Above image: The PONY X series of bottled cocktails
The first time bars and restaurants in Singapore were no longer allowed dine-in business during the Circuit Breaker lockdown of 2020, everyone scrambled for a lifeline.
Naturally, as most did around the world, going digital was the answer. Yet, for many, it was new territory. From figuring out which delivery app to onboard, setting up e-commerce pages, to simply trying to understand the spending habits of online consumers given the crisis, the path was uncharted for many brick-and-mortar establishments.
But as venues in Singapore shutter on-premise drinking and eating once more for Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) – a mini lockdown of sorts happening from 16 May-13 Jun, 2021 – a vastly different type of scrambling is now happening. One that’s much less about survival.
Game face on
Unlike the headless chicken situation the first time around during the start of the Covid-19 pandemic when Circuit Breaker happened, venues have gone in guns blazing with their delivery strategy for round two.
The moment news landed, social media posts went out immediately, with bars and restaurants reminding everyone of their availability online. It was as if everyone already knew what to do, and they simply needed to flick on a switch.
Places like Neon Pigeon and Fat Prince by The Dandy Collection were raring to go. “As community cases were rising steadily in the past weeks, we anticipated that a lockdown scenario was not a matter of if, but when, and started gearing ourselves up for it,” says Rohit Roopchand, CEO of The Dandy Collection.
“While we weren’t expecting it to happen quite so quickly, our delivery and takeaway offerings on various platforms were up and running within 24 hours after the restrictions were announced.”
The impressive turnaround time meant that they can be first in line when the delivery demand surges, but more importantly, Roopchand adds that this was also done so that there was clarity for both customers and staff as to what’s happening next.
Beyond bolstering their own offerings, The Dandy Collection was also instrumental to the formation of The Dine In Movement, a delivery aggregator spearheaded by them last year to house not just their own, but partner brands as well all under one roof. This was done so that various F&B brands could come together and support each other.
For brands involved in The Dine In Movement, the advantage this time around is that the site is already up and running, with familiar names like Burnt Ends, Nouri, Odette and more all immediately ready to get into delivery mode again.
The near-instant deployment of delivery capabilities isn’t rare. At venues like Laut, which opened during the thick of the pandemic last year, they went straight back to work on deliveries the moment news hit.
Their cocktails, already available in bottled format since the beginning, were ready to roll off the shelves and into the hands of delivery riders. New products like their Trigona spirit went online too.
For them, unlike many other dine-in venues, delivery never ceased, even at the height of the dining- and drinking-out fever during Phase 2. “We are definitely more prepared this time,” says Laut’s co-founder Frank Shen.
“From managing logistical and food costs to knowing which dishes can be delivered, we now have hindsight and experience, thus we are able to better manage and pivot to takeaways and deliveries quickly.”
Less survival, more game
For places already used to doing deliveries, it was more about taking things to the next level. Not just simply offering delivery items, but also providing all the bells and whistles, bars and restaurants are now attempting to provide a full experience along with your orders.
To quote a start-up term, they are no longer seeking to provide a minimum viable product, but above and beyond what’s expected of a delivery. For Jigger & Pony Group, which operates many of Singapore’s famed cocktail spots, no resource is being spared in light of the second lockdown.
“Here we go again,” remarks Indra Kantono, co-founder of the Jigger & Pony Group. “Our team immediately sprang into action to pivot into delivery. This time, we have a more full-fledged playbook from our learnings last year.”
The head honcho of some of Asia’s top ranking bars cites gaining insights from his peers in other parts of the world as a reason for being in better position to face this head on, even though “you can never, ever be fully prepared.”
Yet, events have put their relatively new standalone bottled cocktail brand, PONY, which only launched late last year, in prime position to serve consumers who fancy a well-made tipple at home.
Having a dedicated delivery brand has proved useful at the onset of the heightened restrictions. Other than benefiting from the expected e-commerce spike, it also provides a platform for the group’s other brands to leverage upon.
“Having the capability of PONY is very helpful. We have just launched the PONY X series, where PONY collaborates with our own venues to bottle our bars’ favourite cocktails using the high-quality packaging and precise craftsmanship of PONY,” reveals Kantono.
This means customers can expect none of the haphazard bottling or vacuum packing of cocktails that some bars offer as a stop-gap solution.
Still, even with a brand like PONY that’s made specifically to capture the digital piece of the pie, the group will still be taking each of its individual brands – the likes of Live Twice, Gibson, Caffe Fernet and of course, Jigger & Pony – online.
“We want to make sure our regulars continue to be connected with our team, and that we offer them their favourite dishes and cocktails at home,” he adds.
Even for newer F&B entrants that opened post-Circuit Breaker, the lessons learnt by observing others or managing other brands is not lost on them. At Lucali BYGB, a dining and drinking hotspot that opened during Singapore’s Phase 2, the pivoting came swiftly.
“We have always operated with the philosophy ‘Hope for the best, plan for the worst’,” says hospitality maven Gibran Baydoun, owner of Lucali BYGB. “However, I don’t know if anyone is ever fully prepared to completely change the modus operandi on a dime.”
This mentality has proven to work favourably so far. Within a day of the news dropping, Baydoun, together with his head sommelier, busted out an experiential, delivery-friendly menu for their wines, which they cheekily call Smash Bags.
Essentially thematic wine kits, these Smash Bags offer a way to bring the Lucali BYGB vibe home. “Marcus Chen and I pulled a literal all-nighter to develop about seven different Smash Bags, tasting notes, and a really in-depth playlist that tells you when to open the next bottle by which song is playing,” he explains.
Not just coming up with menu items, Smashable Sessions, their monthly programme that’s all about taking fun wines seriously, is heading online too through Instagram Live. These sessions, hosted by the amicable owner himself, will happen frequently throughout the month at 11pm. The late-night experience goes hand in hand with Lucali BYGB going 24/7 with its delivery offering.
“We have previously shied away from doing delivery, instead focusing our pizza oven and team on dine-in and allowing for limited takeaway. Now we are full on, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for islandwide delivery and also curbside pick up,” states Baydoun.
“We are delivering everything we have, always in all ways. Pizza, smash bags, candles, custom playlists and in some cases even real silverware, because we want to recreate as much of our energy as possible for guests to have at home.”
The long game
In the year between the two lockdowns, businesses have not just learned to survive, but thrive in the digital space. Rather than seeing lockdowns as unprecedented events, bars and restaurants are now treating it as an undulating force that comes and goes, then comes back again.
With such a view, the focus shifts squarely back to two core aspects: people and product. For Neon Pigeon and Fat Prince, their takeaway menus have only become more extensive, and appropriately caters to families via bundle meals and single-serve 100ml cocktail bottles perfect for fuss-free, stay-home imbibing. Plus, new things are already in the pipeline.
States Roopchand: “At The Dandy Collection, we are focusing our efforts on Fat Prince and Neon Pigeon, though we also have something very exciting in the works. More details to come soon.”
Having built strong e-commerce capabilities with PONY, and with the PONY X series now a possible extension of his brands, Kantono from Jigger & Pony has a similar sentiment: “For our group, what we are counting on is the spirit of rolling up our sleeves together as a team and as a community to pivot, and innovate around whatever challenges this current scenario throws at us.”
And with the cry to support local businesses in the face of a crisis more muted this time compared to the previous lockdown, the need for venues to offer superior products, quality service and value for money will only become more salient. In other words, it’s just business as usual for Singapore bars.
“When the going gets tough, the tough gets going,” says Baydoun from Lucali BYGB. “Ultimately, we want to just be as lively and energetic as we are on a Friday night, in everything we are trying to do.”
About the Author
Dannon Har is the Managing Editor of Spill. Discovering his innate gift for drinking only at a ripe age, he spares no time trying to find more delicious drops to imbibe during his time on Earth. When he’s not minding every detail at Spill, he spends his time concocting luscious libations and sharing them with folks that visit his home bar.