Executive Lifestyle
Published September 22, 2006

Life on the fringe

Lifestyle hubs off-the-beaten-track may be the hip thing in Singapore now, but how will they maintain the pull factor? CHEAH UI-HOON finds out if they are just a passing fad or a sustainable business concept

THOSE who have taken a leisurely drive or stroll around the Dempsey Road area lately might have noticed more life stirring in the area away from the bright lights of its 'star' attraction, PS Cafe.

Choice spots: Tanglin Village (above) - known for the longest time as the hub for teak furniture - is set to join the ranks of other lifestyle hubs at the fringes of suburban areas, such as Rochester Park (next)

There are new road signs, and even a small 'information space' for the area now known as Tanglin Village - giving a brief history of the area that used to be a nutmeg plantation and Singapore's first European military outpost.

With news last week of a $6 million, 110,000 sq ft alfresco bar and restaurant called Oosh opening in November, it certainly looks like Tanglin Village - known for the longest time as the hub for teak furniture - is a ripe candidate for the term 'lifestyle hub'.

It joins the ranks of other lifestyle hubs at the fringes of suburban areas - little enclaves just slightly off-the-beaten-track where one can find bars and restaurants, shops and spas in heritage architecture - that now constitute the 'in' thing for trendy Singaporeans. The most successful would of course be Rochester Park, and before that it was Chip Bee Gardens (which has since dropped a little in appeal thanks to parking woes and the Circle Line construction).

With the lure of nature, history and suburban bonhomie being the main attractions of such lifestyle hubs, is it really such a gold mine opportunity that any lifestyle entrepreneur would jump at? After all, F&B clusters have been known to fall out of fashion almost as quickly as they were touted as the 'must' locations to be at. Tanjong Pagar, Mohamad Sultan, Club Street and even Clarke Quay (before its current incarnation) were glorified at one stage, only to be shadows of their well-patronised past within a few years.

There are a lot of elements involved in making an enclave work, says Andrew Ho, senior principal planner of JTC's one-north Development Group. Indeed, hubs like Rochester Park and Chip Bee Gardens were very carefully planned and marketed, 'although the way it eventually took off did also catch us by surprise'.

Mr Ho recalls that JTC had to dangle a lot of carrots to get the five F&B operators to move into Rochester Park. 'At that time, the complaints were that the place is hidden behind the trees, that it's quite far away from town. Today, however, those have become the key features.'

After taking on master tenancy and doing the initial refurbishing of the black and white buildings, JTC also helped with the marketing of the place, as requested by the tenants. 'And we learnt valuable lessons from our Chip Bee Workloft experience, that if you get a strong tenant community who'd be willing to work together, then they'd take ownership of the project to make things work as well,' says Mr Ho.

Now JTC has received many requests to free up the remaining six black and white bungalows for F&B operations, but Mr Ho says they'll stick to the original plan to lease them out to lifestyle-related retail businesses, because it's important to maintain a balance and not have the space over-run by too many competing F&B players.

And to think that JTC's main aim wasn't to develop lifestyle hubs per se. 'Our main purpose was to create work-based facilities, but then we quickly realised that we had to develop lifestyle hubs in tandem to complement the working population of one-north,' Mr Ho clarifies.

The Da Paolo group was one of the first tenants which JTC invited to take up one of the buildings at Rochester Park.

'But we didn't go there because we thought it would be a hip spot,' says Francesca Scarpa, daughter of Da Paolo's founders, Paolo and Judie Scarpa. 'It's a real business decision - because we looked at factors like rental, location, accessibility and the environment. Especially since we do have strong interest in buildings with character,' she says, pointing out that her parents were among the first restaurateurs in Singapore to open eateries in conservation buildings, before it became trendy.

Not anyone can open a restaurant in a way-out place. 'But people will come if they know your brand - good food, good service - and we've been around for 18 years,' she notes.

Fifty per cent of the pull factor for places like Rochester Park are the buildings and the surroundings, feels Veronica Zuzarte, a director at public relations consultancy Sixth Sense, which specialises in the F&B business.

'After a while, customers can only spend so much time in the city,' she says. And thanks to the cluster of restaurants, it is able to pull in a critical mass, she adds.

'Look at Alkaff Mansion, that was a beautiful building but it was only one outlet, and the quality of the food couldn't sustain a regular crowd,' she says.

The cluster effect - which sees a variety of F&B or retail establishments - will definitely help draw more people to an area, especially if it's a little out of town, says Nicholas Mak, Knight Frank Consultancy & Research director.

Even so, setting up shop on the fringes of suburbs and the city isn't without its risks. 'Is it a fad or a trend?' asks Mr Mak. 'I think it's more of a case where there's now more supply of such places.'

The other factor is that rental for commercial space, especially in shopping malls owned by Reits (real estate investment trusts), has been going upwards. 'F&B operators who may not be able to find affordable space might be willing to explore other areas,' he notes.

Still, Yuan Oeij, a private chef soon to open his own bistro off River Valley Road, is less inclined to jump onto the bandwagon. 'Unless I can get a good price,' he quips. 'Otherwise, I'd rather be the first one to stake out a new location.'

The former fund manager in his 30s had spent one and a half years searching for the right spot for his eatery, following a wishlist that he reckons is dictated by his own priorities and personality as well.

'What I like about this new place is that the rent is right, there's free parking, an alfresco area with greenery around, and it's centrally located,' he notes. 'At the end, it's the best match of what I was looking for.'

Just as he did when he was picking company stocks, when he'd rather pick undervalued companies, Mr Oeij figures that it's not worth paying higher rental after a location has 'turned hip'.

Whether a place is hip or on its way there, or in a cluster with other F&B outlets, it is strong business fundamentals that will see a restaurant through, feels Beppe De Vito, the managing director of Il Lido, now the destination restaurant at Sentosa.

'It's not just a matter of going to a fancy spot and making it, there are key factors involved,' he says, pointing out that between himself and Il Lido's chef, Michele Pavarello, they have 40 years of experience in the F&B business, 15 of them in Singapore.

The key factors for Il Lido's success include accessibility and a strong food concept - 'people know where we are and what we serve' - while the view is a key feature. 'After all, good food and service is what makes people come back time and again,' Mr De Vito notes.

They could have well just pulled something basic together and capitalised on the view, but instead decided to sink in the money and put in as much effort as they could to make it a restaurant that's of a similar standard to cities like New York and London.

Incidentally, they are close to recouping their $1 million investment, by the end of the year - only 10 months since the restaurant opened, says Mr De Vito. A testimony that destination restaurants can also draw the crowd - especially as Il Lido and Rochester Park opened about the same time.

While it now seems hip to hang out at places which are just on the fringe of suburban areas, the test will be how to maintain the regular flow of customers after a while, says an industry observer who was involved with the redevelopment of Clarke Quay. 'They have to work harder and keep reacting to trends, and have to be able to change with the times,' he notes.

'A place like Rochester Park has its work cut out before it can become an institution, especially as trends move in cycles,' he adds.

Citing the Mohamad Sultan example, which was the 'it' place a few years ago but has since quietened down, Mr Mak also notes that there are no guarantees for success - whether in town or out of it. 'The star is rising for Rochester Park, and it looks like for Tanglin Village as well, being the new kid on the F&B block, but they've to work at keeping it shining.'