Situated a mere five minute walk away from my mother’s childhood home, weekend dinners at Corner Tree Café quickly became a heartfelt ritual for us. Since opening in 2009, the quaint restaurant always radiated a welcoming allure, perfectly embodying the notion of comfort food from the moment you gazed upon that towering Narra tree on the corner of Jupiter street.
Mind you, neither of us were vegetarian, let alone vegan. And yet something about the plant-based haunt drew us back time and again, persuading this junk-food-loving eleven-year-old to scoff down her carrot soup and veggie-fied arroz ala cubana.
Fast-forward twelve years later, and the endearing establishment remains well and truly alive, as humble and inviting as ever - albeit now with a second branch at Rockwell. Throughout this interview, it is evident that the restaurants’ charm blossoms from founder Chiqui Mabanta’s unwavering authenticity and earnest passion for serving food she believes in. Similarly, it illuminates that Corner Tree Café’s success was no stroke of luck - it is the fruit of Chiqui’s tireless commitment to her business, her staff, and her mission, even if it meant having to pick up and drop off each of the restaurant’s staff members so they could come into work over lockdown.
Read on for more personal and professional lessons and insights from the restaurant’s visionary.
What was it like to be one of the pioneers in promoting vegetarian and vegan food in Metro Manila?
I am really proud to have helped put vegetarian and vegan cuisine into the consciousness of meat-centric Manila. When we opened twelve years ago, it felt great to know that I was attracting hardcore meat-eaters who had never dreamt of stepping foot inside a vegetarian restaurant. It feels even better to know that they have not only accepted that you could survive a meal without meat - they downright love our food.
Corner Tree Cafe just celebrated a massive milestone in 2019 - your 10-year anniversary. 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?
Although it sounds a bit cliché, staying authentic is key. Putting out food that you love and not food that you think “they” will like… I have never done consumer studies to see if this or that would work. If I had, I may have even gotten discouraged by the results. I've gotten a lot of advice, both good and bad. In the end, I went with my instincts and just kept this in mind: “If I love it, others will too”. Of course, trying to maintain the consistency and quality of the food and service is crucial as well.