With lockdowns in place, small restaurants worry about staying afloat

Steph Arnaldo
With most of the city's restaurants closed until further notice, how will a month-long quarantine affect business?

MANILA, Philippines – On most nights, Tadeo, a small Filipino-Mexican restaurant along Tomas Morato in Quezon City, is packed with foodies hankering for its famed sinigang burrito.

The space is cramped – since Tadeo can only fit 20 customers at a time – but nobody seems to mind. The food is just that good. And its owner, Chino, doesn’t think it’s a problem, for as long as the customers kept coming.

On Wednesday, March 18, there were no customers or delivery services to fill its tight space.

It was day 2 of a Luzon-wide lockdown, the national government’s move to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. And while staying at home and “physical distancing” – literally distancing yourself from other people – are a must when you’re dealing with a highly-contagious disease, it also means a huge blow to an industry that’s heavy on interaction. 

In a bid to survive, restaurants have either shifted to take-out only, online delivery options, or worse – a complete shut down.

With customers, staff, managers, chefs, owners, suppliers, and even delivery riders forced to stay home, how is a business expected to thrive – let alone survive?

On the third week of the lockdown, it’s still a question SMEs are struggling to answer. 

Adaptability, unpredictability 

Sundays are family nights for Maginhawa ice cream shop Papa Diddi’s, and they’re ready – al fresco chairs and tables are set up, awaiting the usual throng of families to take their scoop and their seats. 

But for now, Papa Diddi’s lights are shut – tubs of ice cream are emptied out, refrigerators unplugged. 

As early as Sunday, March 15, the ice cream shop decided to shorten their Maginhawa branch’s operation hours to follow the local government unit (LGU)’s recommendation, despite it affecting their sales, which come mostly from after-dinner customers. 

They doubled production of their pints, thinking that people would utilize home delivery services instead. And it happened, according to owner Paul Perez – Sunday saw a notable increase in GrabFood and FoodPanda deliveries.

Even Sebastian’s Ice Cream, another local artisanal ice cream kiosk, was already affected when talk of a curfew floated around – malls shortened their hours and crowds began to dissipate, leaving only a handful of mallgoers rushing to buy the essentials. 

“Being forced to stay open near deserted malls was killing us,” Ian Carandang, owner of Sebastian’s, told Rappler. “But knowing that rent would be waived was a blessing to us.” (Sebastian’s stand-alone branch is located at The Podium, Ortigas City. Ortigas Land waived mall rental charges.)

On Tuesday morning, the first day of a Luzon-wide lockdown, GrabFood and FoodPanda announced a temporary suspension of delivery services. 

The megacity’s food delivery ecosystem was in disarray – customers scrambled to find other ways to get goods delivered, restaurants were open but had no customers coming their way, while riders were left wondering where they’d find their next source of income. 

Papa Diddi’s refrigerators abound with stocks that needed to be disposed of immediately. By 1:30 pm on the same day, GrabFood and FoodPanda announced that they were back online. 

I never thought I would have to activate my business continuity plan at this time. We are at the beginning of summer – and this is usually our top-selling season,” Paul said.

Not all businesses are as lucky.

Delivery had already been a problem for Sebastian’s, who said that the perishability of their ice cream keeps them for using delivery services beyond a fixed radius. Ian decided to close shop, “hoping that things get back to normal sooner than later.”

“It’s really tough for small businesses that don’t have the war chest of a large franchise or multinational,” Ian said.  However, a Metro Manila-wide delivery system is in the works for Sebastian’s – a priority for Ian to implement, once operations resume.

“More than ever, delivery is the future for businesses and the ones that don’t recognize that are in danger of being left behind.” 

Food delivery has changed the local food game, serving as a lifeline for both big and small businesses and their customers, especially when movement is restricted. But even then, it’s not a solution to all of a restaurant’s woes.  

When food delivery services aren’t enough

Zero customers walked through Tadeo‘s doors the first Monday of the lockdown.

At first, owner Chino Cayetano thought of testing the waters for a week. For a while, they tried out advanced orders for delivery. If they couldn’t at least breakeven, Tadeo would have to close indefinitely.

“I was also concerned about the health of my staff but they were asking to run at least one week since their main concern was not to lose their salary,” Chino said. 

But when GrabFood and FoodPanda temporarily suspended operations, Tadeo, which only opened in December 2018, decided to just finally close shop. 

Most Monday afternoons, the owner of Katipunan burger joint POPS Burgers would usually be at the counter, helping students from the schools and universities nearby – some of his most loyal customers – decide on which burger to try next.

But since the lockdown, students haven’t walked the streets of Katipunan – a grim reality swimming in Pops’ head as he pored over his next move – to close down indefinitely.

“Even though restaurants were allowed to continue servicing the community, we believe the right thing to do was temporarily cease operations and do our part in keeping everyone healthy,” a representative from POPS Burgers told Rappler.

Mijo, a Filipino-Spanish restaurant that opened along Poblacion, Makati City, also attempted the take-out route – but when they crunched the numbers, it simply didn’t make business sense. 

“When we ran the numbers, we saw that we were really not going to make money. We would even lose money. We were worried, but sadly, there’s no way we can pay our employees if we aren’t making money,” Angela Leonor of Mijo shared with Rappler. They opened shop in mid-2019 and closed indefinitely beginning Tuesday, March 17.

When adversity meets generosity

The Standard Group (TSG), the arm behind restaurants like Yabu, Ippudo Ramen, and Elephant Grounds – also followed suit.

From trying out delivery operations at first, the group decided to shut down all their physical shops temporarily on Tuesday, realizing that “remaining fully operational wasn’t exactly what the nation needs right now,” TSG brand manager Cat Altomonte told Rappler.

Their entrance doors may have been closed, but Yabu’s and Elephant Grounds’ kitchens continued running to prepare free meals for health workers.

Sweet Ecstasy‘s small kitchens went on overdrive on Tuesday, March 17 to deliver Sweet X burgers, fresh off the grill, to emergency rooms of nearby medical centers.

This what the local burger joint did, despite knowing they’d have to close down indefinitely the next day.

“Our CEO and my partner, Monica Tobias, has defined our direction with her perspective: ‘We have the opportunity and responsibility to look out for everyone else,'” he added.

Halted mobility 

The suspension of mass public transportation saw inital chaos once the lockdown began – daily wage earners scrambled to get to work and back home – either jumping on trucks or walking miles by foot. Workers were stuck at checkpoints, and traffic (mostly delivery trucks and confused private vehicles) were stuck in traffic jams at city borders.

This pandemonium also meant restaurants lost their most important assets – their staff.

Tadeo’s, Mijo’s, and Sweet X’s staff were no longer able to get to work – a predicament that Sweet X tried to alleviate by extending financial help to their employees.

“People need to stay home, but we also need our employees safe, and for all that they do for us year round, the least we can do is be their financial bridge,” he shared.

Sweet X has advanced their employee’s 13th month pay. Aside from that, the company has also tapped into their reserves to support their crew, if the quarantine ensues longer than expected. “Of course we’re going to lose money. But Sweet Ecstasy is lucky enough to be able to lose money for good reasons,” Al said.

Suppliers not spared

Even big chain suppliers are not excluded from this narrative. Take poultry and livestock company Quezon Poultry & Livestock Corporation (QLPC), for example, which supplies chicken to wet markets in Laguna, Cavite, Batangas, and Metro Manila, as well as food chains like Jollibee, Mang Inasal, and Andoks.

“As of Tuesday, March 17, all our operations are being supported by a skeletal workforce so the production of food can be sustained,” QLPC chief operating officer Robi Raya told Rappler.

On March 17 QLPC’s delivery trucks filled with fresh, chilled, and dressed chicken were halted at checkpoints, despite the Luzon Quarantine Announcement saying deliveries of food were to be unhampered. There were no special food lanes for deliveries then either, despite a DA memorandum.

But things are better now, thanks to a printed memorandum from the DA, which was provided to all their trucks. QLPC also had to apply for “foodlane passes” from the DA. However, various LGU’s still have limited the access of its locals to certain wet markets, which still makes delivery a problem for QLPC.

Small in size, big in heart

Despite the circumstances, these small enterprises did what they had to do to survive.

Paul of Papa Diddi’s takes their size as strength; after all, it had allowed him flexibility to adjust. “We project that we will register loss during this time, but we are confident that when things will be clear and we did not experience any infection, our brand will come out stronger,” Paul said.

Cat of The Standard Group also acknowledged that while everything has been paused, there’s really nothing much to do except to continue “supporting one another and seeing where all of this goes” – something most of us are probably doing at home. 

“In an industry that’s full of well-meaning, hardworking, creative, tough people, I’m positive we’ll all be able to go back to what we love doing the most,” Cat said.

As for Sweet Ecstasy’s contigency plan? It’s to stop being a burger restaurant at a time that burgers don’t matter so much. “It’s to use what we have financially to help keep our employees home and to support medical and military frontliners that can’t stay home,” Al said. 

These are strange times we are living in – to realize that we can no longer head out on a whim to satisfy a craving, or that walking into your favorite ice cream shop simply isn’t an option. 

Despite the uncertainty of it all, restaurants try their best to stay afloat, keeping in mind the welfare of their people, despite the inevitable losses of the weeks past and the weeks coming. Yet they keep on – ostensibly because they have to, and mostly because it’ll take a lot for an industry so full of grit and heart to ever burn out. – Rappler.com

Steph Arnaldo

If she’s not writing about food, she’s probably thinking about it. From advertising copywriter to freelance feature writer, Steph Arnaldo finally turned her part-time passion into a full-time career. She’s written about food, lifestyle, and wellness for Rappler since 2018.