First published in The Straits Times on 09 September 2020.
Burnt Ends was one of the hottest restaurants in town — before it was affected by the Covid-19 circuit breaker earlier this year.
Pre-Covid-19, online reservation slots for the one-Michelin-starred modern barbecue restaurant in Chinatown were routinely snapped up. Reviews by food critics were mostly glowing.
Then came the lockdown from the Covid-19 outbreak. Dine-ins at restaurants and food and beverage (F&B) outlets were disallowed during the two-month circuit breaker.
Burnt Ends chef and founder David Pynt knew the business had to pivot or face ruin. Its 60-strong staff’s jobs were also at stake.
“The Covid-19 situation threw a spanner in everything and made us look at our business in a very different way,” says the 36-year-old, who has been living in Singapore since 2013. “We had to look at each part of the business and see how we could grow or restructure it for it to make sense financially.”
To quickly carve out new revenue streams, the Burnt Ends group, which also has two eateries under the Meatsmith brand in Telok Ayer and Little India, developed new F&B concepts and ramped up its online offerings.
It expanded its menu significantly on the Deliveroo food delivery platform, added order and delivery services to its Burnt Ends and Meatsmith websites, created two virtual brands to appeal to different demographics, and launched a new online service for alcohol takeaways and deliveries.
Chewing on lockdown lessons
The forced pivot to e-commerce not only helped the Burnt Ends group tide over the circuit breaker, it also gained new customers.
Before the circuit breaker, online orders made up about just 0.5 per cent of its monthly revenue. Now, they contribute five to eight per cent. “That’s a good chunk of business and can mean the difference between loss and profit in the restaurant industry,” says Mr Pynt.
Although the company’s revenues fell by about 30 per cent during the two-month circuit breaker from April 7 to June 1 compared to the same period last year, it has been able to expand its client database by about 15 per cent through islandwide deliveries.
Crucially, the new online offerings helped the group retain its entire staff — close to 90 per cent of whom are local — during the lockdown.
“That was our number one priority, and we didn’t lose anyone except those who chose to leave,” he says.
Some staff were redeployed to support Burnt Ends Bakery, the restaurant’s online bakery arm, which sells sourdough, doughnuts, scones and other baked goods.
Others, especially those in customer-facing roles, were given new roles in Burnt Ends’ kitchen to help prepare dishes for takeaways and deliveries.
Burnt Ends assistant restaurant manager Damien Gay, 33, was one of those who were redeployed. “It wasn’t too hard coming to grips with the jobs that needed to be done, and the kitchen team was always there to teach and lend a hand.
“Everyone did their best to help those of us who were new adapt to kitchen life.”
To strengthen its online business, the group used customer feedback on deliveries and takeaways during the circuit breaker to improve its food preparation and packaging process.
For example, the group’s restaurants now separate some of the dishes’ ingredients, such as salads’ sauces from the greens, to prevent the dishes from becoming soggy when they reach customers.
They also use heating bags to keep food deliveries warm, and include easy-to-follow recipe cards that teach customers to put together more complex dishes.
Hungry for growth
Moving ahead, the company plans to continue growing its Burnt Ends Bakery and Meatsmith Xpress brands.
Meatsmith Xpress is an online extension of the group’s core business, meat, and specialises in wood-fired barbeque dishes and smoked meats, such as char siew pork ribs and lamb meatballs. Its website includes items from both the Burnt Ends and Meatsmith menus.
These new business strategies have been supported by enterprise development agency Enterprise Singapore (ESG), which helped the group to diversify its business with the bakery and grow its Meatsmith Xpress’ brand online.
Mr Pynt shares that working with ESG prompted the brand to think about new customer bases they were trying to reach and grow, and helped them to refine and sharpen their new business models.
“We realised that the demand was there for a bakery because our baked goods at our Burnt Ends restaurant have been very well-received.”
“Burnt Ends is our higher-end restaurant, Meatsmith is in the middle, and Meatsmith Xpress is our casual option for customers,” he says of the decision to create the brand.
The company is also developing a smartphone app, expected to be ready by next March, to build stronger relationships with customers.
The app will update users on specials and deals at the group’s eateries, accept online orders and enable users to collect loyalty points that can be exchanged for discounts at its eateries. It can also track customers’ preferences and improve their menu based on such data.
Buoyed by the promise of its initiatives, the group is planning to expand internationally and open restaurants under the Meatsmith brand in Qatar and Indonesia by early 2021, having secured investments from outside parties to do so.
These strategies and e-commerce moves have helped the company to emerge stronger and more prepared for the future, says Mr Pynt.