V.K. SANTOSH KUMAR
Covid-19 has not been kind to some Indian restaurants in Singapore.
With people mostly at home and business falling, a few noted ones have been forced to close.
The Song of India, Singapore's only Michelin-star Indian restaurant, became the first to down its shutters in March. Table by Rang Mahal followed suit in May.
Saravana Bhavan, the largest South Indian restaurant chain in the world, could not keep its six outlets here going and folded in October.
In recent weeks, Muthu's Curry, famous for its fish-head curry, shuttered its Dempsey branch, while Kinara, which specialises in North Indian fare, decided not to continue in Holland Village, where it had been a fixture for 29 years.
Representatives of The Song of India and Muthu's Curry refused to say why they closed their outlets. High rent is believed to be a reason. Muthu's Curry outlets at Race Course Road and Suntec remain open.
Mr Raj Patro, owner of the Kinara group of restaurants, was more forthcoming on why it had to close the Holland Village restaurant.
"The $21,500 we were paying a month for 800 sq ft space is pretty high," he said. "The landlord did not want to bring it down.
"After a recent brawl outside a restaurant in the area, we were not allowed to have tables outdoors. This meant that we could seat only 15 people indoors at one time. Making money in that kind of a situation was very difficult."
But he pointed out that the seven other Kinara group restaurants, some of which fall under different brand names, are drawing steady customers and he plans to focus on them.
Mr Gurcharan Singh, president of the Indian Restaurants' Association Singapore, said these restaurants were also probably hit by manpower issues.
"The passes of cooks from India are not being renewed. Most restaurants have been hard hit but they keep going with limited staff," he said.
Some owners have realised that they must adapt and innovate in these tough Covid-19 times.
"There are no tourists and large-scale events like weddings cannot be held, so we have to look at other means to keep our business going," said Mr G. Shanmugam, who owns the Gayatri group of restaurants.
"We changed our branding slightly to cater to what locals need and that has been a masterstroke."
His group will be opening Bottoms Up at Sunset Way on Dec 20, buoyed by the success of a similar venture at Telok Ayer Street which opened in September.
"We changed the name of the Gayatri restaurant at Telok Ayer to Bottoms Up and switched the menu from Indian to Western," he said.
"We also started serving beer and other alcoholic drinks at cheap prices.
"The bistro-style concept has worked very well. Business has doubled since the pre-Covid days."
He reckons Bottoms Up at Sunset Way will click similarly. "What we need to do is cater for what people need in a locality," said Mr Shanmugam.
"Gayatri is not unpopular. It has regular customers. But what we have come to realise is that certain foods are particular to certain places."
With his new ideas, Mr Shanmugam struck a partnership with noted chef Milind Sovani, who previously helmed the kitchens at Rang Mahal and The Song of India, to start a 70-seat casual restaurant called Masalaa Bar at East Coast Road last month. The menu is a contemporary take on Indian street food and Indian-inspired cocktails.
"That is a North Indian stretch," said Mr Shanmugam. "Many Indian expats live there and they like the typical street food found in cities like Mumbai and Delhi. Milind is the best man to deliver such food and it is getting popular."
The trend of moving away from fine dining and creating space for people to spend time in a simple, fun setting also led to Mr Sanjay Rekhi roping in chef Manjunath Mural, who was instrumental in The Song of India gaining a Michelin star in 2016.
Mr Rekhi - who runs the Genie Collective Group, a food and beverage company - converted half of Magic Carpet night club in Beach Road to create the 2,000 sq ft, 70-seater Adda, which will open later this month.
"During the Covid-19 period, people are looking for fun experiences and hanging out with friends at venues which give good value for money," said Mr Rekhi. "Adda will have Michelin-quality food at reasonable prices and it will have a casual atmosphere. People can chat, drink and eat and forget their Covid-19 woes."
According to Mr Rekhi, the 2,000 boxes of sweets that Mr Mural made for Deepavali sold out quickly. For Christmas, Adda is coming up with tandoori turkey stuffed with biryani.
"We will be doing only limited numbers and are going on sale from December 20 to 31," he said.
"But the orders are already coming in. Interestingly, more than 70 per cent of those showing interest are non-Indians."
Change is obviously the name of the game. With business down 70 per cent at his Vanabhojanam restaurant - which serves Andhra food - at Syed Alwi Road, Mr Chakrapani Putrevu has decided to serve biryani and other Indian dishes in a box to people who frequent Little India.
Box Kite Biryani, a kiosk, will come up at One Farrer Hotel soon, said Mr Chakrapani, who had to close down Vanabhojanam outlets at The Star Vista and Jem.
Attracting people, especially tourists, was what Mrs Shuchi Bhatnagar eyed when she started Indian restaurant Haldhi at Boat Quay on Jan 24.
Soon, it faced difficulties with the onset of Covid-19, but she and her husband Ankur Bhatnagar, who quit his job as vice-president for index deliveries (Asia-Pacific) at Bloomberg to help out, did not back out.
They cooked food for migrant workers and are now drawing a steady stream of customers with their fusion North Indian food.
"We wanted to serve dishes, such as fish tikka Hyderabadi style, tandoori broccoli and baingan Patiala which are rarely found in Singapore," said Mr Bhatnagar, who took up a job at DBS recently after Haldhi broke even.
Mr Anurag Kontu, a technopreneur at an international tech firm, also quit his job after 20 years in the industry to start Yarana along with a friend at the Singapore Indoor Stadium last month.
"Our world class culinary team, led by former Rang Mahal Pavilion's head chef Anwar, has created a unique menu that blends high cuisine with casual street food in a vibrant setting," he said.
"The $21,500 we were paying a month for 800 sq ft space is pretty high. The landlord did not want to bring it down. After a recent brawl outside a restaurant in the area, we were not allowed to have tables outdoors. This meant that we could seat only 15 people indoors at one time. Making money in that kind of a situation was very difficult."
- Mr Raj Patro, owner of the Kinara group of restaurants