[Executive Edge] Creating a taco haven in the middle of Manila
One of the most famous Mexican restaurants in Metro Manila started over a couple of beers. Founder and owner of El Chupacabra, Dixie Mabanta was drinking with one of his Mexican friends at what he described as a “grotty street bar in Malate,” and a conversation started up about how to make better use of the ground floor space in front of his commissary.
Mabanta said, “I was already paying the rent for the space but felt that it was under-utilized as a delivery/takeaway outlet. One beer led to another, and then I told my Mexican friend: ‘What if I just do a cheap and cheerful taco joint like you find everywhere in Mexico?’ He said, ‘Sure, why not? What will you call it?’"
After a few more beers, he blurted out “El Chupacabra,” which caused his friend to nearly fall off his seat in laughter, and so he knew at that moment that that was the name he would use (for those not in the know, the chupacabra is a mythical monster in Central and South America that supposedly sucks the blood out of livestock).
And from that beer-fueled, run-of-the-mill evening, “El Chupacabra” the restaurant in Makati City, was born.
Creatively establishing El Chupacabra
One of the themes I noticed in my conversation with Mabanta is this idea of making the best use of what is available to you. This may seem like standard entrepreneurial advice – think global, use local – but Mabanta makes it come alive in his retelling of how he built up “El Chupacabra”
For the taco recipes, Mabanta went with some that were already in his files. He had these on hand because he has always been “a big fan of proper Mexican cuisine,” which is somewhat different from the Tex-Mex cuisine that restaurants in the Philippines usually serve.
Mabanta preferred not to adapt these recipes to the local Filipino palate. “For one thing,” he said, “I am not big on sugar.”
Yet he has had to make concessions where needed. “In my particular cuisine of choice, there are limitations on what ingredients (fresh poblano chiles, tomatillos, nixtamal, Mexican crema, guajillo and ancho chiles etc) are available here, so I cannot guarantee an absolutely authentic Mexican experience. We use what we can get locally and just try and make the best of it.”
This same kind of thinking applied to the El Chupacabra venue itself. “Everything in the restaurant was either picked up off the street or handmade from scrap materials, including the scrap wood restaurant sign outside that a lot of people like to take a photo of. I'm an unrepentant cheapskate,” he said, laughing.
Inside the decidedly spartan, graffiti-filled interiors, there is another wooden sign (used to cover up some “unsightly pipes”) that states: “At El Chupacabra, there are no strangers, only friends who have not yet met.” This slogan perhaps best explains why the various features of El Chupacabra – “no aircon, freebie corporate monobloc chairs, cheap charcoal grill, 40 peso beers” – combine to make it so great. In short, Mabanta has not just built a restaurant, he has built a social atmosphere, a community even.
Mabanta said, “Somehow I think because the space is so tiny and, ahem, rustic, the proximity of the tables to each other creates a more convivial atmosphere, and encourages conversation. This is for me is the most satisfying aspect of our crowd – simply, it is everybody, and not only is it everybody, but it is everybody: rich, not so rich, famous, not so famous, Filipino, non-Filipino, business types, artsy types, gay, straight, young and old – all meeting and talking to each other.”
I asked him about advice for people who want to open their own restaurant and he said, “Don't open a restaurant if all you are interested in is making money. Over the years I have known people who have been successful in their other businesses,” Mabanta said, “and put up a restaurant solely to make money because ‘Filipinos love to eat.’” He continued, “They have little concern for what they serve to customers (“Let the cooks take care of that.” Or “What is our profit on this item? That’s too little! Change the recipe: Use cheaper local oil instead of extra-virgin oil.”) These types usually do not last very long in our industry.”
In effect, restaurants succeed and fail as much due to the disposition of owners as due to the actual quality of food; for the two are always interlinked. In contrast to this profit-driven approach, Mabanta recommends, “The biggest piece of advice I can offer for those who want to enter the food business is: You must love what you do. I mean that seriously. You must absolutely love food and all aspects of it, over and above any profit you can make. It's been said before: if you love your work, then it's not work. This attitude will come in handy when you realize just how much work operating a restaurant entails for very little initial returns.”
Even though El Chupacabra is a resounding success and Mabanta is already a well-established entrepreneur and restaurateur (he also owns the Cafe Mediterranean chain and the Mexicali chain of eateries), he reveals that the day-to-day of restaurant management is never without its problems.
Mabanta said, “The biggest challenge for restaurateurs is of course the consistency of the food we serve. When I come up with a recipe, the first attempts are usually excellent. The trick is how to reproduce the excellence on a larger scale, all the time, every day. This is actually very difficult, and this separates the successful restaurant owner from someone who is just a good cook.”
Mabanta connected this challenge with one that all entrepreneurs can relate to: the search for talent. “For this to happen, you need good people, which brings us to another point: the brain-drain over the years via the OFW diaspora has left the Philippines with a serious shortage of good middle management level employees.”
Thus, when he finds exceptional managers, he does his absolute best to try to retain them. He recommends that other entrepreneurs do the same.
“Whenever you find a manager who has common sense, can think on his feet and is unafraid to make instant decisions, hang on to him or her. The marketing is not that important in the grand scheme of things – if your food is good, they will come. So it is your staff that is a vital key for the success of your restaurant.
“There are unfortunately too many restaurant workers in the local scene who simply follow orders and do everything by rote, like robots, and then there are those who have some leadership skills and know how to adapt to unusual outside-the-framework situations (which happen all the time in the restaurant business), and have the courage to be responsible for their decisions. These are the ones you want. The thing is, they're quite rare.”
Due to the nature of the restaurant business, there will still be problems that arise no matter how competent your management and staff are. Like any business, it all comes down to astute decision-making, and in a restaurant environment it happens at a rapid pace and new issues occur every minute.
Mabanta said it best: “There are a million things that happen every single day in a restaurant, and you need to have quick solutions for anything that goes wrong. And they will go wrong. Someone once said, ‘God is in the details.’ This should be a mantra for all would-be restaurant owners.”
Before you open your restaurant, Mabanta suggested a tip that no one else has given before in this column, “My second most important bit of advice: travel. There is no substitute for travelling to other countries, checking out the scene, and seeing how they do things, to put you over and above the competition. The knowledge and exposure you gain is immeasurable.”
Though this approach would benefit any entrepreneur, it is especially beneficial for those considering going into the food industry. “There are too many cheesy local restaurants with mediocre menus popping up by people who lack exposure to the world. This should not be the case if we are to help the country achieve an international-level restaurant scene.”
Mabanta continued, “In fact, when making a restaurant business plan, you should have plane tickets as part of your startup costs. I’m serious. Travel, travel, travel. If you want to be in the restaurant business, travel. I cannot emphasize that enough.” – Rappler.com
Rappler business columnist Ezra Ferraz graduated from UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California, where he taught writing for 3 years. He now consults full-time for educational companies in the United States. He brings you Philippine business leaders, their insights, and their secrets via Executive Edge. Follow him on Twitter: @EzraFerraz