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After Swee Kee Eating House, Covid-19 could claim more old-time restaurants

SINGAPORE — Covid-19 has claimed the life of a restaurant with a 82-year history, now other long-standing eateries are also contemplating their fate.

Ms Susan Kwa, 58, head waitress at Lai Wah Restaurant.

Ms Susan Kwa, 58, head waitress at Lai Wah Restaurant.

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  • Swee Kee Eating House, with a 82-year history, closed permanently last Sunday
  • Red Star Restaurant and Lai Wah Restaurant are other long-standing restaurants that are forced to contemplate their fate
  • They had not laid off anyone as they consider their staff who had worked with them for decades as “family”
  • Lai Wah’s owners said losses are quickly approaching a six-figure sum, and the restaurant does not have money to pay rent
  • Red Star’s monthly operating cost is about S$100,000, but takings are S$1,000 at most on weekdays and S$2,000 a day on weekends


SINGAPORE — Covid-19 has claimed the life of a restaurant with a 82-year history, now other long-standing eateries are also contemplating their fate.

Red Star Restaurant and Lai Wah Restaurant, household names in their heyday, told TODAY they were unsure for how long more they can sustain their businesses, even as Singapore appears on track to relax the latest round of restrictions that prohibit dining-in come next Sunday (June 13).

This comes on the heels of the permanent closure of heritage brand Swee Kee Eating House last Sunday.

Red Star and Lai Wah are old-school restaurants that are still employing their longtime workers well into their old age, and thus faced some difficulty reskilling their ageing workforce to meet the new demands of doing business amid the pandemic.

But despite their best efforts to catch up with the latest technologies — from introducing fibre broadband at the restaurant to taking orders mainly on food delivery platforms — business had still fallen by up to 90 per cent.

For instance, Lai Wah, a 58-year-old Cantonese restaurant in Bendemeer, had sent its staff — most of whom are Chinese speaking — for English language or Microsoft Excel classes last year. The new skills proved useful when they needed to take more food deliveries this period.

With this, it had even managed to get its head waitress, 58-year-old Susan Kwa, to become more comfortable with taking orders online — a significant achievement given that she had spent “weeks and months” to get used to a new point-of-sale (POS) ordering system when it was introduced to replace handwritten chits back in 2014.

Ms Kwa, who had been working at Lai Wah for 40 years and picked up the English language only last December, told TODAY that from her experience working through the circuit breaker last April to June, she had accepted that “there is no other way". 

"I don’t know, (then) I must also learn,” she added.


However, Lai Wah’s losses, which accumulated since last year’s circuit breaker, have continued to balloon, one of its third-generation owners, general practitioner Wong Choo Wai, 50, said.

Despite government support such as wage subsidies under the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS), the losses are quickly approaching a six-figure sum, he said, as takings have fallen to less than S$1,000 a day amid the period of Phase 2 (Heightened Alert).

His brother, Mr Ben Wong, 51, added that on May 16, the Sunday that the restrictions kicked in, the restaurant had only S$300 in revenue, a drop of more than 90 per cent from usual weekends.

Mr Wong said Lai Wah had thus informed its landlord, the Housing and Development Board, that the restaurant does not have money to pay rent, as the enhanced JSS payout, which would apply to wages paid in April to June, will only be disbursed in September.

Dr Wong said: “Honestly, we are not sure how long we can sustain… We are currently considering getting a bridging enterprise loan, but I don’t know if the end is anywhere in sight.”

The family had not retrenched anyone despite the poor takings as they see their workers — many of whom are are in their 50s and 60s — as “family members” since they had been with Lai Wah for decades, Dr Wong added.

“If we close, they will not be able to find employment.”

Mr Cedric Tang, third generation owner of Swee Kee Eating House. The restaurant closed permanently on May 31, 2021. Photo: Ili Nadhirah Mansor/TODAY


The situation could have been worse, as seen in the case of Swee Kee.

It was known for being the Cantonese joint that many Hong Kong celebrities would patronise for supper when they were in town.

Located at Amoy Street for 26 years, it used to serve the Central Business District (CBD) lunch crowds that would flock to the restaurant as early as 11am as it was known to be packed by noon.

But its third-generation owner Cedric Tang, 36, said that his family had decided to close the outlet, the oldest of his family’s three restaurants, following new highs in monthly losses when its combined sales on May 18 and 19 amounted to as little as S$500.

The family had already suffered more than S$300,000 in losses in their attempt to keep Swee Kee afloat over the past year, hopeful that the Covid-19 situation would blow over, but there now seems no end in sight.

Unlike his family’s two other restaurants under the “Ka-Soh” brand, Mr Tang said that Swee Kee never got started with online delivery, as the level of digital literacy among its seven workers — six of them are above the age of 50 — was poor. The workers also could not read or speak much English.

Mr Tang did not want to impose the technologies on the workers as well, after seeing how badly they had struggled when learning to use the POS system there.

The machine was bought in 2017, but it had laid there unused for three years as the workers continued to take orders using paper, unconvinced that they could take to the new processes well.

When the credit card machine that Swee Kee used had to be upgraded in 2018 or 2019, he had to spend a few weeks teaching the workers how to operate it, as they had only learnt how to use the old machine by memorising button sequences, not by reading what shows up on the screen.

“They are fearful of technology. They do require a fair bit of handholding and coaxing that technology is there to help,” Mr Tang said.

The sudden nature of the latest Covid-19 measures did not help, he added.

“I had no time to implement things. I did think of bringing onboard Swee Kee to Oddle (a food delivery platform)... Then again, I wonder if they can get used to looking at the (printed) bills and facilitating the takeaways when they had not experienced it before,” he said.

Mr Hooi Kok Wai, one of the directors of Red Star Restaurant at 54 Chin Swee Road, on June 3, 2021. Photo: Ili Nadhirah Mansor/TODAY


Red Star, a 47-year-old dim sum restaurant that used to be regularly booked out for events on 15 of 30 days of the month, could not escape the severe impact of the period of heightened alert, even though it had started doing deliveries well before Covid-19 hit.

Chef Hooi Kok Wai, 82, who co-owns the 80-table restaurant with chef Sin Leong, who is in his 90s, had partnered with food delivery apps although he could not read or write in English as he felt that it was important for Red Star to “go with the times and adapt to change”.

Mr Hooi — who could not even pronounce the names of the delivery platforms that Red Star is on when TODAY spoke to him — got his younger staff to implement and man the systems.

But the results were still dismal, as business had dropped by 90 per cent. They get only around S$2,000 worth of orders on the weekends, and “hundreds”, S$1,000 at most, on weekdays.

In contrast, the monthly operating cost stands at more than S$100,000 — an inflated sum since the Malaysia-Singapore borders closed last March as it started paying for the accommodation of the Malaysians among its 50-strong workforce. They used to cross the Causeway daily.

“If the restrictions extend for another month or two, I don’t think it is possible to continue without taking more drastic actions,” said Mr Hooi.

He had only cut the 20 to 30 part-time and ad hoc staff that they used to hire so far.

Over at Beng Hiang Restaurant in Jurong East, a well-known Hokkien restaurant originally located on Amoy Street from 1978, business is at 70 per cent of pre-Covid levels, said Mr Tony Leong, 42, its F&B manager.

“We still continue to persevere. Our workers have worked with us for 30, 40 years. We are a big family. It is not good for them if the restaurant closes because of Covid-19,” he said.

Beng Hiang, which is listed on GrabFood and Foodpanda, had, in fact, employed four to five more staff who are better educated to support its older staff who had trouble with delivery orders, especially those that come with special instructions since they could not read in English, Mr Leong said.

Meanwhile, one of the owners of Beng Thin Hoon Kee Restaurant, a family-run Fujian restaurant that started in 1949 and is located on Chulia Street, contends that rent is their biggest challenge as it stayed the same although footfall in the CBD is a fraction of what it used to be.

Asked if it might be forced to close, the woman, who declined to be named, said: “I hope not... At least not now.”

For Jing Hua Xiao Chi, a restaurant along Neil Road which opened in 1989, business has fallen by about 75 per cent.

Its supervisor Daryl Yap, 32, told TODAY that although the restaurant offers islandwide deliveries on platforms like Grab and Foodpanda, it was only receiving a little more than 15 orders on the weekends, and fewer than five orders on weekdays.

Walk-in business was worse, he said. On a typical weekday now, almost no customer would walk through the restaurant’s doors. On weekends, it was getting about three to four walk-ins.

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