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Jigger and Pony
Photograph: Jigger & Pony

The future of Singapore’s bar scene

With many bars opening on June 19, here’s a look at how the bar scene has changed and how it plans to recover

Nicole-Marie Ng
Written by
Nicole-Marie Ng
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Here’s what a typical Friday night used to look like: you meet up with friends for some TGIF drinks, you start the night at a bar close to the office before hopping to the next one and the next one, squeezing through other revellers and sometimes sharing what little counter space you’ve been allocated with strangers. You take a sip from a friend’s drink, maybe make conversation with the people next to you once you’re a couple of glasses deep and you end the night with new friends on a party bus on the way to a club.

But as we enter Phase 2, those days look far behind us. Heck, they might not ever return. The current measures state that we can only go out in groups of up to five (and wear a mask while we’re at it). Most watering holes have switched to a reservations-only policy so you can forget about any spontaneous drunk decisions and we all have to do our part and be responsible to help stop the spread.

The future of drinking has arrived – and it looks nothing like what we’ve seen before. But just how different will things be? We speak with some industry leaders to find out.

RECOMMENDED A live list of bars that are opening from June 19

The long road to recovery
Photograph: Harry's

The long road to recovery

You don’t have to look very far to spot the impact Covid-19 has had on the food and beverage (F&B) industry. From notable bar closures and businesses pressing pause to the industry-wide drop in sales.

“Our business has seen a drastic decline in revenue since the outbreak,” says Nasen Thiagarajan, the CEO of Harry’s International. “Tourist-dependant areas like Resorts World Sentosa, Changi Airport and Esplanade were directly impacted and we had to close our outlets because there were simply no visitors. Before the circuit breaker, [we also] saw a drop in footfall by 50 to 70 percent in the CBD due to social distancing measures and people working from home.

Offering delivery has not softened the blow. While businesses have seen an increase in food delivery orders, this barely makes up for the overall drop in outlet sales. “Pre-circuit breaker, delivery made up one percent of Harry’s total revenue,” Nasen shares. “During the circuit breaker, there was a 400 percent increase in food delivery orders, but that still only makes up four to five percent of our previous revenue.”

“When Harry’s opens for dine-in, an optimistic result is to achieve 50 percent of what we were earning pre-Covid. This will help keep our business afloat, even though it’s not the same as before.”

"An optimistic result is to achieve 50 percent of what we were earning pre-Covid. This will help keep our business afloat, even though it’s not the same as before.” Nasen Thiagarajan, Harry's

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New rules, new challenges

With many bars announcing plans to reopen on today (June 19) when Phase 2 kicks in, preparations are underway for new standard operating procedures to be implemented. Front and back of house staff have to wear face masks, tables and chairs have to be arranged to fit a maximum of five people and processes have to be introduced to help with contact tracing, temperature taking and managing queues. Some restaurants and bars are even considering installing acrylic screens between tables or at cashier points.

“Social distancing will probably be in place for as long as Covid-19 is around or when a vaccine is found,” says Nasen. “Until then, safe management measures by F&B businesses will be a common sight and practice to ensure health and safety. This will be one of the new norms that consumers can expect.”

To make space for social distancing, capacity at these venues have also been cut. In an Instagram post, Moonstone Bar stated that it’s operating at a third of its original capacity, which “means [they] need fellas who can drink at least three [drinks] or eat three bowls of bakmi ayam”. The tongue-in-cheek comment captures the sentiment most operators share – the cost of running a bar remains the same but the number of people they can serve is far fewer.

So when you do decide to head out for a drink, be sure to make a reservation beforehand to avoid being turned away. And when you do make a reservation, show up. Don’t be inconsiderate and cancel at the last minute or go MIA. It’s hard enough to keep the business viable as things currently stand.

Digitalisation is here to stay
Photograph: Jigger and Pony/ Facebook

Digitalisation is here to stay

For those of you who don’t feel comfortable stepping out of your home just yet, fret not, delivery and takeaway options are still going to be available.

We believe that demand for takeaways is here to stay,” says Ian Sim, the director of nightlife operations at 1-Altitude. “We’ve worked to get our own e-store up and running to reduce the reliance on third-party platforms and to ensure that the business stays profitable.”

However, for bars to stay competitive, going digital is not enough. They need to introduce innovative products and services to stand out in the overcrowded e-commerce space. For example, Jigger & Pony recently announced a collaboration with chef Janice Wong that comes with a limited edition bottle of Shiraz Manhattan with a box of five chocolates. Its pouch cocktails that serve two have also been popular thanks to the sheer variety and accessible price point.

Other bars have reinvented the wheel by throwing virtual parties or masterclasses. 28 HongKong Street’s House Party brings the bar experience to you with its characteristic hip-hop playlist and engaging hosts who introduce you to your cocktails and bites. Native has been holding fermentation masterclasses where you can learn how to make your own kombucha at home. And The Swan Song has been conducting a Whisky 101 course that includes a vertical flight of mystery whiskies.

“It is likely that as consumers get more used to staying home, there will be a continued boost in at-home drinking and sales via online platforms,” predicts Faye Wee, the marketing director or Asia Pacific Breweries, which counts Tiger Beer under its portfolio. “Digitalisation is going to stay and progress further.”

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Helping hands

If there’s one silver lining to all of this, it’s how the industry had banded together to help those most in need. Tiger kickstarted the 'Support our Local F&B' initiative calling on the public to take action – close to $200,000 from Tiger and the public went directly to help more than 600 F&B outlets tide through the tough times.

Following the fundraising effort, Tiger is also putting together a recovery care package worth $300,000 that will be rolled out to help F&B businesses restart on the right foot.

“We are working towards helping our local F&B community so that they can tide through this difficult period and thrive again when the situation normalises,” says Faye. “Benefits could include getting our beers at subsidised rates, a dedicated sales support team, ongoing maintenance of draught lines and deliveries, as well as a programme to help partners on-board with third-party delivery platforms to future proof their businesses.”

Other initiatives include the Singapore Cocktail Bar Association, a non-profit organisation established in May this year to champion Singapore's craft cocktail culture. The association aims to be a voice for the cocktail community and plans on acquiring corporate donations for businesses in need.

Smaller businesses are also doing their part to chip in. Zhen Gin, Asia’s first climate-positive sipping gin, has been donating 20 percent of its bottle sales to the #BarTabSG Relief Fund, a campaign it started to provide critical financial support to Singapore based-bartenders. Similarly, Barbary Coast has offered over 600 free meals to people in the F&B industry.

“Even when bars and pubs start opening to the public, it won't be an overnight recovery," says Faye. "Businesses will require time to adjust and get back on their feet. We’re all in this together.

Everything you need to know about eating and drinking during Phase 2

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