SINGAPORE: Chilli crab, rojak and laksa – these quintessential Singaporean dishes usually excite foodies around the world.
But for the past few weeks, even the smell of freshly made kopi can’t draw them into establishments run by Singaporeans overseas.
As the coronavirus spreads globally, Singaporean-owned businesses in Europe, North America and closer to home in the region, have had to bear the economic fallout as customers stay home and avoid large-scale social gatherings.
In the San Francisco Bay area, Shiok Kitchen has seen sales plunge by 70 per cent since the start of the week, said its owner Dennis Lim.
The 52-year-old, who emigrated to the US 20 years ago, said he has cut his six waitstaff’s hours by half. If the situation does not improve soon, Mr Lim said he would have to consider letting some go. Labour cost is a big drag on his bottomline, he said.
He has already had to make the difficult decision to let go of one of his five cooks. He is hanging on to the rest, Otherwise, he will not be “able to reopen when thing hopefully get better”, Mr Lim said.
On the other side of the continent in New York City, pop-up outfit Lion City Coffee, which offers kaya toast and Singapore-style coffee, might have to make adjustments as events such as the upcoming spring food markets like the Queens night market in April, could be cancelled.
“There aren’t many options other than to temporarily halt operations for cancelled events,” the mobile stall’s co-founder Chuin Tham, 36, said. “We plan to monitor situations closely and proceed with caution and sensitivity.”
But for now, none of his bookings have been cancelled.
Up in Toronto, Gregory Woon, 44, and Eleanor Sim, 45, would usually see an uptick in their restaurant business after a slow start to the year. But “pickup has been pretty much non-existent,” said Mdm Sim.
The couple, who moved from Singapore to the city in 2015, have cut their nine employees – five full-timers and four part-timers – schedules by 20 per cent.
READ: Wuhan virus stokes Asian discrimination fears in Canada’s biggest city
Staff are either taking an extra day off each week, or working fewer hours. They have been “gracious and understanding”, pro-actively offering to cut back their hours or take a pay cut, said Mdm Sim.
As delivery orders are expected to increase, the restaurant is now working with two more food delivery companies – Uber Eats and Foodora. This is on top of the two other food delivery providers – SkipTheDishes and Ritual – they currently work with.
“We still count ourselves lucky that as a business we are small (and) agile (enough) to weather what is to come,” Mdm Sim said.
In London, Singapore Garden has seen a drop in sales by 30 per cent in the last six weeks, said head chef Toh Kok Sum, who also runs the restaurant. He said the outlook looks bleak.
“It is going to continue dropping as the situation is getting worse,” Mr Toh said. “I asked our landlord to reduce rent, but he said no.”
The restaurant, a mainstay in the city’s dining scene for 35 years, might have to shut down if the impact of the virus leads to prolonged losses, he said.
The UK government’s slew of measures to support small ventures like his will likely help the restaurant survive for the time being, he said.
On Wednesday (Mar 11), the British chancellor announced a £30 billion (US$36.8 billion) package to deal with the coronavirus. Part of it will go to assisting local businesses, which includes a loan scheme and extending sick pay for employees who are off work due to the coronavirus.
In recent weeks, the number of people tested positive for the coronavirus has surged in countries such as the UK and the US, where close to 1,400 and more than 3,700 cases have been confirmed respectively, while about 340 in Canada have been infected. On Wednesday, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic.
READ: UK pledges US$39 billion to protect economy from coronavirus
But even weeks before the coronavirus became widespread across Europe and North America, reports of racial discrimination against Asian-owned businesses made headlines as the virus, which emerged from mainland China, stoked xenophobic sentiments.
Sales at stores and eateries took a significant dive as irrational fears and unfounded rumours about the local Chinese community kept customers away.
None of the Singaporean owned businesses CNA spoke has had to face any racist encounters so far. But they are troubled to hear what is happening.
“Fortunately (we have not been targets as) we’re a Singaporean restaurant, rather than a Chinese restaurant,” said Lion City Restaurant’s Mdm Sim. To improve slumping sales, the Chinese Cuisine & Hospitality Association of Canada spearheaded a two-week long food festival called Asialicious to boost visits to Chinese-Canadian restaurants.
The campaign received strong support from members of parliament and the community, she said.
“It is with sadness and disappointment to see that acts against the Asian community are prevalent in New York, a city that has long embraced and thrived on diversity,” Mr Tham of Lion City Coffee said.
While businesses in the West continue to grapple with the rapidly increasing number of coronavirus cases, businesses in Asia have been similarly affected.
READ: F&B, retail businesses in CBD feel pinch as people work from home amid coronavirus concerns
Even before the number of COVID-19 cases in South Korea exploded in mid-February, bookings at Morning Dew guesthouse in Busan had fallen by 80 per cent, Glynsen Wong, 36, its owner said.
By the end of the month, Mr Wong decided to stop operations, which can house up to 15 people, temporarily, knowing that tourist numbers would plummet.
“You don’t see anyone with suitcases running around now,” he said. Luckily, he and his wife are the only full-time employees, so there was no need for layoffs.
As the number of cases grew exponentially in the country, he moved his family back to Singapore.
He plans to keep the guesthouse closed until the lifting of travel restrictions, he said.
Given it is now the low-season, Mr Wong said he is not too concerned about his monetary losses.
People who previously bought their flight tickets “will (probably) still travel, just in the future”.
“At some point of time there will be an explosion of tourists due to pent-up demand,” he said.