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Johor Bahru facing intense cook competition with Singapore

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JOHOR BAHRU - Eateries in Johor Bahru are facing a double whammy as they struggle to employ and retain cooks while also coping with the surge in the number of customers following the reopening of the border with Singapore.

Johor Baru Cooks Association president John Ang said there is intense competition among restaurant and coffee shop owners for cooks, with many now offering higher salaries to attract workers.

“The lack of cooks problem has been going on for many years in Johor Bahru due to our proximity to Singapore, but it seems to have become more serious since the reopening of the border last year.

“Many of our local cooks returned to Singapore, where they could get at least three times the pay compared to working here.

“This came when the food business here was booming, as people were now free to dine without Covid-19 restrictions.

“To retain the cooks, many eatery owners have been offering higher salaries. In general, the salary of a cook in Johor Bahru has increased by about 30 per cent now compared to pre-pandemic times,” he told The Star.

He said this has also contributed to a further increase in the price of food in restaurants and coffee shops.

“The competition among eateries to retain cooks, coupled with the increase in the price of goods, has contributed to food being more expensive in such eateries here,” he added.

Meanwhile, Johor Baru Business and Hawker Association president Roland Lim, a coffee shop owner, said businesses with foreign workers face difficulties in training their cooks.

“Most of our foreign workers, including those we have trained in the service line for years, have returned to their home countries due to the pandemic.

“We are now getting new workers who are inexperienced, and we need to train them again. Some eateries also had to remove certain dishes from their menu because their workers could not cook them.

“Some of the foreign workers who are now in the food and beverage industry are also those who are meant to work in the construction sector. They have no cooking skills at all, and we need to take the time to teach them how to cook our local food,” he said.

Due to the lack of cooks, some restaurants are also “pinching” foreign workers from other sectors.

“The competition to get cooks is becoming more and more intense. Some businesses have resorted to “stealing” workers from others due to desperation.

“Since the demand for cooks is high, many foreign workers feel that they have more options and are willing to take up the offers from other restaurants,” he said.

Pan Malaysia Koo Soo Restaurants and Coffee Shops Association president Wong Teu Hoon said another contributing factor is that many cooks have now opened their own businesses.

“During the pandemic, many cooks lost their jobs as restaurants could not retain them. To earn a living, a significant number of these former cooks started their own businesses or ventured into other fields.

“Now that business is in full swing, many restaurants are facing difficulties in getting back the workers they retrenched,” he said.

Mr Wong, also the Malaysia-Singapore Coffee Shop Proprietors’ General Association president, said the shortage of cooks affects every region of the nation.

“This is not a problem that is only happening in Johor but all over the country. However, it is more serious in Johor,” he said.

Restaurant owner Lennox Cheok said most of those who prefer Singapore are younger cooks in their 20s or 30s.

“There are those who will gain some experience for a few months to about a year here before looking for a job in the cooking line in Singapore.

“There are also groups on messaging apps dedicated to promoting job opportunities in the food and beverage industry in Singapore.

“In my case, I have sufficient cooks as I managed to retain all of them during the pandemic. My local cooks are also those who have worked here for over a decade and are less keen to find other opportunities across the border,” he said.

A customer from Kuala Lumpur who went to Johor Bahru last week to visit his in-laws said he was surprised when the restaurant he usually frequented removed some of his favourite dishes from the menu.

“I asked why, and the lady owner told me it would take some time before they could prepare those dishes.

“When I inquired further, she said it was because the cook had left to join a restaurant in Singapore.

“I was disappointed to hear that,” he said. — THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK