Restaurants in search of that missing ingredient
EVEN as Singapore's fine-dining scene gains recognition, restaurants warn that the road ahead is only going to get bumpier.
Apart from levies and quotas, many grapple with getting locals on board. A higher wage is not enough. Singaporeans want shorter hours and a "cooler", less taxing job.
Last month, Tung Lok Group increased the pay for its waiting staff to between $1,800 and $2,200 a month, as well as benefits.
But Andrew Tjioe, the executive chairman of the chain with more than 10 restaurants, told My Paper: "Even with this price tag, we do not get many people coming forward."
He added: "We are not looking for people with high qualifications and we are definitely not choosy."
On Tuesday, well-known restaurant Lei Garden officially ceased operations at its Orchard Road outlet due to a severe manpower shortage. Sources told My Paper that it offered flexi hours and wages "well above the market rate", but was still unable to find local workers.
Hotelier-restaurateur Loh Lik Peng, who runs Majestic Restaurant and Jing, said that it is a "massive challenge" for fine-dining restaurants to cope with the manpower crunch.
"It's a few industries (retail, hospitality and restaurants) competing for the same people," said Mr Loh. "We have a very, very low unemployment rate. There are just not enough Singaporeans to take up jobs."
And, unlike fast-dining outlets, fine-dining restaurants do not have much leeway to use technology in place of staff.
"As customers are paying more, it is only right that they are given personalised services which cannot be replaced by technology," said Royston Soo, director of restaurants at Les Amis.
One fine-dining restaurant is paying $2,600 to $3,400 for local staff with two to three years of experience.
Next year, the crunch could worsen, as companies will have to cut the proportion of foreigners on their staff from 45 to 40 per cent.
To attract workers, restaurant Jin Shan at Marina Bay Sands Hotel offered higher pay and benefits such as shorter working hours for older staff.
The situation has since improved, but a spokesman said: "It's very, very difficult to keep increasing the salary... Unless you have very good sales. Usually, for restaurants, the overhead expenses are very high and the marginal sales are very low."
Ryan Clift, chef-owner of Tippling Club, said a 41/2-day work week has helped to retain his staff. "My staff come in to work extremely refreshed."
But the big issue is the mindset. Mr Tjioe said: "Service is not a preferred job among most Singaporeans. If you have a choice, you wouldn't do it."
This means more fine eateries could fall by the wayside.