Through their ten-year tenure in the dining industry, Crystal and David Sison had yet to face a challenge as unpredictable or relentless as the COVID-19 pandemic. The owners of the ever-growing Mama Lou’s empire reflect on the growth of their brand and illuminate how they’ve persisted to come out on top.

Mama Lou’s Italian Kitchen - or simply and lovingly, Mama Lou’s - has been an institution of comfort for over a decade. In anticipation of this interview, members of the Tatler team exchanged fond memories of and favourite dishes from the beloved establishment, gushing about their vongole olio, indulgent lasagna, and many more. Although the pandemic’s obstructive consequences continue to plague the industry, Mama Lou’s admirably manages to maintain their momentum, sustaining their restaurants while expanding their brand across different platforms.

Recently, Mama Lou’s pivoted towards and emphasised their online presence: from improving their website, to launching their hotline, and further integrating social media platforms into their marketing and operations efforts. Simultaneously, Mama Lou’s continued to support their team through ongoing in-house leadership workshops and transitioning the roles of restaurant servers and cashiers to delivery riders, ensuring continued employment. The chain also streamlined its menu and professionalised its commissary (which now holds 90 per cent of its restaurant offerings), allowing the company to centralise their operations and combat economic challenges while preserving the consistency and quality of its food.

We spoke to Crystal T. Sison, Mama Lou’s managing director, and David P. Sison, the company’s president and CEO, to learn more about their latest experiences running their restaurants. As they divulge their insights into the future of the hospitality industry and recount the strategies they implemented to face the pandemic, Crystal and David demonstrate that business know-how and innovative foresight underpin the success story that is Mama Lou’s - a welcoming comfort food empire from humble beginnings.

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Could you tell us a bit about Mama Lou - the namesake figure behind the restaurant’s name, as well as the restaurant brand?

Crystal Sison: Mama Lou's Italian Kitchen Restaurant was born out of a real kitchen, a modest one in our family home in Las Piñas. We opened our doors to guests in 2010, welcoming them with warm Filipino hospitality on every visit. My mum, Malou Tremblay, was the inspiration behind our restaurant's name - Mama Lou's symbolises love, and I think we can all agree that nothing compares to a mother's love.

We envision Mama Lou's to be the leading Italian kitchen for every family. We are always about making memorable moments.

How did the pandemic affect and change the way you run the restaurant from service to menu and food?

David Sison: We needed to find ways to offer Filipino hospitality and our Italian specialities to every home, so we brought our delivery and take-out services online. We're currently available on the Mama Lou’s website, Gcash (GLIFE), and our new hotline #MAMA (#6262), as well as Grab Food & Foodpanda. 

In addition, we’ve explored more opportunities to bring diners the dishes they love and satisfy whatever it is they’re craving for, in the most convenient ways. This sprouted our newest delivery-only concept: Mama Foods Cloud Kitchen. It is the newest delivery platform in town, housing a variety of premium brands like Mama Lou's, Mexigo, and Chicken Gaga, to name a few. As the name suggests, it operates as a cloud kitchen, so you can order multiple cuisines and have them delivered together. 

Finally, we’ve integrated contactless service for dine-in, emphasising the importance of safety and peace of mind on your visits. You just have to scan the code to see our menu and place your orders directly from your smartphones.

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

David: The increased investment and consideration in packaging is definitely a significant shift. Now more than ever, the packaging used for take-out plays a central role in the diners’ experience as we rely on it to preserve the quality of the food we make. It’s important that the food still looks appetising, whether consumed at the restaurant or ordered for take-out or delivery. Quality packaging means quality food, and makes for delighted diners - it even invites guests to share their photos online!

We also use packaging to communicate with our customers, including handwritten notes to convey love and care to our guests. Beyond this and branding, we also let them know how they can order again. Finally, we get to show how much we value their health and safety. We use traceability stickers with details such as who prepared the dish and when the orders were made, assuring guests that they get their food fresh from our kitchen.

Did you decide to offer takeaway/delivery? How has the response been?

David: Yes - during the lockdown, we had to quickly decide to offer delivery in order to survive. It was a decision appreciated by many of our guests since not a lot of restaurants were open at the time. Ultimately we’ve learned a lot, and continue to learn as we embrace the new norms that prevail.

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What unexpected opportunities arose from the pandemic for you?

David: One unexpected opportunity for Mama Lou’s is that spaces that were previously not available for us before, are now being offered to the brand. Next month, we are opening our 11th Mama Lou’s branch in Skyranch Tagaytay. As mentioned, this tumultuous period also brought about the birth of our delivery-only food concept, with five virtual restaurant brands under Mama foods.

Moreover, we definitely benefited from being a company that always embraced technology and introduced new solutions to our existing operations. Back in 2017, we acquired a Facebook messenger ordering system - a decision that surely gave us a boost and lent us an opportunity to be ahead of the industry.

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

David: Virtual spaces became crucial throughout the pandemic; internally, our head office and restaurant team collaborated remotely using video calls and chats via our communication platforms, which became an invaluable tool for us to stay in contact despite gruelling lockdowns. As for the brand - we're looking forward to celebrating our 11th-year milestone online via Facebook Live with our guests and team members.

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

David: During this time, we felt an increased yearning for soothing comfort food. This inspired us to create the most comforting dish you could ever order - our baked truffle risotto with salpicao, or as we like to call it, the Trufficao. Born out of the pandemic, this dish was aptly inspired by the sushi bake trend, and today it is one of the most popular dishes our guests love to order.

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?

Crystal: I am blessed to both live and work with such a bright optimist like David. I believe this really helped me and the entire team stay focused on our goals and prevented us from galling discouraged, especially during the early days of the lockdown.

David: I truly appreciated the courses online found on platforms like Master Class, Mindvalley, and Headspace (for meditation), to help me in different aspects of my life.

What challenges did you overcome as a restaurateur/chef?

David: Despite a drastic decrease in sales the company was able to remain operational, largely because we stayed hyper-focused on the numbers -  particularly labour & food costs. In addition, the malls very kindly extended several concessions to help us stay afloat and survive.

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How have you maintained and grown such a strong brand over the last decade, and what are the most significant lessons you’ve learned about running successful restaurants for that long?

Crystal & David: Admit what you did wrong, learn from it, and never cease to make it right. We believe that understanding can go a long way. Admitting your mistakes will not make you any less reputable as a brand - instead, it will even make your guests realise that your brand has a heart.

There are instances where we failed to deliver the memorable experience that we’ve promised. But we stopped at nothing to make it right. I always tell my team to embrace the fact that committing a mistake is all part of the growth process, and the important thing is that you learn from it. As a restaurant owner, I believe that it is our responsibility to establish that “learning” culture and make room for improvement so that when our team has to win back a guest that we almost lost, we’re confident that we’ve equipped them with all the knowledge and understanding they need to accomplish that with sincerity.

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

David: Get vaccinated so we can reach “herd immunity”. Through the Bakuna benefit campaign, our restaurant offers exclusive discounts for those vaccinated. We are proud to share that our team is 90 per cent fully vaccinated as of this interview. 

In this online world, we encourage our guests to share their experiences online, such as through Facebook reviews and Google My Business reviews - these are small but effective actions that have a great impact on the decision-making of guests who want to try our restaurant.

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