Sommeliers in this Circuit Breaker

On the 3rd of April 2020, the Singapore government announced the Circuit Breaker measures that would observe the closure of all restaurants, hawkers and food stalls islandwide. They would only be allowed to operate through delivery and/or takeaway. It was a tough pill to swallow for everyone and it meant going out of business for some.

The sooner these surviving businesses learn to adapt, the stronger their prospect of sticking around. Unfortunately, some restaurants have had to let several of their staff go and was the only way they were able to stay afloat in the near term. This was a move many restaurants had tried their best to avoid, but was necessary for a few.

But tough times may be an instigator for innovation. Restaurants like Cloudstreet completely did away with the idea of its restaurant menu served as takeaway, cynical about the ability of delivery and takeaway in also delivering the fine dining experience to your homes. Instead, Cloudstreet’s Executive Chef Rishi Naleendra had decided to go forth with a preview of his latest concept Kotuwa, that was due to open in brick and mortar on the 1st week of April, via delivery and takeaway. This proved to be a huge hit, Sri Lankan grub proving its due as some kind of remedy for anxiousness in this situation.

Rishi is not alone in innovating. Just a stone’s throw away from Cloudstreet, Lerouy, a modern Alsatian restaurant by Chef Christophe Lerouy, had started baking Flammkuchen, aka Tarte Flambée in French, for takeaway and deliveries during the Circuit Breaker.

But, enough about chefs. What about the Sommeliers? Beverage sales make for a huge proportion of a restaurant’s revenue and without that revenue stream now, restaurants can really suffer. Each day that passes during the Circuit Breaker without a beverage solution in place is money not being made by the business. How have sommeliers reorganised to manoeuvre through this Circuit Breaker?

Ronald Kamiyama, Beverage Manager for the Cicheti group, a small restaurant group that’s behind three Italian eateries in Singapore of which one is a pizzeria, says that the many ‘Zoom pizza parties’ taking place have helped keep the business up. He adds that in spite of the demand for takeaway pizza to feature on these webcam parties, the business will still be unable to cover its losses, but will suffice to keep the jobs of its staff. The Cicheti group has yet to let go of any one of its staff.

Ronald and the Cicheti group also seem to be favourably positioned in these takeaway times, based on the type of food that it sells. Pizza, calamari and its well-loved crack pie are all food items that would do well as takeaway food items. Even the dough recipe at Cicheti had been slightly tweaked to keep better as it makes its way to the customer. The Cicheti group has made its menu available on all four major delivery platforms (Deliveroo, Grab, Food Panda and Oddle), conscious however, of the very high commission fees charged by some of these companies.

As far as the Cicheti wine program was concerned, Ronald had decided to keep its offering simple with about under 10 labels available on its website, with about the same number of wine bundles of varying themes. He continues to increase the number of wines and bundles available on its site with time, as the demand increases. This is consistent with what the majority of restaurants have also done. Most have kept their selections rather succinct and navigable in a time where the help of a sommelier in guiding your purchasing decisions is not acquirable.

Ronald’s role as a wine professional has temporarily taken the backseat in this time and has had to direct his focus on tasks immediately responsible for generating revenue. Apart from his efforts in selecting specific wines to be made available as part of their delivery and takeaway offering, he has had to work the pizza boxes and even personally deliver some items.

Vincent Tan, head sommelier at Odette talks about his role pervading various aspects of management. Of particular interest to me amongst his number of responsibilities was his undertaking of reaching out to the rest of the staff in his team and checking up on them, to “keep everyone’s morale up and trying to make sure that they are not going crazy at home”.

The Circuit Breaker has also meant that restaurants have had to reduce the number of staff present at any one time, creating the need for shifts between staff with more time at home. Although less time at work may sound like a breath of fresh air to some of us, to the folks who are used to spending 90% of their time in the precincts of the workplace, this can be stressful. Noticing this problem, Vincent jumped at the opportunity in alleviating some of this stress for the team by carrying out wine training classes over Zoom. He has also spent much of his time studying for the Advanced Sommelier exams, that he plans to attempt next year.

Odette’s reputation was not built on its amazing cuisine alone. The elegant pastel-coloured space, high quality surfaces and furniture, the incredibly attentive and professional service team and the calming ambience completes the equation that is Odette. How do you package all this in a delivery?

Aleksandar Draganic, Beverage Manager of the Burnt Ends Group is grateful that he’s in Singapore at the time of this pandemic. He’s impressed at how well the situation has been handled thus far and feels generally optimistic about the road to recovery. Burnt Ends is not completely new to delivery, having had the ‘Sanger’ available for delivery and takeaway well before the Circuit Breaker. Aleks and his team import most of their wines but up until the Circuit Breaker, not much much importance was given to getting its e-commerce platform up and running. During the Circuit breaker however, progress accelerated. “Under these unfortunate circumstances, we figured out that this could be the ideal program to work on regarding the wines” says Aleks, adding that sales has picked up very nicely since launching and that it was the “biggest innovation” in this time.

Contemplating the future of restaurants post-Circuit Breaker and post-COVID-19, it does seem like some innovations are here to stay. Many restaurants that were in the past rather averse to the idea of delivery and takeaway, have had their eyes pried wide open now to its potential. Sommeliers are also not oblivious to the prospects of selling wines online. Platforms like Shopify and Wix have made it fairly easy for anyone to set up an online shops.

Should we expect to see more and more restaurants offering their stock online in the months and years to come? Should I go as far to say that it would be unquestionable to future restaurant business owners that when setting up a brick and mortar space, an online shop would naturally be set up with it? This very well could be one of the few innovations that make up the new normal for the restaurant industry in Singapore and around the world.