March 16, 2009 / 7:50 AM / 8 years ago

Singapore bars, bistros bustle with recession deals

<p>Lunchtime diners sit inside a Hard Rock Cafe restaurant in Singapore March 9, 2009.Vivek Prakash</p>

SINGAPORE (Reuters Life!) - From pizza delivery chains to fancy restaurants, "recession" is now a buzz word on menus of many restaurants and bars in Singapore, a nation in the middle of its worst-ever economic downturn.

Walking through crowded bars and restaurants in the riverside entertainment hub Clarke Quay or the main shopping strip Orchard Road, Singapore's economy does not seem to be suffering.

But bar and restaurant owners say they are having to offer deals to pull in customers, after a slump in business last month.

"When you get depressed, you need more beer," said Ian Fitzgerald, an English software developer for Standard Chartered.

"I notice than more people are drinking at the beginning of the week than at the end of the week," he said, standing outside a bar in the city's financial district.

The Hard Rock Cafe, just off Singapore's main shopping boulevard Orchard Road, is offering a S$10 ($6.50) "Recession Set Lunch," a promotion that came after the restaurant saw a 20 percent drop in its business in February.

It said sales had improved this month and it looked to build on this with new monthly promotions.

"We won't call it Happy Hour because that's what everybody is calling it. You need to be a bit more creative," said the chain's promotion manager Natalie Wee.

Restaurant and bar House, in the jungly ex-colonial army area of Dempsey Road that is popular with young professionals, has slashed its wine prices by 35 percent and offers a "recession plan" package with 10 percent off bills more than S$50.

The discounts have brought crowds back to a level similar to pre-recession days, said spokeswoman Janet Lim, after a 30 percent plunge in customers late last year. Singapore was the first country in Asia to fall into recession last year.

DOWNTURN DEALS

Singapore, which has said its economy could shrink as much as 10 percent this year, announced on Friday that retail sales in January slid 12 percent from a year ago, but sales at restaurants jumped 20 percent.

This spending could be boosted by Lunar New Year celebrations that occurred in January, so restaurants and economists are not optimistic.

"In view of the busy state of Singapore's malls it may not seem as though spending is collapsing but, judging by January's retail sales numbers, people were apparently just making use of the free air conditioning," said economist Robert Prior-Wandesforde at HSBC in Singapore.

Outlets catering to tourists have been worse hit.

Hard Rock Cafe sales at Changi Airport's Terminal 3 have fallen 20 percent with no sign of improvement, said manager Mark Chan.

Harry's Bar, Singapore's biggest bar chain that caters mostly to expatriate and local professionals, told Reuters it has closed down four non-performing outlets, including at the airport, and did not think its sales would rise this year.

Singapore expects a 10 percent fall in visitor arrivals in 2009. Singapore Tourism Board has launched a "2009 Reasons to visit Singapore" campaign, giving away free air tickets and discount packages on five-star hotels.

Despite a slowdown, tourism and restaurant operators said they were doing better than in 2003 during the SARS respiratory illness epidemic.

"Our business was down 60-70 pct percent during SARS," said Harry's CEO Mohan Mulani. "Issues like that are more sensitive than economic numbers."

Additional reporting by Laurence Tan and Kash Cheong; Editing by Neil Chatterjee and Miral Fahmy

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