[Part 2] Embracing the New Normal: A Chat with Han Li Guang
The tightened measures have impacted the F&B industry significantly, with many restaurants turning to takeaway and delivery as a means to continue serving their customers. As we now enter Phase 2, there will definitely be more changes that the F&B businesses need to prepare for.
In today’s interview, we spoke to Li Guang, Chef-Owner of an award winning and Michelin starred restaurant- Labyrinth, and his newly launched delivery concept- Miss Vanda.
He shares his outlook on the current situation, how Miss Vanda was conceptualized during the circuit breaker, and also what he has learned throughout this period that is valuable advice to fellow F&B businesses out there as well.
Hi Li Guang, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Hi I’m Han, proud chef-owner of Restaurant Labyrinth and Miss Vanda.
Labyrinth began in 2014, and we have just celebrated our 6th year anniversary a couple of months ago. Labyrinth’s specialty is the new Singapore cuisine, or what we call the “new expression of Singapore cuisine”, which focuses heavily on sustainability and locally sourced produce. It expounds on traditional recipes and heritage, connecting Singaporeans with authentic Singapore cuisine and ingredients that have been here since historical times. The way we present the food is different and new, unexpected in some ways.
Miss Vanda is named after our national flower, Vanda Miss Joaquim. Hence, we are going for national food and national heritage. We incorporated a little bit of sustainability and the local aspect of Labyrinth into Miss Vanda as well. People would ask what is the difference between Labyrinth and Vanda. To me, one is an art or the niche market, while the other is accessibility. Labyrinth is an artistic expression of my food, philosophy and beliefs, while Vanda focuses on cooking good food and good flavours with good ingredients at affordable prices for everyone.
Food is my life. When I’m at home, I watch food shows, read cookbooks, and study different cuisines to understand a bit more about world cuisines. I spend hours thinking of what food to order, because every meal is important to me.
The outbreak has reshaped norms around the world. What would you say is the greatest/biggest change you have made in your life/work routine during this period (which would most likely remain as a norm post CB)?
Our business started declining in January when the government started encouraging people to stay in, as with many other businesses in the fine dining industry. We had to take higher levels of hygiene measures, such as temperature taking, recording of particulars and deeper sanitization. We also had to change our strategy and launched a cheaper weekday menu to attract the local market.
Eventually, the circuit breaker happened and our restaurant had to temporarily close for 2 months. We took this opportunity to regroup and get a clear view of the current situation to plan for the upcoming 2 months. This was when Miss Vanda came in. Miss Vanda was a concept that was initially planned to be launched as a physical casual bistro this year. While we were in talks with a new partner, thankfully we haven’t found a place to rent yet and the products were tested internally as well. This may be a blessing in disguise for us. I thought, “Hey, since the situation is already bad and instead of whining, how about we launch Miss Vanda as a delivery arm?”
A lot of restaurants are doing delivery now as a stop-gap measure, and while some concepts worked, others did not. We wanted to protect Labyrinth as a brand and not potentially harm its brand positioning and brand value by doing casual delivery. Hence, we decided to use Miss Vanda to test the delivery concept out. I decided to look towards Miss Vanda as a more midterm plan for the business, so we built our own website from scratch and our own delivery network to give more value to our customers.
When the extension of circuit breaker was announced, it crossed our minds that we might not even allow dine-ins in our restaurant in June. Our initial plan was for Miss Vanda to act as the delivery arm that supports Labyrinth, to provide supplementary sales since the fine-dining market and tourist market were declining, but Miss Vanda has now become the main driver. We have just launched Miss Vanda at the start of June, with proper marketing and social media exposure. We test-runned our websites, planned marketing strategies, promotions and methods to sustain the crowd, some of which were things that we never did for Labyrinth.
It’s definitely a struggle to not be on any third-party apps for support, as we have to troubleshoot on both front end and back end for operations. But we learn every day, and now we understand the e-commerce business a little better. The business has been off a great start with the support of many friends and supporters. We have great coverage on the media as well, such as The Straits Times, CNA and Business Times.
There are people who may wonder why I didn't launch Miss Vanda in May. Firstly, the mall was closed, but even if given a choice, I would still have opened it in June. Moving in later also means that I can learn from my peers. I am grateful for the fact that I got to learn from not only their mistakes, but also what they have done well. I would say the F&B industry is quite united right now, as we are all in the same ship together. Some even shared with me delivery contacts to build my network on. Hence, in some ways, I feel that coming in later worked better for our brand more than coming in together with the crowd.
I also learned that the delivery business is all about volume. Labyrinth is fine dining and we can just have around 24 pax a day. As for Miss Vanda now, we are doing around 50 – 60 orders a day on average, with each order for around 2-3 pax. We are learning how to adapt on the back end, how to manage the cost and strategy, and moving forward, our rental cost so as to make the model a sustainable one. It is a learning curve for us to change our pivot to e-commerce, reaching out to people online, contactless marketing and not being able to see our diners’ reactions to our food.
As the recovery phase kicked off and we now enter Phase 2, what is one thing that you are concerned about, hopeful for, or even looking forward to in a changed future?
From a personal perspective, I am indeed looking forward to Phase 2 to meet some friends. However, from the business perspective, I feel that Phase 2 might still affect us negatively, as the social distancing measures are going to reduce our capacity in house. In fact, I feel that Phase 1 is better for our business because when it is 100% takeaway and delivery, we have the command attention from people staying at home where they can only order delivery.
Am I looking forward to Phase 2 and 3? I would say that it’s a mixed feeling. As a business owner and someone who has been doing this for over 6 years, I feel that it is important to always plan for the worst situation. Anything above the worst situation is a bonus. At the end of the day, I’m just living day by day, seeing what’s going to happen and just try to react and be nimble with the business from a strategic standpoint.
Starting something new / change can be intimidating. Any tips/advice to share with others on how do you embrace a new beginning/normal?
Despite having different business models and target markets, Labyrinth and Miss Vanda are still fairly similar in some ways. They are one product. Our standards towards our food that we are serving have to be the same. If you have the mindset that doing delivery is an interim solution and allow yourself to serve sub-par or average products to your diners, it will definitely affect your main business when business reopens again. Hence, it is important to put product as one of your priorities.
It’s still about having the heart to cook good food for people, but also having a differentiated value proposition at the same time. It is important for us to have the passion for making food, making sure it is served the way we want it to be and demonstrate the proficiency to cook high quality food. We should take pride in our product, have a longer-term vision towards our business and think ahead at all times. Any businesses should think of what their differentiated value proposition is, always put their product as a priority and listen to their customers. Be happy and grateful to our customers and cook for our customers.
We are always adjusting and I know it is hard to adjust to a new lifestyle. In a normal restaurant, I usually start cooking for lunch at 12pm. But for Miss Vanda’s deliveries, I start cooking at 11 for the food to reach my customers by 12pm. It’s about embracing the change in the model and lifestyle, and upgrading yourself. I’m not the best at IT myself and had to dig up some IT and Excel materials of mine from my banking days 12 years ago, to analyze numbers and build reports on the backend that ease the operational flow. I also train my staff who are also not familiar with IT. So for me, it’s about adapting and bringing out all the party tricks in the bag.
In the non-crisis period, it is like working on an autopilot mode, but in a crisis period, it is manual flying. Now that we are still in the storm, it’s about using the senses, knowledge and training to really bring the business through the storm. It’s also about being a leader to assure the staff that their futures are secure and that the company is doing everything we can to keep them employed. There are many things we have to draw upon in order to be successful as a team, not just myself. We just have to be not afraid of changes. Change and going out of your comfort zone is good, as it makes you a better and stronger person.
We believe the CB had been a tough time for many. Can you share with us what you miss most about CB / a fond memory from CB?
As a chef in this industry, I spend a lot of time at the restaurant and have little off-days. Hence, I didn’t get to meet my family much. With the circuit breaker, I finally had the chance to stay home more to spend time with my family.
Bonding with my family and spending time with them at home is a change from a fast paced lifestyle to a much slower one, as I hardly saw them previously with only one day off a week. While I definitely miss catching up with other chefs for supper, getting to spend more time with my family and cooking together is definitely a fond memory, because such times wouldn’t come again.
I also appreciate resting at home, having a bit of a luxury to take afternoon naps sometimes as well, and using my leisure time productively at home. I get to upgrade my skill sets and read more to learn on my own. I have been cooking home-cooked food to make my family happy, reading up to learn more on photography and IT so as to plan for marketing and business strategies for Miss Vanda.
Can you share with us any 2 positive new norms/habits/changes that you’ve developed during the CB that you are incorporating into your daily routine now?
I have started working out daily and cutting down on supper. This allows me to have better sleep every night. I feel healthier and great.
I have also been learning a bit more on social media marketing and strategizing during this period, and it's coming to use for Miss Vanda. When Labyrinth was launched, I didn’t have much of such marketing knowledge. This is now a chance for me to use these skills on Miss Vanda, which I never had for Labyrinth. It was good to use the time to consolidate my knowledge and learn more information to plan for Miss Vanda at the end of the day. It’s definitely building on skills and applying it to real life to see if it works or not.
Work is my life, and I don’t think of Labyrinth or Miss Vanda as work. I like what I’m doing and I enjoy the life I lead. While there are difficulties and not always rainbows and unicorns at work, I don’t regret much myself. I don’t regret the hours I spent at work, because I choose to do this and I want to do this.
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