[dropcap size=small]L[/dropcap]ocation, location, location. It’s the fail-safe mantra of both property buyer and F&B operator when it comes to making their investments pay off. But when the right location comes at too painful a price, some budding chefs/restaurateurs gamble on out-of-the-way locations in the hope that good food and unique ambience will bring in the crowds.

At Ristorante Pietrasanta, chef-owner Loris Massimini listened to his instincts in 2008 when he snapped up a space at Wessex Village Square off Portsdown Road despite its obscure location and almost non-existent walk-in traffic. Now, the restaurant is a cult favourite which is busy even on weeknights and has since spawned two casual pizzerias in suburban Jalan Riang and Upper Thomson.

On the other hand, La Barca – another Italian restaurant in Goodman Arts Centre in Mountbatten – is busy only on weekends and struggles to fill seats on weekdays, which fluctuates between 20 per cent to 60 per cent occupancy. Ownership-wise, it recently changed hands, although the same chef remains.

What is it that makes one restaurant perform better than the other in off-the-beaten track locations?

For Pietrasanta’s chef Loris Massimini and his brother Giuseppe, a combination of affordable rent, easy parking and a clientele of mature foodies with looser purse strings have been key to their success. Slow and steady growth is key, says Mr Giuseppe. “92 per cent of our customers are regulars. It’s just old school word-of-mouth.” He also spends prudently, revealing that the initial investment was S$120,000, which they recouped in four to six months.

On the other hand, La Barca’s startup costs totalled S$750,000 because of extensive renovations – the space was previously a food court. The extensive menu may also have driven up food costs – they offer 87 items compared to Pietrasanta’s 50, and new co-owner Kevin Cheong intends to streamline the “intimidating” menu. “We’re avoiding the pitfalls which the previous shareholders made, which was not looking into the business-side of things.”

Executive chef Michele Sorrentino (who was from the one Michelin-starred Antica Trattoria Botteganova in Siena, Italy) says that relying on word of mouth isn’t enough. “My previous partner thought that if you have a Michelin-starred chef, you can open a restaurant in the forest and people would come,” he quips. “But Singapore is very competitive, my name wasn’t promoted, and nobody knows I’m probably the only Michelin-starred chef that actually cooks here.”

(Related: Top local chefs/restaurateurs on 2016 food trends.)

While off-radar locations appeal to indie operators, there are factors beyond one’s control that can undermine one’s success. One example is when the chi-chi crowd descends on your quiet locale and turns it into the next hot spot. Skyrocketing rentals follow, driving out the indie operators. One such victim is Gusto Napoli’s Justin Seah, who shuttered his Joo Chiat eatery end January because rentals spiked 50 per cent, probably due to the influx of European expats.

Restaurateur Purdey Poon agrees that not every concept is destined to be a dining destination, based on her experience running Infuzi – a French restaurant in Biopolis which finally called it a day after a decade of struggling to stay afloat. Given the demand for more casual options in the area, she converted her 11-year-old business to Peperoni Pizzeria. Says Ms Poon: “It was time for a dynamic change that could draw a brisk lunch crowd and family gatherings at night.”

Regardless, newer players such as Alvin Chew and Lee Tiong Leng are not deterred. Their two-month-old eatery PocoLoco offers affordable Italian fare in a HDB setting. The key, they say, is to keep prices down without compromising on quality, so simple, authentic dishes are a must. Pastas go for S$9 to S$12, and aren’t limited to run-of-the-mill carbonara or aglio olio.

Meanwhile, chef-owner Chris Fong of Horizon Bistronomy bet on The Punggol Settlement for his first 40-seater in 2014, and further expanded to a 100-seater at Alexandra in 2015. He’s avoiding the central region because of competition from the likes of Saveur and Poulet.

While business is brisk, folks in the suburbs don’t always appreciate finer fare: “The first two months were crazy, people ate beef with chilli sauce, foie gras with ketchup – everything with ketchup,” he recalls. He has since made some compromises with the menu. Steak tartare is out (“people are scared of raw beef”), local twists are in, and he’s found common ground with dishes such as duck confit and pork belly. “You can’t go wrong with braised pork – the Chinese know what it is.”

Even restaurant groups are looking to the heartlands as test beds for new concepts which they intend to take overseas. For instance, the team behind Etna started new casual eatery iO Italian Osteria at Hillview over a year ago. “The heartlands are less of a risk. If I were to open in Orchard, I’d think twice,” says co-owner Anna Borrasi.

(Related: A day in the life of Il Lido’s Beppe de Vito.)

Of course, after business has stabilised, the temptation remains for these indie operators to expand to a central location, but Porta Porta’s Roziana Baharuddin offers a cautionary tale. Her flagship near Changi Prison has been going strong since 1993, but she closed the Stanley Street outlet after 15 years due to doubled rentals and a weak dinner crowd.

“Don’t expand into the CBD unless you have the capital,” she warns. “Working so hard and giving your earnings over to rent isn’t worth it, especially if your health gets jeopardised.”

Adapted from The Business Times.