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Why cluster dining concepts are popping up in Singapore

These spots cater to myriad tastes.

If you’re the kind of person who gets a headache trying to decide what to eat, you’re in luck. As the idea of multi-restaurant clusters catches on, you no longer have to pick a cuisine before arriving at your destination. Instead, you can just go with your gut.

It’s a kind of flexibility that Michel Lu has always believed in, especially when it comes to destination dining. “Clusters give people more reasons to come to your venue, instead of a single concept. It lets them come to you for different moments – whether to eat with family or friends, for drinks or brunch, and you won’t just be a dance club that’s lifeless during the daytime,” says the executive chairman of the boutique consultancy Revolver Asia.

  • Savourworld
    Savourworld. PHOTO Savourworld

He recalls that his first multi-restaurant project was at One Fullerton in 2001, when he launched three different concepts across 25,000 sq ft. Now, he is the master tenant of a 60,000 sq ft dining enclave Savourworld, which consists of some 20 concepts including French eatery Garcons Nosh, Turkish restaurant Ottoman Kebab and Grill, and the modern Chinese Noodle Bar by Blue Lotus.

(RELATED: Why Blue Lotus Concepts MD Ricky Ng is expanding his restaurant empire despite a tough year.)

When it launches officially in October, it will join a growing number of such clusters of independent restaurants, such as the gastropark Timbre+, the container eateries in Punggol called the SEED@Social Innovation Park (SIP), as well as modern hawker centres Wild Market at Shaw Tower and Essen at Pinnacle@Duxton.

Of course, these mass food concepts don’t just offer consumers more dinner options, they also have a potential for building a community through events and activities because of their size and capacity.

At Savourworld for instance, Lu intends to hold about 10 food festivals per year, in a specially-designed event hall that can hold over 1,000 people at a time. Darren Chen, executive director of events company Savour and Lu’s partner in the venture, explains that these events will be a big driving force for them, as each festival will bring new visitors to their space.

D'Grill at SEED@SIP

D’Grill at SEED@SIP. PHOTO D’Grill

Explains Chen: “When we go overseas and work with landlords or property developers, they say retail is tough nowadays because everyone is buying things online. In China for example, new malls open every few months. It’s very competitive. Why would someone visit their mall this weekend? That’s where events like ours come in – we drive foot traffic. So we took that idea for Savourworld.”

Building a community is why a container park in Punggol was the ideal set-up for SIP to go beyond feeding hungry stomachs to championing social causes. To begin with, the idea for SEED@SIP comes from a desire to give a new lease of life to old shipping containers. But even down to the restaurants, each of the seven tenants is required to adopt social missions such as “Celebrate Diversity” or “Support Sustainable Living”. The latter, for instance, is the mission of Pump Station 1965 – the only two-storey eatery in the park – which incorporates upcycling in their furnishings such as the oil barrels that they use as chairs and tables.

Essen at The PinnacleEssen at The Pinnacle. PHOTO Essen

The intention is to create a “social playground”, with community farm plots, wellness activities, and social bazaars as a community hub for Punggol, says Jane Gan, SIP’s Associate Director of Marketing.

All that comes after building a sustainable business though, points out Walter Woo, who runs the two-year-old modern coffee shop Essen. When he started out, he had predicted that such concepts would eventually become more widespread because they provided Singaporeans with more options and variety in dining – something that he observes is happening now.

But sustaining the business may not be as easy as it seems. He explains: “I used to think opening a coffee shop looked very simple because you just collect rent. But it’s actually quite tough and not that lucrative. Rental can be very high, and there are a lot of shared costs to cover, like cleaners. If one stall gives up the business and becomes empty, you have to cover the rental yourself. It’s very important to take care of your tenants’ needs.”

  • Impression of Yishun Park Hawker Centre
    Impression of Yishun Park Hawker Centre. PHOTO Yishun Park Hawker Centre

For Edward Chia, managing director of the Timbre Group, running the gastropark Timbre+ hasn’t been entirely smooth-sailing. When the 24,000 sq ft eatery opened last year, opinions about the food offerings were often overshadowed by complaints about the heat and lack of ventilation.

However, that issue was fixed in a few months, says Chia. And he believes that the experience will help with their new 800-seater project Yishun Park Hawker Centre, which has already seen teething issues since it opened just over a week ago.

(RELATED: 3 restaurants to enjoy brunch with a view at Sentosa’s Quayside Isle.)

“Hawker centres are a Singapore invention, and I think one of the most inclusive places we have. So we find it fun and satisfying to play our part in evolving it and seeing how we can modernize it with technology to make the experience better. At the same time, we still want people to be able to get a plate of traditional nasi lemak instead of the burger,” says Chia.

The Timbre Group used to be mostly associated with its popular live music spots, but this will be absent at the new Yishun Park. Instead, the focus will be on being a hawker centre, offering affordable food options like braised duck rice at S$2.80 or Japanese ramen at S$3.50, while at the same time giving space to more innovative concepts like Hakka tofu rice bowls and baked roti prata. Family-friendly activities like arts and crafts sessions for children will also be held at the hawker centre on weekends however – something that is already being done at Timbre@Gillman.

Says Chia: “We’ve always been about supporting local talents, and did that especially for music. But now with these mass concepts, we have the opportunity to support local culinary talents and preserve our food heritage.”

Story first appeared on The Business Times.