two, to take in a new casual concept called Lemak Boys, by Indigo Blue’s chef Chong Jun Xiang and two members of his team.
Mr Lim says it will serve nasi lemak, laksa lemak and set meals. Prices will be kept under $20 for main courses, and diners will have the option of, for example, ordering a standard laksa or nasi lemak for $12.50, or opting for the premium version, which will include add-ons such as prawns and sayur lodeh, for $18.50.
The Peranakan restaurant is his passion project, and the dishes on the menu are made from his family’s recipes.
“The changes will allow us to keep the quality high at Indigo Blue,” he says. “We don’t want to sacrifice quality for business.”
The two restaurants are slated to open later this month.
Also on the third floor, the space occupied by the group’s casual Vietnamese restaurant NamNam will be taken over by a new pizza restaurant, which will be combined with the current LINO Pasta Bar to become LINO Pizza & Pasta Bar. It is also expected to open this month.
Mr Lim says: “NamNam wasn’t working there; the location for that restaurant has to be high-traffic.”
He adds that there are no pizzerias in the building and that the dough for the new pizza place will be “more doughy but still crisp”, compared with the thin and crisp pies of Peperoni, the group’s pizzeria chain.
The remaining two restaurants the group committed to before the pandemic will open at Raffles City, taking over the space vacated by COMNAM, an offshoot of NamNam serving Vietnamese street food.
A new Tarte outlet will open there, as will a new Tenjin, which is the group’s tendon brand, serving tempura over rice. Both are slated to open later this year.
The new Tenjin outlet in Raffles City. PHOTO: LES AMIS GROUP
The opportunities to open two other restaurants came more recently.
At the end of January next year, a Peperoni Pizzeria will open at United Square. The family restaurant, Mr Lim says, suits the location, with its proximity to condominiums nearby, and the fact that kids – and their families – throng the building for enrichment classes.
But it is the ninth restaurant that reflects the group’s strategy of calculated risk-taking.
In early November, the group will open SOCIEATY, a multi-concept dining space that takes over the coffeehouse of One Farrer Hotel. The space, which can seat 75 to 85 indoors with safe distancing, will house six of the group’s concepts: congee chain Mui Kee, Peperoni Pizzeria, Tenjin, Indigo Blue Kitchen, NamNam and Tarte.
The first two brands will anchor the space and diners will be able to order from about 70 per cent of the menu at the standalone restaurants. The other brands will offer a smaller selection. For example, NamNam will focus on pho.
Diners will be able to order from across all six, through a QR code on the tables.
The lease for SOCIEATY was signed less than two weeks ago.
For Mr Lim, this is an opportunity to see if the idea can be replicated. The space the group is taking over will require only minor renovations and the kitchen is already outfitted. Five of the brands, with the exception of Tarte, will share the kitchen space, to be overseen by Les Amis stalwart Galvin Lim. Tarte’s offerings will come from its kitchen in Shaw Centre.
“For us, the risk is lower because we are taking over an existing space,” Mr Desmond Lim says. “The concepts are established.”
Islandwide delivery, as many other restaurants have also discovered, is here to stay.
“Some people would still rather dine at home,” Mr Lim says. “I’ve told the outlets not to neglect delivery, despite dining-in being allowed now. They should take the opportunity to improve – the menus, ordering, modes of payment and the packaging we use. During the circuit breaker period, we grabbed whatever eco-friendly packaging we could find on the market.
“You never know if there might be a second wave or another lockdown.”
Also during the circuit breaker period, the Les Amis Group found that business for some of its brands, such as sumiyaki brand Jinjo; LINO, its Italian restaurant in Binjai Park; and Tarte, improved.
“We think this is because Singaporeans were locked in,” Mr Lim says. “On long weekends usually, business drops because they go away. But during the circuit breaker period, because of the delivery service, we reached out to much larger audiences that we would not usually have reached. These are people living in the extreme ends of Singapore.”
Some of the restaurants, including Bistro du Vin, La Taperia, Indigo Blue and the Japanese brands, had to retool their menus on the fly, he says, to focus on dishes that travel well. Set meals took away the headache for diners wanting to order multiple things. So for example, Indigo Blue offered meal sets for two, four and eight people.
Indigo Blue Kitchen’s set for two people. PHOTO: INDIGO BLUE KITCHEN
With the central part of Singapore much quieter because many are still working from home, its NamNam brand has not returned to pre-Covid-19 levels of business.
Of the four outlets, the one at Wheelock Place, with residential homes nearby, is doing the best. But there is less of this catchment for the other outlets at Raffles City, Takashimaya and Plaza Singapura. The group’s restaurants in suburban areas have done better.
So new restaurants will probably need to be in the suburbs or in inner city areas. Malls are not the only options either, because as the group has learnt, it can be inconvenient for a delivery rider to have to go to the second or third basement floor to pick up food.
Set lunches have powered many a restaurant, putting bums on seats. But the new thing might well be the set dinner.
Mr Lim talks about a recent visit to the group’s LINO Italian restaurant in residential Binjai Park. It has been open for close to three years, and business has picked up.
The restaurant, he says, offers a three-course set dinner for $38. Diners can pick any three courses from the a la carte menu, with the exception of pizza. The deal is available all week, including public holidays.
“People will look for value,” he says.
His team is now working on how to fill its restaurants in the early part of the week because even now, with dine-in allowed after a long fallow period, demand for reservations is higher towards the end of the work week.
THE FUTURE’S VIRTUAL
The group is not just betting on bricks and mortar. If anything, the pandemic has brought forward plans to launch “virtual” brands with only delivery and takeaways.
One of these is Mui Kee Noodles, using the Hong Kong brand, known for its congee, to sell Hong Kong-style beef brisket noodles. Customers can have it dry or in soup, and other options include curry; and there will be six to eight side dishes. It is expected to launch next year and there are no plans currently for dine-in facilities.
Another brand is Uncle Wok, which will offer six to eight wok hei-filled dishes such as hor fun, Hokkien mee and beef noodles. Finding a location, Mr Lim says, will be the challenge. And there might be benches outside the kitchen where people can eat quickly.
The third idea is a revival of an idea it introduced more than a decade ago – Lazy Gourmet, which offered frozen soup, stews and the like.
“We were ahead of the times,” he says. “But now, there is potential to start something similar with a wider range of food; pasta, sauces, rendang, buah keluak and pho soup. People can watch YouTube for tutorials.”
There will be food that people need only reheat to make a meal, and foundations on which they can build a meal. For example, people who buy laksa gravy or pho soup can add their own noodles, beef and other ingredients.
“The most difficult element to make is the gravy,” he says.
SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST
Mr Lim, who is notoriously media-shy, is frank about how the pandemic has affected the group.
He says of the business: “The margins are so small. You are lucky to be making that 5 per cent margin and not losing money. Then sales go down 50 to 60 per cent.
“Never in 26 years have we had to contend with anything like this. Our losses every month would have been in excess of seven figures were it not for government help and rental rebates.”
Any crisis, he adds, presents threats and opportunities.
He says: “You have to be prepared to change and seize the opportunities. You cannot be stubborn and keep doing things the old way.
“But you also can’t become something that is no longer you. The Les Amis DNA must still be there. Quality comes before everything else.”
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