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The tragic tale of how a startup folded barely even before it began during COVID-19

Updated: Mar 3


My little bar is (or rather was) located at 29 Dalhousie Lane, on the outskirts of Little India and within proximity of Rochor MRT station. My younger brother, sister, alongside two other close friends of mine were the founding members of this bar. All of us are still full-time university students, except for my sister who is still awaiting her ‘A’-Level results.


We had saved up for approximately 2 years, collectively, as well as taken up significant loans from our parents to fund the bar's startup costs, which totaled nearly S$180,000. Happily, and filled with naïve idealism, we opened our doors on 6 May 2021, amidst what seemed like a hopeful rebound towards an endemic “New Normalcy” as promised by the government. Our contractors even planned for 8-seaters within the bar itself, given that 8-pax dining was permitted back then.


First Closure

On the fourth day of our opening, we were slapped with a ten-day closure plus a S$1,000 fine, these owing to Safe Distancing Enforcement Officers having purportedly caught six diners gathered together, on the same day a new rule reducing dining limits to 5 pax per group was gazetted.


We had indeed broken the letter of the law through our negligence, nevertheless I regret the magnitude and harshness of its consequences being levied upon us, especially given our utter inexperience as first timer F&B entrepreneurs. I’m sure there are others like me out there, who, while admittedly concur that inexperience is inexcusable for non-compliance with existing regulations, would still very much appreciate the authorities cutting us some slack at their discretion instead of going the whole nine yards. Reluctantly, we accepted the punishments meted out and chose not to air our grievances.


Notably, this incident occurred 2 days prior to Minister Lawrence Wong announcing the implementation of Phase 2 Heightened Alert which banned dining-in altogether. The officers who dealt with us decided to only impose the closure order a day after P2HA was lifted, thus extending our “circuit-breaker” for another 10 days. Suffice to say this prolonged hellish experience severely drained our bank accounts, forcing us to cut back on part-time hires and personally taking on miscellaneous roles without pay.


Second Closure

Fast forward to 28 Aug 2021, merely 2.5 months later (mind you half this time occurred during P2HA and serving the initial closure order), we were slapped with a second closure order. It was almost 12 midnight, and my partner/bar manager Rishi, was mopping the floors and cleaning up while a few non-drinking customers remained on the premises. On the spur of the moment, Rishi removed one Budweiser beer from the fridge and chugged it himself, also letting another staff member take few sips as a token of appreciation for assisting with the cleanup.


Unbeknownst to us, enforcement officers were encamped outside, videotaping the whole incident. They subsequently barged into the bar and proceeded to pin the charge of selling alcohol (past 10.30pm) on us. Despite our best attempts to explain that there wasn't any purveying of alcohol whatsoever, they refuse to budge, citing requirement 13(1)(c) taken in tandem with paragraph 5 of the first schedule of the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures)(Control Order) Regulations 2020, which sketchily implied that even bar owners themselves could not consume alcohol after 10.30pm.


We appealed against the decision, however it got rejected within a day without any plausible reason furnished. Consequently, we were ordered to shut for 20 days and fined S$2,000. This nearly bankrupted us as we struggled to make rent by peddling our offerings through assorted online channels.


Liquor License Revocation Order

Past the 2nd closure order, we immediately tightened every foreseeable aspect of our operations, adamant about obeying every damn legislation to a T. We had Rishi take photos of the bar every night at 10.30pm sharp, and also ensure that all alcohol were cleared from the tables by then. Three weeks later, despite our valiant efforts, the SPF served a liquor license revocation order on us.


Despite dispatching two long letters of appeal one after another, the Liquor Licensing officer simply replied to us with tersely worded responses in the negative. Accordingly, us three partners sought assistance from our respective MPs. We were thus placed before a liquor appeal board to separately “adjudge” existing affairs. After toiling for 2 months, once again, it was a firm no, furthermore the decision was final. This pretty much sounded the death knell for our business, saddling us with a combined debt of close to $320,000.


Lest you wonder why I have taken the trouble to draft such a detailed account, truth is I seek nothing more than to put my story out there, and hope this will serve as a cautionary tale of sorts to all you folks eager to embark on your entrepreneurial pursuits.


Jonathan Foo


#bar #startup #liquorlicense #tenant

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