Cover Photo: Ramen Ron PH Official Facebook Page

How does a restaurant survive the pandemic? Where is the industry headed? Margarita Forés, Marvin Agustin, and Eric Dee draw from their experiences as successful restaurateurs and share valuable must-know insights.

COVID-19 restrictions had eased up in recent months, teasing citizens with a veil of normalcy as patrons revisited their favourite haunts, and restaurants slowly resumed usual operations. However, the recent stringent lockdown implemented on 6 August 2021, sharply demystified that presumption, leaving restaurants with no choice but to revert back to take-away and deliveries alone, if at all.

“It’s been a real rollercoaster for us,” says celebrated chef Margarita Forés, sharing “things were going so well up to last month. Our restaurant sales were almost back to normal”. FooDee Global Concepts COO and Kraver’s Canteen co-founder Eric Thomas Dee echoes Forés’ observation, adding “now we’re back to square one”.

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However, the repeated restrictions have equipped these professionals with the experience needed to face these now-familiar challenges head-on. Reflecting back on the first round of ECQ, actor-turned-restaurateur and cloud concept entrepreneur Marvin Agustin recalls that “we all had to rethink, re-strategise, and relearn what we knew”. While the pandemic's developing and unprecedented obstacles remain, Dee states “we’re learning as we go, but this time we’re more prepared”.

In a discussion moderated by food writer and cookbook author Angelo Comsti, Forés, Dee, and Agustin share these essential learnings to empower aspiring restaurateurs hoping to achieve the same success. Read on for shining examples of how to pivot your business model to stay afloat, must-know insights about the surge of cloud kitchens, and more.

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Keys To Success: Flexibility & Resilience

Even the most experienced in the industry were blindsided by the debilitating consequences of COVID-19. But instead of allowing themselves to be backed into a corner, these successful restaurateurs employed flexibility and resilience, adapting their product offering, operations, and even marketing strategies.

Over the pandemic, Forés shared that Cibo drastically shrunk its menu offering to offset the costs of inventory and the challenges of operating with 50 per cent of the workforce. To provide their front-of-house staff with continued finance, the brand also rolled out in-house deliveries, prioritising fragile or large-scale orders. Highlighting the importance of flexibility, Forés remarks “where [third-party deliveries work], we use it, where it doesn't work for the kind of deliveries we have to do, we do it in-house”.

On the other hand, Dee shares that they actually added to their product offerings at FooDee Group, jumping onto the trends of sushi bake and created new concepts like Let's Get Litson with great prosperity. While these trendy items are typically incorporated as seasonal offerings which brands can “introduce and kill very quickly”, these dishes have continued to be among their best-performing to date.

Additionally, the pandemic has placed a greater onus on restaurants to pursue active and multi-platform marketing strategies. “We have to be the ones to remind them that we’re still around”, shares Forés. Agustin concurs, asserting that we should use ”social media, email customers, [and even] text customers, wala nang hiya-hiya ngayon (there's no use being shy nowadays)”.

Move fast to adapt to the cadence of technology.
Angelo Comsti

Cloud Kitchens Are The Next Big Thing

‘Cloud kitchen’ seems to be the biggest buzzword in the food industry at the moment, and for good reason. Citing Euromonitor, Agustin declares that the cloud kitchen industry is set to be a “trillion-dollar global opportunity by 2030”. Restaurants are no longer just competing with other dine-in restaurants. Beyond the many home cooks who have now opened their kitchens to public orders, restaurants must contend with the cloud kitchen giants who have entered the market, like Eric Dee’s Kraver’s Canteen.

These online, take-away only platforms offer users unmatched convenience and a variety of options, attracting more and more customers and restaurants to the digital landscape. To adapt, Forés had to act quickly and review the resources at her disposal, repurposing her defunct event space to a kitchen hub for Ramen Ron

Conversely, Dee reveals that FooDee was already in the process of digitisation when the pandemic hit, which allowed them to zone in on efficiency and innovation. Rather than just integrating technology to avoid being left behind by the industry, they’re finding new ways to utilise technology to improve the customer experience. It’s no longer about wrapping food in a take-out container and sending it out for delivery - it’s about creating “delivery-optimised food”.

As Comsti summarises, “you have to move fast to adapt to the cadence of technology.” But despite these developments, the panellists concurred that these cloud concepts will not, and cannot replace the restaurant experience. “[It’s like] Netflix, cinema, TV”, observes Agustin - all different options and different platforms, but none quite like the other. Yet, while it doesn’t replace the restaurant experience, Dee says digitisation and cloud kitchens are “a new revenue stream” that must be a component of your operations.

Future Developments

The panellists also touched on aggregators: the popular third-party delivery services that link customers to restaurants. While establishing your own website or platform for deliveries certainly has its benefits (such as foregoing the often steep aggregator fees), Dee notes that working with these aggregators also offers its own advantages. Most notably, he stresses the burden of acquisition costs, emphasising that aggregators on the other hand have “already spent the money to draw the traffic of the users”. His suggestion? Balance off your exposure with aggregators while trying to win over the customers to drive them to your platform directly. And if that fails - “if you can’t beat them, you join them”.

The group reminds us of future trends and the need to be mindful of the importance of sustainability. There is a growing need for packaging that’s primed to retain the quality of food but is also affordable and sustainable. We’ve already seen the introduction of new, creative packaging that elevates the delivery experience like self-heating containers, but with restaurants leaning on deliveries and takeaways, the cost of food packaging and the amount of waste is skyrocketing. Ultimately, Agustin notes that it’s not just about the financial costs, but it’s also about the environmental costs. “The environment will suffer”, he underscores, declaring “if we can use as [little] packaging as possible, we should”.

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Content from this feature was sourced from Food vs. Pandemic: Evolution of Dining in the PH, a webinar by Inquirer Lifestyle.

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