Why COVID-19 proved too much for one of Singapore’s few halal mala restaurants :

Peppercorn owner James Tan found it challenging from the time he started selling mala soup. But he was planning to extend his lease until COVID-19 happened. This is his story, the first in a 24newsreads.com Insider series on micro SMEs beaten down or changed drastically by the coronavirus pandemic.

SINGAPORE: This weekend, as dining out at restaurants finally becomes a delicious indulgence again in Singapore, James Tan is dreaming of the day he can reopen his food business.

When that day comes, however, he will not be pinning his hopes on dine-in customers — not after seeing how his mala restaurant became a casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 40-year-old envisions a kiosk-style takeaway joint instead, with “just a few seats” for diners. “Takeaway might be the new normal until someone finds a cure for the virus,” he said.

“With social distancing measures … let’s say you have a capacity of 50 people, but you can only seat 25. That’s cost and space wasted.”

His new plan is a far cry from what he had intended when he opened his 32-seater restaurant, Peppercorn, in 2018 — his first stab at running his own business.

With its Chinese-inspired decor meant to encourage patrons to “eat more mala tang”, the brightly lit space in Kandahar Street served up bowls of soup-based mala, made halal to cater for Muslim customers.

Tan had invested about S$150,000 in the business, with high hopes of eventually increasing his menu options and even opening other outlets. But the COVID-19 outbreak put paid to all that.

The restaurant closed its doors on April 25, during the circuit breaker. What seemed to make sense pre-pandemic, despite the challenges, no longer did in the cold light of COVID-19 days. He was crushed.

FROM CHINA TO KAMPONG GLAM

Tan first came across mala tang while working in China, doing procurement for a chemical engineering firm. “There was a stall selling it just below where I lived,” he said. “I tried it, and it was amazing.”

It stuck with him. When he returned to Singapore in 2016, after nine years in China, he resolved to open his own mala tang stall, but with a difference: He wanted to target Muslim consumers.

“There were mala shops opening all over Singapore, but they sold mainly mala xiang guo,” he said, referring to the stir-fried version of the dish.

“I also couldn’t find any mala shops that catered for Muslims … so we decided to have a go at it. But ours would have to be soup, and halal-certified.”

He chose his location with that customer base in mind: A shophouse in the Kampong Glam area, where many Muslim-owned businesses operated. He also anticipated that worshippers from the nearby mosque would come over for meals after their Friday prayers.

So he went about perfecting his offerings. He developed his own chicken soup base and experimented with his self-made spicy mala sauce, before finding a halal-certified supplier at the last minute.

He was excited when Peppercorn opened in August 2018, and over the months, received positive reviews from food bloggers and influencers. But from the start, it was challenging.

Peppercorn received its halal certification only more than three months after it opened. This meant, he said, that he could not attract his customer target group. Furthermore, the restaurant’s location was not proving to be working in his favour.

“It’s quite quiet along Kandahar Street compared to Arab Street or Haji Lane,” he said.

“We started there because we wanted to expose ourselves to the Muslim crowd. But it turned out that there were more tourists than locals in the area.”

The expected surge of business on Fridays also did not materialise; he realised free food was being served at the mosque after Friday prayers.

Tan, who started the restaurant with two friends but oversaw the day-to-day operations, continued to work on his product, refining and enhancing his mala sauce and soup base.

Over time, things began to look more promising as he built up a following, particularly among those who worked around the area, and lunchtime often saw the place buzzing with activity.

Up until December, the restaurant was “doing okay”, he said. But it was not ready to weather the coming storm.

TAKINGS FELL TO ‘ALMOST NOTHING’

Tourists had never been a big part of Peppercorn’s business, but when Tan noticed fewer of them coming by, that was the first inkling of trouble.

Things got worse as Singapore’s COVID-19 case count increased, and he had to halve the number of seats in his already small space to comply with safe distancing regulations.

With more people working from home, his customer base — of which about 70 per cent was made up of regulars, he estimated — shrank even more.

He became reliant on delivery apps for business. But his restaurant was not within the delivery radius of many of his regulars, nor was it in a residential area.

The commissions charged by the delivery platforms also added up, at an average of 30 to 32 per cent. “I couldn’t find anyone (else) to do deliveries for me, so I just used them and bit the bullet,” he said.

His lease was ending in April, and he had been planning to renew it even though he had only one profitable month last year. But not any more.

“We’d still have been able to … ‘tahan’ (endure) if not for COVID,” he said.

Despite his landlord offering to reduce the rent — which was between S$6,500 to S$7,000 a month — by five to eight per cent upon renewal, Tan knew there was nothing he could do.

“By early March, I told my staff I could no longer hold on,” he said, recalling how painful it was to break the news to his two full-timers and one part-timer.

“I’d done so much for the shop … our brand was up and people were starting to know us, but we had to stop.

“We’d done our calculations and thought about it. And we realised it wasn’t worth doing it because we had no idea when the virus would end and if things would get worse.”

His last month of operations, with dining out prohibited, was his worst yet as “business dropped to almost nothing”.

“In a day, I’d have two to three delivery orders, and three to four people would drive by to get food … but we still had to prepare everything,” he said ruefully, referring to the ingredients typically displayed in a chiller for customers to choose.

Governmental support, such as the Jobs Support Scheme and S$750 Foreign Worker Levy rebate, helped to lessen his load in his last month of operations.

He also used the Facebook group, Hawkers United – Dabao 2020, to sell jars of his mala sauce, which gave him some new customers who bought more than once.

But ultimately, he said, all this came too late to save Peppercorn.

A NEW FOCUS

The end of April was a bittersweet time for Tan. He remembers being “very depressed for a while”. But four days after the restaurant closed, he and his homemaker wife Bettina welcomed the birth of their daughter, Eleanor.

“I guess the timing was just right,” he said.

After 14-hour days running the restaurant — giving him little to no time to paktor (go on dates), he quipped — spending time with his wife at home and helping out with the newborn was a good change.

But they have had to control their spending, and as he was quick to stress, he has had “enough rest” now.

As messages of support poured in from regular customers asking about buying his mala sauce or if he will reopen elsewhere, he became determined to resurrect his business.

In the first instance, he plans to rent a friend’s kitchen space to cook his mala sauce to sell to regulars. And looking ahead, he is eyeing a different location, one with a higher local footfall.

“This time, I want to focus on the heartland areas,” he said. Woodlands, Tampines and Clementi are some locations he is considering.

“I’ll need a space with a kitchen big enough for me to cook and sell my sauce, but in terms of seats … just a few,” he noted, adding that he is also considering packing individual ingredients in reusable packets before displaying them for added hygiene.

While location and business model are changes he believes he must make in a pandemic-shaped food and beverage landscape, he does not wholly lay Peppercorn’s closure at COVID-19’s door.

“Maybe I didn’t do a good job running the place (and) didn’t control costs efficiently,” he said with a chuckle.

He is optimistic, however, about his future plans, which he hopes can be achieved soon — ideally, within the year.

Amid all the uncertainty in the industry, the one thing he will persist with is the type of food he will sell. “I just want to focus on one thing and make it good,” he said.

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