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In UAE, this son of Bicol market vendors now runs a top seafood resto

Five years ago in May 2016, an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) opened a seafood restaurant in Abu Dhabi. Today the establishment, which has grown to become a popular dining destination not only among Filipinos, but for locals and tourists as well, has 8 branches, the 9th set to open in April this year.

Nang pumunta ako dito,” said Rolly Brucales, managing director at Off The Hook Seafood Restaurant, “nasa mindset ko nang hindi ako magiging empleyado forever.” (When I came here, I already had this mindset that I will not be an employee forever.)

Brucales, 46, is the 5th among 9 children born to merchant parents who own a meat stall at Albay Public Market.

He grew up with keen familiarity in business and developed acumen such that he was already running his tailoring shop in Abu Dhabi at 36 years of age – or 9 years after he arrived in the city in 2004.

I was raised sa palengke. Karnehan…may puwesto parents ko. Bukas po ‘yun hanggang ngayon,” Brucales said. (I was raised in a public market. My parents have a stall there selling meat. It is still open today.)

Before that, Brucales, an accounting graduate from Divine Word College in Legazpi City in Albay, worked in a medical company also in Abu Dhabi, during which he learned the ropes of the trade and started selling medical supplies at hospitals across the city.

“I got bored staying in the office the whole day, so I tried to learn about doing sales and soon I was going out selling supplies,” Brucales said in a mix of English and the vernacular.

First branch

Brucales found a local businessman, and with help from 6 other OFW partners, including his wife, Angie, opened casual dining Off The Hook (OTH) seafood restaurant in May 2016.  

Two years later in 2018, the second OTH would open in Deira; the third and fourth would open in Al Ain and in Abu Dhabi’s “tourist club” district also in the same year – for a total of 3 branches in a year’s time.

The fifth OTH opened in an Abu Dhabi Mall a year later in 2019.

Despite the pandemic’s stifling impact on businesses with its quarantine measures and restrictions on movements of people last year, 3 OTH branches were set up in March and December, where two more opened in Abu Dhabi and one in Dubai Mall.

The 9th is set to open in south Dubai’s Ibn Battuta Mall in the first week of April, according to Brucales.

Each OTH restaurant has 11 tables.* The restaurant chain employs a total of 86 employees – all OFWs.

Brucales said there were plans to open an OTH branch in the Philippines but this was sidelined by the pandemic.

International market

Brucales said that up to 70% of OTH’s customers were non-Filipinos. “I was surprised. The customers were of different nationalities,” he said, also in a mix of English and the vernacular.

Notably too, is OTH’s positioning, where branches were located not only in areas frequented by Filipinos but in those visible to other market segments. “I want to compete with the international brand, not the Filipino brands,” said Brucales, father of 3 kids, the eldest of whom is a 22-year-old lad.

Brucales said he owes OTH’s success to its staff and on the company’s incentive plans like giving a certain percentage of the sales whenever the month’s quota was met.

Lagi kong sinasabi sa mga monthly staff meetings namin: ‘Uuwi tayo nang meron, depende na nga lang sa inyo,’” he said. (“I always say during our monthly staff meetings: ‘We will not go home empty-handed, but that depends on you.’”)

Brucales said he is grateful to the UAE government for giving business-friendly opportunities to people of other nationalities.

There are approximately one million Filipinos in the UAE, according to the Philippine embassy.

In Dubai, the bulk of OFWs are in the food and beverage service sector, said the Philippine Consulate General. While there was no immediately available data, officials said there could be up to 50 OFWs who have ventured into entrepreneurship, mostly in the restaurant business, catering to fellow Filipinos. – Rappler.com

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story said each OTH restaurant "can accommodate up to 11 customers at a time." We have corrected the story to say each OTH restaurant "has 11 tables."