That the restaurant industry is one of the most affected by the pandemic is painfully obvious with the shuttering of both new players and established favorites. Anyone who has ventured out to the malls or passed by their city’s restaurant rows would know.
While the strict lockdowns, including the one we are currently in, are for the greater good, they have been difficult for businesses that rely on a steady stream of dining customers. The pandemic has forced everyone to roll with the punches.
Last week, three restaurant owners participated in an Inquirer Lifestyle webinar where they talked about how they are operating in a world still in the grips of a pandemic.
Margarita Fores of Cibo, Grace Park and Lusso; Marvin Agustin of Sumo Sam and Johnny Chow; and Eric Dee of Foodee Global Concepts (Mesa, Tim Ho Wan, Kam’s Roast) all agreed that businesses need to quickly adapt in order to survive.
For Agustin, the current situation has forced him and his team to “rethink and restrategize” how they operate their food businesses while also taking care of their customers and employees.
“It’s a very challenging time, but the health of our staff is a priority. We just hope that the vaccinations are sped up, and that the government adjusts and allows businesses to operate if staff is fully vaccinated,” Fores said.
Dee and the Foodee team were one of the first to pivot last year, which helped them immensely. “Now it’s just like a switch we turn on or off. Whether it’s ECQ or GCQ, we know how many people will be working in the restaurant, what hours, and which restaurants are open. We’re learning as we go, and improving in that sense,” Dee said.
All three had to learn as much as they could about the available technology and how to harness it for their use.
Fores admitted to not being tech-savvy, but acknowledged the need to “build one e-commerce site for all our brands.” They looked at Pizza Hut—which is also their family’s brand—to get an idea of how to set something up for Cibo. They started by getting a dedicated phone number and several seats in their online call center.
“We’re trying to integrate all of that so we have something more centralized because now, everybody goes online to order food and to get their stuff delivered,” she said.
Agustin is thankful for social media and other tech innovations, as these allowed them to still connect with their customers, especially during strict lockdowns.
“I had to learn fast. I had to learn how to maximize the technology available to complement my old and new business models,” he said. Beyond looking out for his brands, Agustin also tapped YouTube with his channel to help promote smaller entrepreneurs trying to survive the pandemic.
Fores said that the industry has changed because aside from existing brands, there are also a lot of home cooks that have cropped up and are “making the scene and industry more interesting and vibrant.”
What the three panelists noted is that even with the rise of these new competitors, the vibe on the playing field is not combative. There’s a willingness to help each other out, move forward and hopefully survive the challenges posed by the pandemic, Fores said.
As one of the early adopters when it came to digitalization, Dee was also one of the first to put up eight cloud kitchens in Manila, Cebu and Pampanga. A cloud kitchen (or ghost kitchen) is similar to a commissary but prepares delivery-only meals. He is also working with aggregators to streamline and make food delivery more efficient.
“I think ghost kitchens, cloud kitchens are the next big thing. They complement what we already have. When it comes to food delivery, our objective is to ensure that what customers ultimately receive is of high quality. It’s a new revenue stream for us,” Dee said.
Fores, for her part, converted the 200-sqm first level of White Space in Makati into her commissary and for her son Amado Fores’ Ramen Ron ramen kits.
“It’s become an assembly line for all the food we’re doing. All of us are shifting, quickly responding and just maximizing whatever logistics we have to fit the needs of the new brands that we’re offering,” she said. “Throw us the balls from left field—we’ll adjust.”
Agustin is aware of the possibilities of cloud kitchens, but has no plans of turning his back on the dining experience.
“I don’t think the restaurant experience will ever be replaced by food delivery. It’s always nice to eat out, enjoy the ambience, the service and not worry about the dishes or cleaning up after. Fortunately, customers have a range of options,” Agustin said.
They’re no longer limited to ordering from traditional restaurants because now there are home-based cooks, food operators and ghost kitchens.
“Customers always want options and will always look for newer ones,” Agustin added.
New developments, offerings
Despite no in-face meetings and social gatherings, Fores has been able to find and fill a need that has arisen during the pandemic.
“What’s really quite in demand are our food kits for Zoom events because people still want to eat together even if they can’t be physically together,” she said. Now, Fores gets orders for their “bento box kits” for 20 to 30 people attending a virtual event.
“That’s a new product from us that we’re trying to perfect. We include reheating instructions and indicate what items need to be kept chilled.”
Dee, who is in Los Angeles, California, doing R&D, has been looking at innovative packaging like self-heating containers and containers that keep food crunchy. “What we’re trying to do is find new ways to transcend the delivery experience,” he said.
Agustin and his team have been thinking up healthier alternatives because “you don’t want to be ordering junk food every day.”
“We need to take care of our bodies and eat healthier. I also see an expansion into plant-based options,” he said.
For those dependent on online deliveries, your options are evolving, growing. Just remember to tip your courier.
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