Elbert Cuenca bets on restaurants as entertainment
MANILA, Philippines – “Restaurants are the biggest gamble,” says Elbert Cuenca, who has been in restaurants all his life. It started from when his family ran the Furusato and Zen restaurants from 1970s to the 1990s, through his short-lived Restaurant 12 in the early 2000s. Now he has the Steak Room that turned his fortunes around, Elbert’s Sandwiches, and 3 ramen restaurants in Manila and Cebu.
He’s making his biggest bet now with Kazunori, where we interviewed him last week for What's the Big Idea?, days before its “very soft” opening. It’s his largest space and, in a departure from the focus you find in his other restaurants, this will have a cafe/bar in front, the sushi bar midway and a sit-down restaurant in the back. (WATCH: What's The Big Idea: Elbert Cuenca on creating restaurants)
Kazunori takes up half the ground floor of the Mazda dealership on Chino Roces Extension. A glass wall separates restaurant from showroom. Elbert, a well-known car aficionado, says he loves that because it is a carmaker like Mazda. He tells me about “koda,” Mazda’s current design philosophy. It means “soul of motion.”
One would have to be blind not to know we’re in a restaurant boom. But here are some stats. In Makati restaurants have increased from 1,900 in 2012 to 2,506 last year, according to the Urban Development Department. (That’s a bit over 7 percent a year.) SM says restaurants now take up 30 percent of mall space, from 10 percent as recently as five years ago. Ayala says it’s risen from 30 percent to 40 percent in recent years. Food establishments are literally eating into retail as millennials go for experience, not things.
A lot of the good and adventurous food is actually outside the malls, as restaurateurs bet they’re good enough to give up the foot traffic in malls in exchange for cheaper rent.
Until recently, Terry’s Bistro practically had Chino Roces Extension to itself. But in the last couple of years, Txanton, “M”, Mess Hall and others have popped up. Kazunori is almost a late-comer, or fashionably late.
That was not the case when Cuenca opened Elbert’s Steak Room in an old building Salcedo Village, Makati in 2007, just a few months before, Marivic Diaz-Lim put up Apartment 1-B just 500 meters away. Others had opened before or around that time but these two are the surviving pioneers of what is now a kind of restaurant row, with establishments like Wildflour doing brisk business from breakfast on.
There’s a similar scene across Ayala Avenue in Legazpi Village, and other clusters across Manila, from Maginhawa Street in Q.C., to Kapitolyo in Pasig, to Poblacion in Makati, to the BF area in Paranaque.
There are great restaurants too in Fort Bonifacio, where Elbert’s group is planning its fifth ramen restaurant, but because the area is so new and planned, it lacks the vibe that comes from old districts turning new.
Growth and ‘foodie culture’
The fuel is, of course, sustained economic growth. It means today’s young professionals have more money to spend on food and drinks, though not necessarily enough for a spacious apartment. It means more meetings, more of which happen out of offices. It means carmageddon, prompting some people enjoy food, drinks and company while waiting for it to subside.
“The heavy traffic makes it more practical to eat out before heading home,” says Malu Gamboa of the Cirkulo-Azuthai-Tsukiji-Milkyway group. “We are often busy as early as 6 p.m. when guests come straight from work, wait out the traffic over a fine meal, then head home after.”
Moms who work outside the home, with less time to manage family meals, may play a role as well. And having fewer kids than our parents did would make eating out easier on the pocket.
“In this day and age of instant gratification, it is much simpler, oftentimes cheaper to go to a restaurant to have a meal, especially for smaller families,” says Malu.
“The rise of condo living, heavy traffic, young families and households who now find it hard to get househelp much more a kusinera have made going to restaurants a practical option,” says Alvin Lim or the Hotel and Restaurant Association of the Philippines. “You would probably prefer getting served a meal rather than preparing a meal yourself after a full day's work.”
There is also “foodie culture,” Lim says. Which, for better or worse, includes not just seeking good food, but experiencing good or hip restaurants, and having the FB or IG post to prove it.
Catering to all senses
Elbert Cuenca eschews the name restaurateur, preferring to describe himself as an “entertainer” or even a “song-and-dance man.” In that, he actually captures the job as described in the book Art of the Restaurateur: An extraordinary vision for what their establishment to be, a sixth sense to divine what their customers want to eat and the surroundings to enjoy it in.
“The difference between us and any other form of entertainment is we cater to all your senses, every single sense.” More than a movie or a play, he says.
But a restaurateur also need to have the ability to hire and motivate staff, and run it profitably. In the Japanese restaurants, Elbert’s main partner is Ryan Cruz, to whom he leaves much of that.
“The whole Mendokoro and Kazunori is a team effort,” he says. “I owe it to Ryan a lot.”
“Ryan brought this idea to the table. He was the one who brought the Japanese partners, the technology, the contacts.”
“They came to me for the expertise when they wanted to do the business. It was me who brought the expertise. But now they can pretty much actually run it without me.”
Ryan, a Unilever alumnus, runs what he calls the back end, the business side. He is glued to his computer and phone both times I’ve seen him, though he puts them aside to chat about running restaurants, already his third career. “It’s a gift,” he says of working with his partners, chefs and staff.
Elbert had just gotten back from Japan where he and his wife were supposed to watch Jamiroquai, the British funk and acid jazz band. (I needed to Google that.) But the concert was canceled at the last minute because the lead singer got hospitalized. That might have inspired Elbert to wonder about how indispensable he is.
“The whole week I was in Japan, I was thinking to myself “Can the show go on without me?” and I realize, yeah, it can.”
But he wouldn’t want it to, when it comes to the Steak Room.
“The Steak Room is hard, because my name is there,” he says. “That’s my baby. That’s the one thing I probably would never give up.” – Rappler.com
Coco Alcuaz is a former Bloomberg News bureau chief and ANC business news head and anchor.