food and beverage industry

Behind Boracay’s most loved restos is this couple – and here’s how they made it work

Steph Arnaldo
Behind Boracay’s most loved restos is this couple – and here’s how they made it work
Sunny Side Group owners Nowie and Odette Potenciano are behind many Boracay favorites like Sunny Side Cafe, SpiceBird, and more

MANILA, Philippines – Head to Boracay as a first-timer or a seasonal regular and I will boldly assume that Sunny Side Café is already on your itinerary, whether because it’s a friend’s recommendation, a social media suggestion, or a personal favorite. The almost decade-old homegrown brunch spot has become a reliable island staple for tourists craving for sunny, bright ambiance, comfort grub in big servings, good coffee, and warm service, ever since the resto’s founding in April 2014.

Sunny Side Café was brought to Boracay by husband and wife Nowie and Odette Potenciano, who found themselves awe-inspired after a trip to Luang Prabang in Laos. While there, they noticed one humble bakery that almost every traveler to the town would visit at least once during their stay. “We thought that such a place would be great in Boracay,” Nowie told Rappler.

When they visited the island again and found out a space in Station 3 was available, they took that as a sign to finally pursue their dreams of an all-day breakfast, bakery, and specialty coffee shop, which they pitched to their lessor. After just a few months, Sunny Side Café was born.

Amazingly, what was just the name of a simple café grew to be Nowie’s full-blown restaurant group chain, steadily opening more Boracay-based restaurants through the years as the Sunny Side Group grew in capability. They opened grill resto Spicebird the next year in 2015, and vegan ice cream stall Coco Mama in 2016. Fast-forward to the pandemic, and Sunny Side Group didn’t stop there, adding Percy Seafood, coffee shop Little Wave, cocktail bar Hello Sailor, Supermagic Burgers, and Sunny Side Pizza to the roster and to many Boracay foodies’ radars. They even managed to put up a second Sunny Side branch in Station 1!

NOWIE AND ODETTE.

Success is sweet, but the journey towards it could also get bitter, especially with Boracay’s closure and 2020’s lockdown. But the Sunny Side Group made it work, and here’s how.

Bright beginnings

The Sunny Side Group took off from their flagship store, Sunny Side Café, which was a play on the idea of breakfast and being at the beach, according to Nowie. He worked with Executive Chef Natalia Moran to craft most of the group’s dishes and menus across the board.

CHEF NATALIA MORAN. Photo by Steph Arnaldo/Rappler

“When we put together Sunny Side Café, we had also just come out of some difficulties at that time, so it seemed appropriate to name the restaurant with the hope of better days ahead. As we expanded, we thought we’d name our little restaurant group after the same. After all, people come to Boracay looking for some sunshine, both literally and figuratively, into their lives,” Nowie said.

SUNNY SIDE CAFE IN STATION 1. Photo by Steph Arnaldo/Rappler

No doubt, the Sunny Side Cafe brings just this – a plate of good vibes and sunshine, in the form of various best-selling dishes that are generous in servings and big on flavor. My ultimate favorite is the Sunny Side Roesti, which is a huge potato fritter that’s almost like a hash brown.

ROESTI. Photo by Steph Arnaldo/Rappler

It’s crisp, salty, and golden-brown on the outside yet soft on the inside, and is topped with all my favorite things – sour cream; house-made chorizo bits; perfectly poached eggs; tomato; and arugula. Every filling forkful was a savory party in my mouth!

GRILLED CHEESE WITH TOMATO SOUP. Photo by Steph Arnaldo/Rappler

The Mango and Bacon Grilled Cheese Sandwich is also a must-try, because when did salty never work with sweet? The soft, fluffy, and buttery brioche bread houses mozzarella cheese, mango jam, and slabs of thick-cut bacon. There’s also filling silog meals you can’t go wrong with, like the Kitayama Beef Tapa, Bacon, and Eggs, and the tasty Tuna Salpicao that I enjoyed – tender chunks of garlicky, sesame-soy tuna, served with garlic rice and two eggs of your choice. Serving sizes are very generous!

Each dish is best paired with any of Sunny Side’s iced beverages – I went for the coffee, of course, to combat my expected post-busog sleepiness after a good, hearty meal. For a refreshing pick-me-up, I tried the Tiramisu Cold Brew, a creamy-sweet treat; and also the strong but punchy Iced Vietnamese Coffee. EDSA Specialty Beverages has worked with Sunny Side for its specialty coffee since 2014.

Note that Sunny Side carries way more on the menu – from pasta to sandwiches, soups, pancakes, and even heirloom rice champorado from Banaue. “Our menu has evolved over the years and we’ve tried to integrate more Filipino dishes and local ingredients,” Nowie said. They also try to incorporate family recipes, like the Adobo Bowl, which is puti-style with no soy sauce, which is how Odette’s family prepares it in their home in Malabon.

“Whenever we come up with a new business, we carefully try to find what is needed in the particular area and design the restaurant around it. When we first put together Sunny Side Café, the Station 3 area had many Western tourists who were looking for the comforts of home. That’s why we developed an excellent bread program and our menu in the beginning heavily leaned on that,” Nowie said.

They also knew that visitors in that area were looking for great brew, and that’s why they invested heavily in what was new at that time: specialty coffee. And the rest was history.

Started from one, now we here

Sunny Side Group’s succeeding restaurants were similarly conceived, like its newest venture Percy Seafood in Station 1, which came from Nowie’s observation that many Boracay visitors look for seafood but not necessarily want the usual paluto style of restaurant.

PERCY SEAFOOD. Photo by Steph Arnaldo/Rappler

Since early 2022, Percy has been offering fresh, local seafood – the bounty of the Philippine islands – executed in hearty Asian and Western dishes with sophisticated presentation, served in a beautiful beachfront, breezy venue. 

AKLAN OYSTERS. Photo by Steph Arnaldo/Rappler
KOREAN CAMPFIRE SCALLOPS. Photo by Steph Arnaldo/Rappler

If you’re a fan of oysters, don’t miss out on Percy’s fresh Aklan Oysters – you can enjoy them in all their simplicity, with a refreshingly tangy apple-mint-onion mignonette, or Chipotle Lime-style, which has a kick of acidity and spice from a dusting of chipotle powder on top. The Korean Campfire Scallops were also a tasty appetizer – grilled fresh scallops are topped with a garlic-butter-soju sauce that’s got a delicate punch of umami.

FISH AND CHIPS. Photo by Steph Arnaldo/Rappler

Everything tastes super fresh because it’s sourced locally (no imported salmon, cod, or squid rings here) to fulfill Nowie’s mission of helping local fishermen who struggled during Boracay’s lockdowns. You’ll really taste the difference with Percy’s Best Fish & Chips, which uses a thick chunk of local mahi-mahi instead of the usual, mushy cream dory. This flaky fish has a firm yet juicy bite, with a thick breading that’s uber-crisp. It’s served with hand-cut fries and house-made aioli for the best beachside snack.

ROYAL SEAFOOD TAGINE. Photo by Steph Arnaldo/Rappler

It’s interesting how these internationally-inspired dishes all still taste cohesive together. Percy also offers Morroco’s Royal Seafood Tagine, a hearty seafood stew rich in spices and the freshest catch – fish, prawn, squid, and mussels – cooked in a harissa sauce with roasted carrots and potatoes, served on fluffy couscous and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. This can serve up to 3-4 people!

“For our creative process, we are inspired with dishes we’ve tried during our travels abroad, but we try to adapt them to the local context and tastes,” Nowie said, and that’s where Executive Chef Natalia Moran comes in. “Through her creativity and palette, she is able to translate ideas into something suited to what we need for our restaurants and in Boracay,” Nowie added.

This vision is backed up by Sunny Side Group’s back-end support, which is just their own team they’ve steadily grown over the years. “We have a small team in Manila who does the purchasing of special ingredients for us and sends them to Boracay so that we’re able to create the dishes our guests love,” Nowie said.

HELLO SAILOR AT NIGHT. Photo by Steph Arnaldo/Rappler

A key factor in Sunny Side’s success, Nowie said, is always working with the best. The group partnered with barista David Ong, owner of The Curator and OTO, to create Percy’s neighboring cocktail bar, Hello Sailor.

COCKTAILS. Photo by Steph Arnaldo/Rappler

“As for Hello Sailor, we also wanted to showcase local, so we’re offering craft cocktails inspired by fruits and botanicals from the islands,” Nowie said. Truly, each cocktail – I recommend the lychee-flavored Allis Swell, bright SunSeeker, and creamy Rubber Ducky, which really highlights the natural ingredients it’s made with; you’ll really taste the creaminess of the milk, the sweetness of the corn, the fruitiness of the pineapple, and the punch of Don Papa Rum.

OUTDOOR BAR. Photo by Steph Arnaldo/Rappler

Refreshing cocktails aside, Hello Sailor is an IG-worthy beachfront spot that’s great to hang out in, ushering in Boracay’s iconic sunset with aesthetic cocktails in hand.

Another concept quite far away from Sunny Side Cafe is piri-piri-inspired ihawan SpiceBird, the group’s second resto in 2015. It’s less upscale than Percy – SpiceBird is in the middle of the busy D’Mall in Station 2 – but it’s nakakatakam charm can’t compare. It’s got smoke, spice, and everything nice!

“For Spicebird, we were thinking of what people look for after they go swimming: delicious grilled food. That’s why we offer tasty and filling piri-piri grilled meats and seafood,” Nowie said. Piri-piri means “pepper pepper” in Swahili, and is used by some African languages to describe the African bird’s-eye chili. What this distinct chili pepper gives SpiceBird diners is an addictive spice bomb in every flavorful bite (as someone averse to super spicy food, I can say that it’s not painfully spicy).

PIRI-PIRI SCALLOPS. Photo by Steph Arnaldo/Rappler

“Here we try to do things differently from all the other ihaw places in Boracay,” Nowie said. It’s the best meat joint to head to if you’ve worked up a big appetite after swimming. And if you’re into spicy-tangy-umami seafood boils, come through! SpiceBird’s Piri-Piri Scallops were a saucy wonder to slurp up, and so were the simply grilled fresh oysters. It’s no wonder that this D’Mall favorite is always full!

PIRI-PIRI PORK AND CHICKEN.Photo by Steph Arnaldo/Rappler

Don’t leave without trying the fork-tender Piri-Piri Pork and/or Grilled Chicken – the meat, which is so moist and juicy, has a depth of spicy-tangy flavors, and is served with spice rice, side salad, grilled corn, and a milky roll. You can have the pork and chicken in one dish or separately.

GRILLED OYSTERS. Photo by Steph Arnaldo/Rappler

Everything can be served with extra Piri-Piri Sauce (moderately spicy), Garlic & Lime, Japanese Curry Curry, and Hotbird – which is not for the faint of heart! SpiceBird is worth a second visit, just to try the rest of the menu.

After all that spice, a nice, cool dessert would be perfect. It may be a bit of a walk to Station X or Station 1, but the best beach-ready dessert to wash down a heavy meal with is Coco Mama, which opened in 2016. It’s a simple stall that sells vegan-friendly, lactose-free coconut milk ice cream that’s even creamier and more refreshing than dairy.

Its tropical presentation is beautiful – the sweet, creamy ice cream is served in a coconut husk, topped with sticky heirloom rice, fresh mango cubes, chewy, fresh coconut slices, and some crunchy pinipig for a multi-textural dessert that’s hard not to crave for a second (or third) time around.

For light bites and good coffee, I’d recommend a leisurely stopover at Station X’s cozy café Little Wave. Aside from its pastel IG aesthetic, it’s got a simple menu of comfort food that won’t disappoint.

CREAMED SHIMEJI. Photo by Steph Arnaldo/Rappler

My favorite was the Creamed Shimeji and Eggs – a thick slice of crunchy sourdough bread with a heap of silky, creamy scrambled eggs. If you love moist, Japanese-style eggs, this is it! It’s seasoned perfectly and topped with equally creamy shimeji mushrooms with a bite – a satisfying sammie that even non-vegetarians would enjoy. I paired that with the Little Wave, which was my kind of coffee drink – espresso is shaken with ice and milk, and then topped with a dollop of sea salt cream for some salty-sweet contrast.

LITTLE WAVE AND DEATH CREAM. Photo by Steph Arnaldo/Rappler

If you’re into really sweet drinks and want a basically “liquiefied” version of ice cream (with a bit of coffee), the Death Cream is your bet – it’s espresso and sweet custard over ice. Pair that with the Cacio e Pepe’s house-made al dente pasta, and you’ve got a hearty merienda that’ll tide you over for hours.

CACIO E PEPE. Photo by Steph Arnaldo/Rappler

It’s impressive how despite the Sunny Side Group’s varying concepts, they all still offer the same quality, consistency, service, and taste across the board. The group’s growth happened in less than decade, which is not an easy feat for any business.

Bearing the brunt of Boracay’s closures

Contrary to how it may look like from the outside, it wasn’t an easy journey for the Sunny Side Group. Sure, their growth was fast and steady, but reaching Boracay fame was far from seamless and smooth.

“The difficulty about creating a name for yourself in Boracay is that it takes time. And that’s because of the island’s nature as a tourist destination. A visitor would only come over once a year if we’re lucky. That means we have to be consistent in serving great food and providing great service for at least maybe three years before we are able to create a name for ourselves,” Nowie said.

Unfortunately, the last few years were not kind to Boracay’s vendors and establishments – the island’s sudden closure in April 2018 impacted businesses in more ways than expected.

Even after the group reopened in October, it took months before their restaurants were able to get back in black (no longer losing money and becoming profitable again). This was the case because understandably, tourists were hesitant to return right away.

“Then just little over a year later, we were forced to close again because of the pandemic. With no tourists flying in, we of course, had to close once again. Unfortunately, unlike restaurants in the big cities, options such as delivery were not feasible for us,” Nowie said.

Come March 2020, a nationwide lockdown was enforced, and it was undeniably a hard time for businesses, especially for those in tourist-dependent economies such as Boracay.

“So when the island was shut down, we did not have much options to continue business in Boracay. That meant that we had no income and at the same time, expenses continued to pile up. This was clearly also devastating to our employees,” Nowie said. To help curb the bleed, the team set up some pop-ups in Manila during the 2018 closure and for a period during the pandemic.

“Even if we personally lost money mounting those pop-ups, we were able to provide income for some of our staff,” Nowie added.

SUNNY SIDE PIZZA. Photo by Steph Arnaldo/Rappler

Eventually, the Sunny Side Group’s names slowly began picking themselves back up, and with even more fervor – the group opened “pandemic baby” Sunny Side Pizza, a lovely, bright pizza joint in Station X that serves delicious, brick-oven sourdough pizzas in different flavors. Stuck at home, Nowie started making pizzas during the lockdown, and some of his homemade creations found their way to Boracay!

MERQUEZ SAUSAGE. Photo by Steph Arnaldo/Rappler

The sourdough crust is thin, crisp, and chewy, and the ingredients used are premium and high-quality. I love the tart tomato sauce used! Definitely try the Merguez Sausage Pizza, topped with SpiceBird‘s popular and tasty merguez sausage, kesong puti, and crunchy red onions for a savory-spicy meaty pizza. The vegan options are great too.

VEGAN THREE CHESE. Photo by Steph Arnaldo/Rappler

My favorite was the Vegan Three Cheese, made with local vegan mozzarella, vegan smoked cheese, and vegan pepper jack for a cheesy, creamy, and tomato-tart pizza. It may be plant-based, but it’s a top favorite of many carnivores!

SUPERMAGIC BURGER. Photo by Steph Arnaldo/Rappler

If you want the classic combo of burgers and fries, Sunny Side’s SuperMagic Burgers provides that diner experience you might be looking for – and they also just opened last year. The burger patties are all made with kitayama wagyu beef and seasoned with an “umami dust” of kampot pepper, sea salt, and other ingredients that “bring out the best in the beef.” All patties are ground only upon order to keep them fresh, and served between house-made burger buns by Sunny Side Cafe.

LOBSTER ROLL. Photo by Steph Arnaldo/Rappler

It wasn’t a burger, but I would recommend the US-inspired Lobster Roll with an Asian twist. It’s like a good, creamy chicken sandwich with a tinge of tang, but made more refreshing with favorite Asian ingredients like mango, celery, fish roe, green onions, and Kewpie mayo. The soft lobster filling is generously stuffed in between soft, fluffy hotdog buns.

For Nowie, it’s not about just reopening – every time, they try to think of what they can do better and not just be “business as usual.” “After the 2018 closure, we added a host of vegan options to all of our restaurants because we saw that visitors were looking for healthier alternatives,” Nowie said.

“And as we emerge from the pandemic, we have accelerated our efforts to do local sourcing and promote local ingredients. That’s why we have new dishes such as our Sagada Mushroom Pasta at Sunny Side Cafe and Grilled Diwal at Percy and Spicebird, now on the menu,” he added. And that’s what you call a comeback!

Secrets from the Sunny Side

Putting forth simple but quality food is all in a day’s work for Sunny Side’s staff, whose days tend to vary but are usually spent tackling little improvement projects that they set for themselves. Maybe this is the secret to Sunny Side’s success – always finding something they want to get better at.

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“It could be anything from improving one of our dishes, making our menu layout better, or trying out new equipment,” Nowie said. “I think what’s always been important for us is the spirit of continuous improvement. There’s always something that can be done better and I think this helps our restaurants keep up with changing consumer tastes and preferences.”  

“Our menus, for example, have evolved throughout the years, because we’re always fine-tuning them,” he added. But what’s most important, aside from introducing new, is staying the same.

Consistency is key, and Nowie said that this trait comes from their own company culture. “Our whole team knows that hindi pwede yung pwede na (we can’t just make do with mediocre) and we’re always trying to get better. With this kind of culture, we’re able to strive for consistency day in and day out,” he said.

As the years went by, Nowie discovered a personal responsibility to be better for Boracay’s tourists each year, so that they would always come back. “The island can’t rely on just the beach alone – services must also improve because visitors are becoming more demanding and we have to compete with other destinations,” he said.

“Hopefully, the great food and warm service that guests get from our restaurants are an added reason for tourists to make Boracay their destination of choice,” he added.

Nowie’s final piece of advice for making it big in a very saturated market? Consistency in execution and the spirit of continuous improvement. “We must be able to give guests a wonderful experience every time they return to Boracay,” Nowie said, and that they definitely do! – Rappler.com

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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.