From the forced hiatus of her Bizu restaurants to the loss of her father, Bizugroupe’s Owner and CEO discloses the heartbreaking realities she’s faced over the pandemic - and how she tackled them with integrity and fortitude.

Throughout the Metro, Parisian pastries remain inextricably bound to the Bizu brand, with one particular confection highlighted as the brand's hallmark - Macaron de Paris. When I scoffed down my first-ever French macaron (from Bizu, no less), I was enamoured by its crisp shell, addictively chewy interior, and luscious buttercream filling. I was awe-struck by the vibrant colours and delicious flavours Bizu proudly showcased at their pâtisserie: the deep, dark chocolate; the delicate and playful pink rose; the bold crimson raspberry; and many more - through the salted caramel is my personal weakness. 

It comes as no surprise that these delectable pastries are what drove Annabel Tanco to open Bizu Pâtisserie and Bistro. She had long wished that someone would bring her favourite Macron de Paris to her home country - “I decided that I would be that someone”, she beams.

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The Bizugroupe has since flourished to include the Bizu Catering Studio and a health-oriented café serving wholesome comfort food. Amidst the pandemic, Bizu also launched its website to provide refined delivery services and innovative at-home experiences like DIY cake making sessions and “Zoom Meals”. In addition, Annabel mentions that a commissary is in the works, and divulges her newest project: a bed and breakfast retreat at the foot of Mount Banahaw. “I find that there are a lot of interesting things to do and create nowadays, even when a business has slowed down”, she says, “I actually find myself busier now”.

Recounting the numerous changes the group has adopted to survive the pandemic, Annabel’s quick-thinking and headstrong attitude shine through. However, as she faced the burdening financial challenges brought by the pandemic and the loss of her father late last year, Annabel also demonstrates an inspirational inner strength. Read on to learn more about Annabel’s foodie beginnings, skilful business savvy, and everything in between.

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Could you please give us an update on any news or changes? What else have you been up to professionally?

My longtime friend Jeannie Javelosa introduced me to the beauty of our country’s sacred mountain, Mount Banahaw back in 2019. Even before then, she had continually encouraged me to embark on a project with her - to turn a home in Mount Banahaw into a bed and breakfast retreat. She was a dear friend of a well-known spiritual healer in the area, the late Mr Boyet Fajardo. Jeannie then introduced me to his family, who was kind enough to allow me to stay at their home during the lockdown back in March 2020. Now, Jeannie, Dedes Zobel, and I are creating this wonderful retreat at the foot of Mount Banahaw which we can hopefully open soon. In the meantime, you may follow us on Instagram at Banahaw Circle Nature Retreat.

As for my core business Bizu, we recognised that we had to quickly adapt to the changing business climate brought about by the pandemic. As early as a month into the lockdown, we launched our e-commerce platform, which delivers gourmet food gifts, cakes, and pastries for all your special occasions. We continue to make beautiful pastries and luxurious food specialities for our clients, as we have from the beginning - but this time, we deliver it to your loved ones or to your own homes. We also launched Zoom Meals for people working from home, Family Sets for intimate family gatherings, and even a Kiddie Party line for parents to send to their children’s friends.

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What was it like growing up in a foodie family?

I remember in third grade, during summer breaks, my mom would enrol all of us girls in various cooking schools in Manila and Makati. My father loved it because we would bake apple pies, chocolate cakes, lasagnas, cannelloni, beef pies and so much more for him to dig into. He loved our apple pie and chocolate cake! We knew how to make gyoza at an early age. My mum’s Shanghainese cooking really influenced us, too - her Chinese lumpia was always a favourite. Food became a passion for all of us siblings because that’s what we naturally knew about and were exposed to growing up. It’s actually become a subconscious knowledge for us, it’s innate.

With travel, our knowledge of food expanded even further. During a vacation, a friend once remarked “Annie, don’t you ever stop eating?” to which I replied, “I’m already thinking of what we’re having next.” That’s how much of a foodie I was, and still am today. It just came to a point when I realised that I had to make better, healthier food choices that were still delicious. And that’s how Happy Garden Cafe came about - our restaurant serving comforting yet healthy and wholesome meals.

What drove you to open Bizu? Why did you pursue French fare and Parisian pastries in particular?

I have always loved Paris. It’s sexy, it smells good, it’s intoxicatingly beautiful. The art, the food, the way the table is set, the glorious flower arrangements in the lobbies of plush hotels, and most of all, the intricate pastries displayed in vitrines, never fail to amaze me. It had been a long-time dream that one day someone might put up a good patisserie in Manila so I could have my favourite Macaron de Paris, sit down and have some tea, and enjoy watching people go by. I decided that I would be that someone. And so I set my heart to it.

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How did the pandemic affect and change the way you run the restaurant from service to menu and food? What changes are here to stay?                                                                        

We are in an evolutionary change, and only time will tell what changes stay and what the new norm will look like. You cannot force, dictate, nor control what will happen that belongs to God and not to man.

However, the pandemic taught us to be resilient - a trait we will carry with us moving forward. We cannot make decisions based on fear alone. We do a lot of research and critical thinking before making major decisions because these affect our operations and the lives of the people working in the organisation. Be accepting of the future of the business you are in and be creative, be strategic. Keep reviewing your costs and marketing strategy. Keep trying new ideas knowing that both failure and success are part of the process. Always be true to yourself and to others, especially to your customers.

What will certainly remain are the basic principles of love, kindness, freedom, honesty, and gratitude in anything that comes your way. Most importantly, we must remain authentic and real with both ourselves and others. It is important to create food that is authentic, make a positive impact, and provide service that is heartfelt.

What COVID-19-related measures do you think are here to stay (even post-pandemic) and how do you feel about them?

At Bizu, we have adapted and implemented the recommendations of international and local advisory bodies with regard to safety in the workplace and restaurants. The safety of our employees and our customers is of the utmost importance. Unfortunately, COVID-19 and its variants continue to be a relevant threat, and we just have to live with that fact. I don’t know for sure what measures will stay, but as I’ve said I wholeheartedly believe in the resilience of Filipinos and that we will continue to adapt and thrive.

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Did you decide to offer takeaway/delivery? Why/why not and how has the response been?

At the beginning of the lockdown, we recognised the need to continue our operations to provide our customers with the comfort food and pastries, freshly baked bread, and celebration cakes that we’ve grown to be known for. While most of the other F&B brands shut down, we continued serving our customers by activating - our e-commerce platform where you can order all of your Bizu favourites and have them delivered to your doorstep. We offer creative parties and party tray sets that you can have in your home, without the hassle of preparing the menu and food yourself. Our all-occasion food gifts are perfect for letting someone know that you care deeply about them, despite the distance the pandemic has demanded.

We recognised that amidst the lockdown and cancellations of gatherings, people still needed to celebrate life’s joys. The response has been pretty successful so far. Our customers have transitioned to this medium quite smoothly. In fact, I believe that our e-commerce shop is here to stay.

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What unexpected opportunities arose from the pandemic for you?

The need for Zoom meals was a new idea. Because of the work-from-home setup, Zoom meetings became a constant. For our corporate clients, there was a need to provide their employees satisfying delicious meals during Zoom meetings as a motivating incentive and token of appreciation. Throughout the pandemic, countless wedding and birthday parties followed through as well, even if on Zoom. So we created menus that would be perfect for these events.

How did you make the most of the virtual space during the pandemic?

We created several themed DIY cake decorating kits where parents, kids, and their friends can have fun decorating their own cakes while watching a complimentary online cake decorating class. It was exciting to see how different each cake turned out, despite having the same theme. Plus, we enjoyed extra mileage on social media when they post their creations.

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How did the pandemic impact your cooking and eating habits, whether at home or at the restaurant?

I became more conscious about what I ate because I spent most of my time at home and consequently had less physical activity. During my time in Banahaw, I learned to cook simpler dishes and utilise fresh produce that was available in the area. I also appreciated talking to the farmers themselves and learning how to cook new dishes from the locals.

What did you learn about yourself outside of work during these challenging times? Did you pick up any new skills, hobbies, or passions during the pandemic?

During the first lockdown in March 2020, I found myself alone in Mount Banahaw - and I decided to stay there because it was secluded and safe. I learned how to climb the mountain and explored its caves, each brimming with mystical vibrations. I learned to live the way the locals were living. I immersed myself in the culture of the place. Meditation became a major part of my daily routine. I learned the techniques of Dr Joe Dispenza on how you can let your mind control your body instead of letting your body control you - I can have a new “me” by not letting the past control my mind, body, and emotions anymore. It felt like the mountain was changing me like I was going through purification.

Then, my father passed away in October 2020 - that was a sad time, and it still is. I had to get a hold of myself and become even stronger through prayers and meditation. I tried to disassociate myself with the all-encompassing vibrations of fear and anxiety. In the end, I do believe that no matter what, God is and will always be in control.

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What advice do you have to other restaurateurs and chefs?

Stay mean and lean in your operations. Embrace the changes that are happening and adapt quickly. Be a think-tank of endless creativity and possibilities. Innovation is always challenging at first, but it will boost productivity in the long run.

How do you think consumers/diners can best support you and the F&B industry in the short term, and the longer term?

The food retail business is a challenging space to be in, but I believe that people will always indulge in affordable food luxuries, even despite the pandemic. Our brands are all open in the malls, our website is easily accessible, and we are also established in popular delivery platforms. We often come out with promotions, too - think of Bizu when you want something special for yourself or for your loved ones.

What do you think the future holds for F&B in the PH? And looking further into the future, how do you think restaurants and the experience of dining out will change as a result of the pandemic?

I personally believe things will go back to pre-pandemic times when people dine and meet each other out without sacrificing one’s safety. It’s beginning to happen already in certain parts of the world. Restaurants are here to stay, and we are grateful that technology today has aided us in the way we can now scale and distribute our food to places beyond our own brick and mortar space. 

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