Cover JZ Lim, managing director of 1855 The Bottle Shop

The managing director of the homegrown F&B business shares with Tatler how the pandemic has fast-tracked their virtual experiences

It has been more than a year since Covid-19 hit Singapore, and we can’t stress enough how much it continues to ravage the already struggling F&B industry. It is even more so after returning to Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) where dining out is banned until August 18 and the major source of revenue comes from takeaways and deliveries.

You could say that it was a two-fold setback for Jing Zhe Lim, the managing director of F&B group 1855 The Bottle Shop that operates a number of restaurants and retail shops across the island. Sure, the retail shops are still allowed to open but with most of the population working from home, foot traffic has dropped significantly.

Thankfully, the retail arm has been offering delivery services since the pre-pandemic times and there was even an unprecedented surge since last year due to many factors including the WFH setup, circuit breaker and two partial lockdowns. Thus, the challenge for the team was to ensure a smooth delivery from the store to customers’ homes. That said, they scaled up their logistics capabilities to keep up with the demand and “online shopping has grown exponentially”. Lim adds: “We are now better equipped to manage high order volumes and render quality service to our customers.”

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The physical shops were not forgotten, and steps were taken to adhere to the government’s safety measures. Apart from cleaning the common spaces frequently and encouraging visitors to sanitise their hands as often as possible, mask-off activities such as tastings were discontinued.

Even their annual Wine and Whisky Week was cancelled last year, and Lim expressed his disappointment as the event was a good way for them to “engage the general public and introduced them to the world of wine through tastings and activities.”

However, if there were any clear opportunities from this, it stemmed from locals being travel deprived. This is where 1855 The Bottle Shop comes into the picture, as “F&B businesses like us help them travel the world through gastronomic experiences”. Here is how Lim is making the most out of the given situation.

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How did you keep up with the demand for delivery services at the height during the pandemic?

Jing Zhe Lim (JZL)
Our distribution arm Vinicole Asia took a hit when dining restrictions kicked in last year. Frequent changes to dining restrictions have made demand more unpredictable, and delays in the international supply chain have made imports harder to coordinate as well.

To cope with this, we deepened our relationship with our partners in the HORECA (Hotel/Restaurant/Café) sector and maintained open channels of communication to understand changes in their business model and diners’ preferences, in order to tailor our product offerings accordingly.

We also expanded our partnership with them into the retail space; for example, we collaborated with Conrad Centennial Singapore to promote their mooncakes to 1855 The Bottle Shop customers during the Mid-Autumn Festival.

What do you think are the unexpected opportunities that came out of the coronavirus pandemic?

JZL With travel restrictions imposed, consumers were looking for a breath of fresh air and were more open to wine discovery—be it in their dining experiences or in the comfort of their own homes. It has emboldened us to be more adventurous and introduce wines from fascinating and less mainstream regions such as Uruguay in the form of Bodega Garzón, and dessert wines from Austrian icon Kracher. These are some of the brands that Vinicole Asia now represent exclusively in Singapore. We channel these exciting offerings to everyday wine lovers through 1855 The Bottle Shop.

We also became more creative in how wine and spirits could be integrated into the #StayHome experience. We wanted to make the wine experience at home more fun and introduce perks for home delivery. During the circuit breaker, we released a ‘Winecation Kit’ that included stay home essentials such as a wine glass, gourmet snacks and even a drinking card game. We even introduced an online guide to Netflix series and wine pairings; did you know The Prisoner Red Blend goes best with the sitcom Brooklyn Nine Nine?

How did you make the most of the virtual space during the pandemic (e.g. videos, online classes, talks)?

JZL We also enjoyed the privilege to engage directly with winemakers from all over the world—an opportunity that might not have been available pre-pandemic when it was customary to travel overseas for such meetings. It was very exciting to engage with them virtually and have them share their expertise with us and our customers through virtual masterclasses.

In line with our 10th anniversary, we launched the 1855 Grand Cru Classé virtual masterclass series in November last year. We invited winemakers and key personnel from big-name Bordeaux châteaux such as Ducru-Beaucaillou and d’Armailhac to share about selected vintages from the estate, and personally packed individual wine tasting kits and delivered them to customers on the day of the event. The response was remarkable, and attendees thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to get ‘up close and personal’ (over Zoom) with the winemakers responsible for the very wine in their glass.

What did you learn about yourself during these challenging times? Did you pick up any new skills, hobbies or passions during the pandemic?

JZL I can be quite a workaholic and spending long hours in the office then continuing to work at home is not uncommon for me. However, the pandemic has truly underscored the importance of family and friends, and the value of staff and team members who have remained loyal and steadfast in the face of adversity. Our loved ones and the people we work with are invaluable human connections that we make every day and I have sincerely learnt to treasure these relationships.

I used to be quite inactive on social media, but I found myself combing through Facebook and Instagram more frequently since the pandemic started, as a way to stay connected to my peers overseas and keep myself updated on the lives of families and friends.

In line with keeping a healthier lifestyle, I have picked up a habit of working out at home and making use of the spaces in my neighbourhood. I have become less reliant on gyms due to the frequent closures or restricted access.

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How has the F&B industry in your region fared compared to elsewhere in the world?

JZL I reckon Singapore has fared pretty well, in part thanks to good governance and a fairly resilient economy and industry. We are also thankful for the support the government has conscientiously rolled out. Singapore is a foodie nation at heart and the desire to wine and dine is in our blood; this natural calling to seek out gastronomical experiences will hopefully continue to support local businesses in time to come.

How best do you think consumers/diners can support you and the F&B industry in the short term, and the longer term?

JZL I hope more consumers will support small and local businesses, be it to shop local or eat local. There is a vast array of options available if they take the first step to explore and discover the local F&B scene. The food culture in Singapore is strong and this energy and enthusiasm diverted into local restaurants and retailers could be the push we need to weather this pandemic and adapt to a new normal.

What do you think 2021 holds for F&B? And looking further into the future, how do you think F&B places and the experience of dining out will change as a result of the pandemic?

JZL Safe distancing will inevitably shape how our retail and dining spaces and experiences are designed for the long haul. We may need to rethink how these experiences are crafted for modern-day consumers and how to further integrate the online and offline spaces to enhance wine and food enjoyment.

We might also see a shift towards more bespoke experiences catered to individuals and small groups—with more emphasis on quality over quantity and an educational or informative aspect that enlightens new age diners. We also foresee more interest in lesser-known boutique producers and brands in line with the trend of epicurean discovery.

Consumers, increasingly travel deprived, may also look inwards for more variety and local restauranteurs and retailers should be creative and resourceful to fill the gap in the market. While challenging, this is also an opportunity for us to adapt and evolve, to recapture the hearts and minds of local consumers, and I feel heartened that the Singapore industry has the tenacity and resilience to overcome these hurdles.

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