How to stand out in the local food scene

MANILA, Philippines – The restaurant scene in the Philippines is growing, and fiercely so, what with international and hype-worthy franchises like Ippudo, Ladurée, and Tim Ho Wan – the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant – setting up shop in the Metro. This poses a huge challenge for budding restaurateurs. How can small, local businesses make their mark on local foodie culture?

The answer is simple: while mainstream competition has taken a hold on the bid for popularity, they simply cannot compete with the charm of a humble and intimate startup. After all, it’s the local brands that know their market best, and successfully foster stronger ties with their community.

Take Pepita’s Kitchen by Dedet dela Fuente, where the owner started off by hosting homey and indulgent lechon degustations in her own home. Her famous stuffed lechon along with her other kitchen experiments have not only earned her a special place in the local food and beverage scene, but international attention as well.

Not to say that it’s a foolproof formula, but it’s an example of how small and homegrown took advantage of its main strength.

Small businesses also have an advantage in that they don’t require huge, lump sum investments off the bat. There’s no competition between franchises. And the pressure to succeed isn’t as pointed. You get to bide your time, see how people take to your food, and then adjust your recipes or your plans from there.

If you’re looking to dip your toes in the food scene, don’t be afraid to start small – think outside the box, and it could be your greatest advantage. Here are some ideas to throw around to make your business unique: 

(1) Have a unique menu  

Pepita’s Kitchen created a buzz because of its uniquely tantalizing menu. Who could resist the indulgent and crispy appeal of lechon, let alone lechon stuffed with the likes of truffle rice and Thanh Long? With the same experimental approach to classic Filipino staples, try going crazy in the kitchen by playing with unassuming ingredients like sago or gulaman, or with creative recipes like Crispy Liempo Sinigang or Baked Pizza Rolls

It doesn’t need to be an extensive menu, or even a fancy one at that. In fact, the simpler and easier to make, the better. Delicious food should speak for itself. Although, take care not to fall into the pit of being too trendy or gimmicky. 

(2) Have fun with the execution

You can start small by catering or delivering upon demand. But if you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, you can try setting up a pop-up food cart or better yet, a food truck.                

There’s a lot of potential in this market, but it does come with its own set of challenges. For one thing, there’s the paperwork: permits, licenses, and other requirements. Not only will you need to brush up on the rules and regulations of running a food truck, but also adhere to basic sanitation provisions. Plus, you can’t just stroll around and sell your goods anywhere your truck takes you, you also need to brush up on the designated commercial and noncommercial zones that permit food trucks to set up shop.

And another thing, your kitchen is going to be cramped, so you’re going to have to be creative with your menu. Do not be afraid of using ready-made ingredients like mayonnaise, liquid seasoning, or bouillons and stock bases. These could save you some hardship. 

In spite of these challenges, owning a food truck is a novel experience, that’s advantageous and fulfilling in its own right. It lets you test out your product and get a feel of the market. French and Michelin-rated chef, Ludo Lefebvre once said about food trucks:

“The food truck is a great test market for a restaurant concept. Not unlike a pop-up, it give[s] you the flexibility to try things without a huge financial investment that a traditional brick-and-mortar would require.”

(3) Have a friendly, accommodating staff

Eating is all about the experience. And what better side dish to food than good conversation. Some food businesses are built on their awesome service and friendly staff. Take the El Union coffee shop in San Juan, La Union, where the barristas are amiable surfers who like to ask how your day at the beach is going while brewing your tall glass of dirty white. And when they’re not behind the bar, maybe they’re chilling on a hammock, still making sure visitors like yourself are having a great time.

There are so many ways to make your business stand out. It could be your menu, your execution or theme, or simply the incredible dining experience you offer. The local foodie scene is ever evolving, and you could be the one to tip the scales in favor of hearty and homegrown. It’s all about being adventurous and having fun at the same time, so go for it! –Rappler.com