food businesses

‘From beers to beans’: How COVID-19 changed the nature of an Ilonggo business

Joseph B.A. Marzan

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‘From beers to beans’: How COVID-19 changed the nature of an Ilonggo business
The idea came up from the restrictions against public consumption of alcohol in the city, as well as curfew hours

The Barber’s Grill Bar and Restaurant in Jaro was a popular weekend hangout flocked by lots of Ilonggos as a place to chill, from students, to yuppies, to people just wanting to have a good time without leaving the city.

Its name reflects its 20-year history, being in a place formerly filled with barber shops, and with its first customers being the barbers in the area. The place used to be an empty backlot behind the shops, with a simple tent stall and a few tables selling beers and freshly grilled barbecue.

When the business grew, patrons would also come to watch major sports events live on TV, such as PBA games and Pacquiao boxing matches.

But alas, like many business establishments, it would be upended by the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, with an estimated 50% cut to their usual revenue.

Jose Alfonso Altamira, the place’s current proprietor, said that they took on a lot of gimmicks to make sure they stayed afloat. They offered the usual take-out and dine-in meals in the daytime, then resorted to selling fresh vegetables and fish, as well as soaps and shampoo.

“At the time, we weren’t able to bounce back. We ultimately couldn’t sustain through an adjusted business model. We really had to try other means to survive, basically. We talked to our staff to ask them if they had other means to survive. Because this was their only source of livelihood, we looked for ways just to survive the business,” Altamira told Rappler.

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But even that couldn’t help sustain the staff in the long run, so they temporarily closed from April to October 2020, then started to transition to Barbers Grounds Coffee.

The idea came up from the restrictions against public consumption of alcohol in the city, as well as curfew hours.

As a law student at UP Diliman, Altamira also observed that students like him and young professionals liked hanging out at coffee shops to study and even have online classes.

From different beer brands, they shifted to selling various coffee-based and non-coffee drinks, and they transitioned from grilled meat to all-day breakfasts and different pasta meals.

They even called in a master barista and latte artist to help them operate their new equipment, and improve their coffee-making in between.

Barber’s Grounds Coffee’s new business model, according to Altamira, was centered on “the feeling where people would feel that they would have their money’s worth.”

It was still the same hangout, with similar arrangements, but with a different feel and a different set of offerings.

“We saw an opportunity where more of coffee shops, cafés, and restaurants were proliferating in the city. We took a gamble, with minimal renovations, just to try if it was something that would attract the market,” he said.

“What we did was to put up the coffee shop and our ‘silog’ meals just for the sake of giving people here, our old customers, somewhere they can go back to, but adapting to the new normal,” he added.

Finally reopening last March 8, 2021, the name wasn’t completely changed as an ode to the place’s humble beginnings.

“We didn’t want to overhaul our brand, we didn’t rename it significantly, just for people to feel that it’s still the old Barber’s. It’s for [our old customers] to [not] feel apprehensive in going back,” he said.

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Something they were able to maximize unlike the older restaurant was the use of take-out and delivery services, which allowed them to deliver to other places as far as the neighboring Leganes and Pavia towns.

“I would like to credit our resilience to our delivery partners. Their marketing has been aggressive since they’re seeing businesses struggling to survive, so they stepped in and offered. Our take-out and delivery sales weren’t that much in the beginning, but also because of recent technology, we’ve had more opportunities to serve people from the other side of the city as well as outside,” he said.

The current success, he says, was also because of their current staff, who were a chunk of the people from the older grill.

“We had staff as many as 20 before, and now we are down to 5 people, which are also the same people from when we were a grill restaurant. They used to be waiters and now they’re baristas. They’ve adopted to changing times, from waiting, to selling bangus and vegetables, and now the café. We’ve managed to stay because we have people who care for the business as much as we do,” he said.

But while the nature of the business has completely changed for them, old customers still come in asking for their older offerings.

“We’re also trying now to bring back our old menu, because people still come in looking for chicken skin, sisig, and beer. Older customers still come in pushing to get a beer, but we keep telling them that we’ve changed to coffee now,” Altamira shared.

Nevertheless, people have come to love the new Barber’s Grounds as much as the old Barber’s Grill, and with the current easing of restrictions in the city, he says more people have come in to meet for long stays.

“There are very few places that have survived as long as we have, and we have become and recognized establishment in this neighborhood. That’s been our branding. If you wanted a neighborly feel, that people could come here wearing their slippers, their pambahay just to go out of their house. Our main items used to be barbeque and beer, but now we serve coffee, and people are still as comfortable to go out of their homes and drop by, stay a minute or two,” he said.

Ultimately, when it came to profits, the new place hasn’t matched that of the old, only going up to 20% to 30% due to internal expenses and commissions for delivery partners.

“Back then, we were open for longer hours, and there wasn’t a shortage of people. Now, we are at the mercy of quarantine restrictions. Suppliers now aren’t as easier to come by as before so we had to resource from other places. Financially, it has been different and I personally do not expect that we can go back to the sales levels from before,” he said.

For the future, he says just wants the business to survive and stay afloat for a longer time, given the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the 2022 national and local elections.

“As much as we want to expand the business and bring in more people, it’s hard to say what our vision is for the future, because we cannot even know where we’ll be in a month or a year. Even with our small capital, we also want to be careful on how to use our investments, because we also need to consider the future business environment we will be faced with,” he stated.

Barber’s Grounds Coffee is located at Main Street, Alta Tierra Village, Jaro, Iloilo City. –

Joseph B.A. Marzan is a Visayas-based journalist from Iloilo City and an awardee of the Aries Rufo Journalism Fellowship.

All photos by Alfonso Altamira, Barber’s Grounds Coffee:

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