Tell someone you’re working in the F&B industry, and you will likely be greeted with an expression of respect or pity or both. Legendary are the long hours, tempers as hot as a Josper oven, and the caricatures of slobby chefs with no life outside their kitchens.

This shouldn’t be the case, say restaurateurs, including Candlenut’s Malcolm Lee who was among the first to change to a four-day workweek in 2016. His decision was prompted by depression from working insane hours six out of seven days a week and a terrible break up. Even obtaining a Michelin star couldn’t soothe the pain.

He shares: “I told myself that this wasn’t right. Everyone has a family, dreams and hobbies. How can I say I want to make people happy with great food when I cannot spend time with my family and those I love? It makes little sense.”

Candlenut’s kitchen staff currently works the equivalent of 44 hours per week spread over four days. “Presently, front-of-house staff and back-end admin work five days a week with shorter staggered schedules. We’re working to reduce that even further,” Lee adds.

Last August, The Dandy Collection, comprising concepts such as Neon Pigeon and Fat Prince, implemented a four-day workweek. The front and back of house teams now average 11-hour days.

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The company’s chief executive officer Rohit Roopchand says: “With last year’s circuit breaker, we pledged to become a stronger and better company. This included re-examining our restaurant work arrangements. In our newest concept, Firangi Superstar, we’re still getting the restaurant and teams established, so all our employees are on a five-day week. We will implement four-day workweeks based on Neon Pigeon and Fat Prince as soon as operations stabilise.”

The latest to move in this direction is two Michelin-starred Zen. General manager-head sommelier Aaron Jacobson and executive head chef Tristin Farmer tell us that it has always been part of the long-term plan of the restaurant that follows the working model of the original three Michelin-starred Frantzen in Stockholm.

“Hospitality has intense working hours and a reputation for tough environments – not just in Singapore, but across the world, too,” says Farmer, who adds that the four-day workweek is now only gaining traction in the UK, while in Dubai, it is still a six-day week.

Jacobson says, “Honestly, I was sceptical at first since this is not standard for any industry, let alone F&B. However, when I was in Stockholm, I saw first-hand how productive and motivating it was to run a restaurant this way.”

Constant adjustments

Motivated and productive staff aside, business practicalities remain paramount. When Lee reduced the days, his workforce shrank by 20 per cent overnight, and he had to help plug the gap until he could hire extra staff. He also constantly compares the conviction of employee welfare against costs such as rental and supplies, and a healthy profit margin to keep the restaurant afloat.

Zen’s kitchen management team restructured working hours, workload and schedules. They also renovated and expanded the prep kitchen to maximise the staff’s efficiency and productivity. Its front and back of house teams are currently working between 44 and 60 hours a week, and come back several days a month for training, meetings or volunteer work at a local charity.

“By closing Tuesday dinners and introducing Friday lunch, we can still meet our financial goals,” says Farmer. “Our next step is to expand the team and implement Wednesday and Thursday lunches. Our goal is to reduce working hours while increasing revenue within the restaurant and hitting our financial targets.”

Jacobson adds, “It’s a tough process that requires huge adjustments because we are not perfect. We don’t want to oversimplify it and make it look effortless just because it’s Zen.”

Loh Lik Peng of Unlisted Collection believes that restaurants can only have a four-day workweek if they can balance their opening hours and revenue with fixed expenses. “A major cost area for any business is labour. To have a four-day workweek, salaries need to commensurate with the hours worked. When other restaurants operate five days a week at the same labour cost as your business, which only operates four days, then you won’t be competitive.” His restaurant staff is on a five-day workweek and outlets that have longer opening hours have different teams on the roster.

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Andrew Tjioe, president and chief executive officer of TungLok Group, says that the standard working hours in its restaurants are 44 hours per week, but they can be modified based on workers’ needs, including the ability to work four days a week.

He shares, “Our goal is to respect the needs of workers and, as much as possible, to balance them with the group’s objectives. Our business has a high rental rate. We need to maximise our revenue to make ends meet and make a decent profit.”

Farmer and Lee emphasise that a four-day workweek doesn’t mean lower salaries for their staff. Employees are paid for the hours they have clocked in, not by the days they worked. “Throughout the pandemic, we maintained the same staff strength and salary and increased salaries last year,” says Lee.

Farmer adds: “We have increased the base salary for the kitchen team and added a monthly bonus scheme. The salary we pay is competitive or at the top of the range for fine dining. The shorter workweek does not alter the salary structure.”

More than a mandate

The key aspect goes beyond the number of working days; it is about respecting the people who work in F&B and investing in them.

Jacobson says, “In Singapore, F&B employees work an average of 12 to 15 hours a day. People here work longer hours than I have ever seen anywhere else in the world. That was never an option for us. When people work that many hours, they are simply not going to be at the top of their game, and you will not get the best out of them.” Zen’s employees receive training in the various aspects of restaurant operations, including wines and beverages, and enjoy nutritious staff meals. They also get the opportunity to participate in a six-month exchange programme with Frantzen.

“While the long-term goal of any restaurant is to stay profitable, our primary aim has always been to be the best at what we do – not only in terms of food, but also in terms of nurturing an exceptional hospitality team that is truly passionate about engaging, informing and inspiring others,” explains Jacobson.

Of course, it takes two hands to clap, so diners also need to play their part in cultivating a healthier working environment in F&B by appreciating the craft of cooking and service.

Lee says, “If you expect to pay the same when costs have risen, hawkers and other F&B people will have to work harder. An extra dollar can help them have a better work-life balance and give them an extra day off.”

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