Open for business

Dining out: Malaysians need to adjust to the new norm while dining at food outlets.

AS the government slowly returns personal liberty to individuals and allow business establishments to reopen with some caveats, mall operators and business operators are raring to go.

During a Wednesday lunch at Alexis Bistro & Wine Bar, Bangsar Shopping Centre, Kuala Lumpur, manager Zul and his staff have become acutely aware that excellent food is no longer sufficient to entice back the crowd it used to have before Covid-19.

Concerns about dining out – even stepping out to a mall, a popular Malaysian pastime – invariably raises the question: Is it safe? Why not cook at home?

Zul is also beginning to discover his job specifications have increased. He has to be a novice epidemiologist, psychologist, public relations and medical officer all rolled into one. Yes, the finance manager too.

He and his team have to work together to ease the fear of dining in and in so doing, keep the cash register ringing.

At the entrance, retractable barrier lines have been set up as part of Alexis’ crowd control measures. “This way, we know who is coming, and leaving, ” he says.

Temperature. Checked. Sanitiser. Checked. As the five of us were ushered to our table, we discovered that it is three to a table although that table may sit five or six. The five of us were seated at two large tables, set a distance apart, that would otherwise have comfortably seated 10 to 12.

The noisy chatter and clinking of glasses, reminiscent of pre-Covid-19 days is missing. Instead, diners speak in hushed tones while the service personnel stayed discreetly some distance away, yet aware of the slightest signal when they are needed. Including the five of us, there may have been about 20 diners.

The menu came. It has been downsized. Front and back in a transparent folder. No flipping of pages.

To reduce human contact, guests jot down their selection on a little form with columns, while at the same time, list down their names and contact numbers.

The cutlery came, immersed in a tub of hot boiling water. The steam would have killed any virus or germs. “We are taking hygiene and social distancing seriously, ” Zul says.

He has been with Alexis 15 to 16 years. He has not been in this situation before but he is hopeful and upbeat. “We will widen our menu selection as more of our guests return, ” he says apologetically. The food remains excellent.

“The lunch crowd used to be about 110. Now it is about 50. So we reduce our menu selection.

“There is no dinner crowd nowadays, ” says Zul. Alexis reopened on May 16.

“We used to have a good dinner crowd (before the pandemic). Guests dine and discuss office matters. We trust the situation will improve, ” he says.

Queuing for lunch

As F&B operators located inside and outside malls disinfect their tables and chairs and clean out their kitchen, they are discovering that competition has increased.

Many eateries now offer delivery as well. Some hotels, like five-star Concorde Kuala Lumpur, which temporarily closed during the initial Covid-19 months, is now offering Xin Value Lunch Pack for takeaways and home deliveries at competitive prices.

As more retailers reopen for business, shoppers are donning their masks as they leave the sanctuary of their homes.

Retail consultant Allan Soo says he is already seeing long queues appearing in many places.

But as can be experienced from Alexis, upmarket F&Bs are taking the challenge of social distancing, which goes against the very social act of eating together.

There will be a learning curve for some business operators, some more steep than others as more businesses are allowed to reopen.

Soo, who cut his teeth in retail consultancy, says: “It is still early days, but I think the fear of the virus is wearing out as more dine out.”Because dining out is so much a part of the mall experience, he says depending on brands, food type – comfort food, fast food, cafes and coffee bars, and even some popular fine dine restaurants – F&Bs are beginning to fill up, or get back some slack although the point of sale may not show the pre-Covid-19 sales numbers, Soo says.

“But the signs are positive, ” he says, with an increasing number of F&B operators getting back their customers.

“You can see this in many shops in Bangsar, Damansara Heights, Mont’Kiara and Taman Tun Dr Ismail, ” he says.

A mall establishment offers a variety of trade mix. It is this which pulls in the crowd. Fashion, F&B, cinema, entertaining, gym and different types of services. But some will be impacted more than others. The cinema and gym are two of them.

“It is impossible to put a number at this stage but in malls like Mid Valley Mega Mall, which have the full range of retail categories, there will be some tenants who will be more impacted than others.

“China, in its first few weeks saw about 60% of business return in the malls in some cities, and I think our malls will not be that different, ” says Soo, as he surveys the traffic at various malls in the Klang Valley and restaurants located outside malls.

Retail Group Malaysia managing director Tan Hai Hsin, who has been in the retail sector for about 30 years, says this is not the first time he has seen F&B and the services sectors being hit so quickly and badly; overnight, sales dried up.

“In the 1997/1998 Asian financial and economic crisis, many retail businesses were hit. Many shut down. Many retail businesses failed due to high borrowings by the owners and/or the business, ” he says.

Quoting the Statistics Department’s Household Expenditure Survey 2014, Tan says dining out accounted for 11.3% of the monthly expenditure of an average household in Malaysia.

Dining out includes consumption at F&B outlets and excludes grocery purchases for cooking at home. It includes eating at coffee shops, mamak restaurants, hawker centres, night markets, canteens, cafes, restaurants and others, Tan says.

Tan says the F&B sector, or dining out, is not an economic driving force in Malaysia. Its share in the services sector is about 5%. Its share in GDP is less than 3%.

In a 2016 household expenditure survey by the same department, it noted that restaurants and hotels accounted for 13.4% of household expenditure. There was a separate category of food and non-alcoholic consumption which accounted for 18% of monthly household income.

The median household income in a family of four in the country was RM5,228 versus RM9,073 in the Federal Territory, according to the department’s Household Income and Basic Amenities Survey 2016.

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