Cover Photo: Neal Oshima

Corner Tree Café pioneered Manila’s plant-based dining scene in 2009. In this interview, founder Chiqui Mabanta picks apart the growth of our local vegan and vegetarian scene, highlights the importance of authenticity and perseverance, and solemnly reflects on the sombre realities of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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.

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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. 

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How have you observed consumer preferences changing over the past decade or so? Where do you think it’s headed? 

I would say for the first five years after opening, I had ZERO competition. Five years later, vegan restaurants started popping up and have taken it even farther. There is now increased awareness about the benefits of a plant-based diet. People are more concerned about issues like how our health is affected by what we eat, animal cruelty, and the effects of meat production on our planet, and that's a good thing. Nowadays, most restaurants have vegan options on their menu, so it is clear that this movement is rapidly growing. These days there are also many meat-like alternatives in the market.

As Einstein said, “nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” 

What are some of the changes have you implemented at the restaurant in light of the pandemic? How has your role at the restaurant shifted as a result?

Throughout the pandemic, the rules were unpredictable and ever-changing. We decided to reopen quite early, around April of last year. My role became the driver - literally; I had to pick up staff from their homes and then drive them back home every two weeks since there was no public transportation for a few months.  We started out with just delivery and pick up, then they allowed dine-in, then they limited it to outdoor dining only. Luckily, I realised that we could put some tables outside our café under the giant (corner) tree! So that’s one change – we now have al fresco dining at our Jupiter Street branch.

We also have frozen food added to our menu. People have told me they are life-savers.

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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? 

Well, a lot has changed in the past year. As we know, it has been a struggle for most of the restaurant industry - and we were not spared. Like everyone, we have had to rely on the delivery market, but third-party delivery companies eat a huge chunk of our sales. While we are doing okay with that, I believe part of the magic was being able to actually go to our café and bask in its atmosphere. Now, people are slowly coming back - finally! I got a nice taste of this during Valentine's Day this year where we had three shifts for outdoor dining, and we were full for all three, both inside and outside. That buzz felt a bit nostalgic of pre-pandemic times. We haven’t gotten that full of course, but I’m happy that people are coming back to dine with us.

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

I am hoping all the pandemic measures go away, haha. I am not crazy about having to take people’s temperatures (how effective is that, really?) but all these measures indicate fear and it is never a nice feeling to be dining with so many precautions. Of course, we comply, but I can’t wait for the day we don’t have to, and we go back to the “old normal”. 

One of the measures I am devastated about is having to halve our staff’s work hours since we haven’t met our normal sales metrics yet. Again, I am looking forward to the day they can all return to work normal hours. 

What unexpected opportunities arose from the pandemic for you? 

I am afraid I am “old school” and have not been as innovative as others. I am the sole person running this company – I don’t have a team of millennials helping me out, so I have to rely on my own initiatives. For me, it was more of a personal gain – I got to know my four-year-old daughter who I barely saw pre-pandemic. That was the unexpected gift this pandemic presented me with.

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

I did attend some online workshops, but the true breakthrough for me was finally learning how to use Canva and getting to do my own social media posts without having to hire a millennial.

At the moment, we are also in the process of getting into e-commerce. The website is still under construction but I feel like this will help us a lot.

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

I would love it if they ordered directly from us rather than through third-party delivery apps which take out a huge chunk (20-25 per cent off the bill!) – for pick up. This is a challenge for many restaurants. And maybe foregoing the discounts during this period would help a lot as well, since they also take out a big chunk of our earnings - which has already fallen significantly because of the pandemic.

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

Since we have been eating at home more often, I have been enjoying home-cooked meals. I never really got into getting meals delivered that much. Sure, a pizza every so often - but mostly, I have been eating home-cooked meals with my daughter. 

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? 

Oh, Italian lessons. I’ve been studying Italian pre-pandemic but classes got even more intense during the pandemic. I still go out often - to my restaurants, grocery, etc. - so I don’t really feel like I’ve been cooped up. I drive a lot too, which I love. At the start of the lockdown when everyone was stuck in their houses, I was something like a frontliner to pick up staff, and the roads were empty. I really loved driving during those days.

What challenges did you overcome as a restaurateur/chef? 

The challenges haven’t ended for us. We are surviving, and that is my goal. It is a challenge for someone “old school” like me but I will just have to keep at it.

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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?

Well, we already see how things have changed as a result of the pandemic – we are one of the hardest hit industries. I’ve seen many restaurants close. It is especially heartbreaking for the ones who opened right before or even during the pandemic - or worse yet, the ones who never got to open at all. The same goes for all the classic old-timers who just were not fit to accommodate the restrictions demanded by the pandemic (i.e. some fine-dining places). 

Looking into the future, I guess people are thinking of maximising outdoor spaces. I also anticipate people leaning further into casual dining, less expensive experiences. 

What advice do you have to other restaurateurs and chefs? 

To hang in there if they can, but if they have to close, to let go and hopefully reopen when things improve. Or to innovate and explore other avenues to make the restaurant work. Others have been successful at this – coming up with meal kits, new dishes etc. It is a business we love, but there is no one solution. We all just need to try to do what works for us. And I guess the best advice I can offer is to keep trying. 

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