IT has always been the million dollar question - what makes a successful restaurant? And no, the answer doesn't necessarily mean going out and snaring a choice unit in Dempsey Hill/Tanglin Village.
But if ever there were a textbook written about how to stay ahead in the restaurant business, these three new restaurants would probably make perfect case studies. Whether you have little money, a fair amount or a motherlode of it, aspiring restaurateurs could learn a thing or two from these forward-thinking restaurateurs.
Case Study 1: Show Them The Money (and the bling)
1 Scotts Rd #02-16. Tel: 6733 2225
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TECHNICALLY, this is not a new restaurant, but with a brand new chef and a $2.5 million makeover, it might as well be. In fact, it is well-placed to be the most expensive restaurant in Singapore - even more so when you take into account its wine collection which Les Amis chairman Desmond Lim reveals is worth in access of $3 million and comprises around 2,000 labels. The $3 million includes the $1 million that was injected to boost the wine list just for the re-opening.
Indeed, when you step into the restaurant on Monday when it officially opens, you will see two levels of grandeur unseen before in this town. While not over the top and in ways still retaining its understated demeanour characteristic of its owners, this is nonetheless the closest you will get to Michelin-style dining without using your passport. It may not have the all-out glamour of say, Caprice in Hong Kong, but one reckons it could outdo the likes of L'Atelier Joel Robuchon or Pierre.
First off, you have two levels now instead of one. The mezzanine floor is made up of four private dining rooms which can fit anywhere from two to 30 people. Downstairs is the main dining room, done in more contemporary tones while the private dining areas upstairs display more classical European fittings.
Opulent chandeliers specially brought in from Istanbul, Venice and other parts of Europe by its architect, Tan Kay Ngee, form the restaurant's ode to extravagance, a theme carried through to the crockery, where a set of dinner, side and display plates cost Les Amis a cool $480 each from Cocquet in France. Multiply that by the number of sets needed for service and you've got a crockery bill of $25,000. For more eye candy, feast on paintings from the likes of Chen Wen Hsi, Au Xuang and Huang Kun - the cost of which was not included in the $2.5 million makeover price.
If anything, there was no time like the present to splurge on the makeover. Mr Lim says the move was spurred by 'the strong economy, growth in private banking and the growing appreciation for fine food and wine'. And most importantly, 'we wanted something we could be proud of'!
He adds: 'Food is but one element (of a successful restaurant). Equally important is the space, service - professional but warm and friendly, not snobbish! - and having a great wine list is also helpful. In the new Les Amis, we hope to achieve all these elements that contribute to a great fine dining experience.'
In the case of food, it will be the debut of new chef Thomas Mayr, whose cooking style is described as Mediterranean-French with an emphasis on natural ingredients.
Of course, the next question is whether prices at Les Amis will rise in tandem with its renovation costs. The answer is yes, though not without justification. But there's still a limit to how much they can charge despite diners' willingness to pay more these days.
'I think there is still some resistance (in what people will pay),' says Mr Lim. 'A main course in a three-Michelin-star restaurant in the major capital cities goes for around 100 euros (S$211). That is what one pays for a whole dinner in Singapore.
'Now, some 90 per cent of our ingredients are imported. Labour costs - no doubt still below European levels - are getting higher, and so are rentals. Les Amis is trying to replicate Michelin-style dining in Singapore. It would be helpful if customers appreciate our significantly higher cost structure, and understand our need to charge more.'
On average, prices are expected to go up by 20-25 per cent, so a set lunch which used to cost $48 will now be $60. But these increased prices 'barely cover the restaurant's significantly higher depreciation and operating costs'.
While this is the most expensive incarnation of Les Amis so far, Mr Lim says it is still a 'work in progress'. But 'with this renovation, we now have a new platform to perform, we will continually need to polish our act'.
Case Study 2: Mix Food and Lifestyle
7 Portsdown Rd. Tel : 6472 2100
THE notion that dining out in Singapore is more than just good food alone is a mantra that has been driving Michel Lu's current high profile foray into the F&B industry. The former model agency owner and nightlife entrepreneur (he ran the now-defunct Centro at One Fullerton) has two successful cafe-bar concepts, Superfamous and Hacienda, and now his latest venture Cicada in Portsdown Road is finally ready to open for business tomorrow.
'I've always felt that dining out is never only about the food,' he says. 'People in Singapore and other major cities lead stressful urban lives and dining out has to be an experience.' He doesn't see himself as a trendsetter, although he was one of the pioneers in Tanglin Village with Hacienda way before the hordes started engulfing the area. 'I believe in looking for unique locations, working hard to create a brand and a concept that people will be prepared to travel to and the rewards are greater.'
With Cicada, he does seem poised to turn the area, currently dominated by the cult eatery Colbar, into the new hotspot it has been trying to become for the past couple of years.
'For Cicada, being located in the artsy community of Wessex and Portsdown, I wanted to integrate ourselves with the community rather than to just plonk our concept in the space and impose our presence on them. We sit on 17,000 sq ft of land but I am only using about 6,000 sq ft. The balance is all garden and landscaping which we invested heavily in to create.
'Cicada is conceptualised as an arts focused F&B outlet. We plan to do regular arts-related events and the first of our charity art series will feature Koh Tien Gui on Oct 26 in support of the Make A Wish Foundation.'
Food-wise, it's loosely described as 'casual French Californian'. Adds Mr Lu: 'It will feature casual chic dishes. Bearing in mind that our venue is partially al fresco, we didn't want a menu that was too 'heavy'.'
But Cicada aside, what he is really keen on doing is perfecting the gastrobar concept in Singapore. Gastrobars are now the biggest thing in pub-heavy London, where trendy pubs now feature casual but funky bistro food instead of traditional greasy pub fare.
'I am tremendously excited about it as it has been a long time coming,' he says. 'With the advent of non-smoking in all bars in Singapore, the way is paved now for people to have a nice social drinking evening but with great food so that drinking and dining are not two mutually exclusive things.'
He has already got a project in place, although he's not able to disclose all the details yet. 'We are in the midst of launching an exciting multi-concept waterfront venue comprising an exclusive 80-seat casual fine dining restaurant, a 120-seat al fresco waterfront gastrobar/ultra lounge with live entertainment and DJs, and finally a small casual chic bakery cafe serving comfort food like soups, quiches, pies, gourmet sandwiches, salads and great desserts.'
Indeed, with all his senses from taste to music and ambience engaged in his business, it sure sounds like he's got all the ingredients for a burgeoning food empire in place.
Case Study 3: The socially conscious cafe
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
420 North Bridge Road, #01-06
North Bridge Centre. Tel: 6338 8724
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WHAT this no-frills cafe lacks in finesse, it more than makes up for with an all-encompassing warmth and personality that makes you feel at home the moment you step in out of the dusty chaos of North Bridge Road.
A first-timer who looks out of place immediately gets a welcoming greeting from the two chefs behind the counter - Le Cordon Bleu (Sydney) trained head chef David Heng and American-Vietnamese sous chef Peter Boyer whose jovial American accent fills the small confines of the eatery. His accent also lends a slight Soho feel to it, boosted by a mixed clientele of American corporate types, office execs and Bohemian-styled students from nearby SMU and art schools. They're all there for the inexpensive but good quality sandwiches, salads and soups, and an impressive array of home-baked cakes sourced from local home bakers.
A cheery blackboard across the wall of the eatery holds its entire hand-scrawled menu. A homey sign tells you that it serves free tap water but in exchange, encourages you to give a donation that will go to clean water programmes in undeveloped countries.
On the surface, Food For Thought is a cafe like any other sandwich-salad place but its X-factor is the convivial, genuine ambience it has created which keeps people coming back. That and its belief that even simple food can be prepared like gourmet fare. Its social agenda also lends a quirky, appealing earnestness to it. It probably helps too that its owners have had no prior F&B experience, and didn't know any so-called business rules, so they could unwittingly break all of them.
'We are actually teachers,' says co-owner Kuik Shiao Yin, who manages the cafe. There are four of them, and their day job is running a tuition centre called School of Thought, where part of its profits are channelled into a fund that sponsors up to 50 per cent of tuition fees for underprivileged students.
Ms Kuik says they are inspired by entrepreneurs like the late Anita Roddick, who showed that you could make money but still help people at the same time. 'We were running the school for five years and once it stabilised, we decided to start a second social enterprise and food is something that brings people together.'
Raising awareness of global social issues is something that the four 30-something Christians are passionate about, and 'we always felt that the school outreach was limited - it's quite important for the rest of the community to know what's happening in Singapore and the rest of the world. So, with the cafe, we wanted to offer high quality food but pitch it at the masses. Part of the profits will be put into development projects around the world, eg clean water development or adopting children through World Vision.'
The cafe is not a volunteer or charity operation. 'Everyone is adequately paid,' she adds. 'We planned it such that we wouldn't have to cut cost in ingredients or staff welfare.'
Instead, it's the contrary, especially where food is concerned. 'What we were interested in was not just to offer ang mo sandwiches but food that is true to Singapore, using local produce. Our Chinese chicken Caesar is our Singaporean take on Caesar salad. And when we do sun-dried tomatoes, instead of buying expensive ones we oven roast local tomatoes. We also make our own breads. Our desserts are made by housewives - we help them to earn some money, they get some pride doing it and their names are up there (eg Auntie Christina's cheesecake).'
As for the chef, while restrictions on hot cooking mean he's limited to hearty and wholesome creamless mushroom soup, potato chowder and simple but tasty pulled pork and pesto chicken sandwiches (the home-made foccacia and soft buns also hit the spot), 'we're hoping to do a chef's menu where he cooks what he wants, maybe for special occasions like Thanksgiving or Oktoberfest'.
Despite opening without any kind of marketing in July, the cafe is perenially busy and it's already making enough to support daily operations. The owners were also savvy enough to pick its streetfront location - the building may be tacky but 'we knew the walk-in traffic would be very good'. And if the business is sustainable, another outlet or a bigger one could be in the works. And who knows, an enterprise grounded on love for food and one's fellow man could well grow from this.
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