When the Manila lockdown was announced, I was on my last day at a chefs’ collaboration event in Sydney, with chef and kindred spirit Lennox Hastie of the highly acclaimed all-grill restaurant Firedoor. My family was worried to the moon and upset at me because I was away, and in Australia, where Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson had just announced that they had contracted the coronavirus and were in some undisclosed location being treated for the illness!
They are always worried about me because of my incessant traveling, knowing so well about how my immune system is compromised due to my health challenges over the years. "Will I be able to go home? Will they let me back into Manila? Will they quarantine me somewhere?” — those were my thought bubbles while boarding the flight home.
Little did I know that getting home should have been the least of my worries. My business and the beloved industry I have been a part of for the last three decades were about to face their biggest, nearly insurmountable challenge. Like a speeding ball from left field, we were all blindsided.
The first few days of the lockdown left me and the rest of my team in an absolute tizzy! Nearly all of our employees were fearful for their health, and also had no way to get to work; sourcing ingredients was an absolute challenge, too. It took all of us and all our brands nearly two weeks to get our act together and reopen just for takeaway and delivery orders.
With deep gratitude to all our staff who were brave enough to come in to work in the early days, we managed to get our catering commissary up and running first, taking orders on a very short menu made up of our bestsellers that travel well in take-out packaging.
Cibo also opened only two hubs, out of 16 branches, our Ali Mall commissary to service the north, and our SM Aura branch to service the south. It was a slow burn to get all the other branches up and running. We depended on third-party delivery companies to do the bulk of our deliveries initially but eventually created our own delivery teams using our service staff who offered their services with their motorbikes to secure our deliveries and do them safely in-house. Slowly, we opened our other brands, a mano, Lusso, Grace Park, Las Casas Manila and MTRo Food Hall. This allowed us to get our staff back at work and we relied largely on social media to let the market know we were back in business.
Our revenues were not even a tenth of our pre-COVID sales, but we rolled with the punches, shifting our teams, too, just to stay alive. To this day, we still have our own shuttle services to get our staff to work to avoid the obvious risks.
“ This is perhaps the biggest blow our industry has ever experienced to date, perhaps even more devastating than a war, a huge storm, or a political upheaval since there does not seem to be an end in sight in the near future. ”
When things shifted to GCQ status on June 15, we hurriedly put our dining spaces in order to suit the requirements set by the government. It was exciting to know that we could welcome our guests back, even at just a maximum of 30-percent capacity, and give them the dining experiences they missed for nearly 12 weeks. There was still much fear, thus it took a while for guests to come back and dine. Nearly a month after, we are happy that things are getting busier in our dining rooms, with still a large number of clients ordering their favorites to take home and enjoy at their own dining tables. Cibo now has all 16 branches up and running, and all our other brands are doing as best they can within the standards of this “new normal.”
This is perhaps the biggest blow our industry has ever experienced to date, perhaps even more devastating than a war, a huge storm, or a political upheaval since there does not seem to be an end in sight in the near future. Everything is still up in the air. But as with every challenge comes a silver lining. Many good things have come out of this absolutely crazy time. First, personally, I have enjoyed many priceless moments at home. Even my workouts with my trainer via WhatsApp have been more intense and consistent that I have lost 17 pounds, after being in such an overweight slump for nearly three years. I have also enjoyed cooking many dishes that remind me of my childhood at home and have offered them to my clients from home or out of Grace Park or my catering kitchen. I am so happy to be spending time in front of the stove so much again!
Second, it’s been a real delight to witness my catering team and commissary reinvent themselves and see them pivot in a flash. Our bakery has boomed all of a sudden, selling countless chocolate crinkles, truffle ensaymadas and artisanal breads, just to name a few. Our bottled delights like taba ng talangka, spicy tuyo fillets, Capiz bihod, batwan concentrate, crispy bagoong, dulong, mostarda di frutta of Philippine fruits, and Negros sea salt, bottled pasta sauces and handmade fresh pasta are now flying off our shelves online and at Grace Park. Because people are appreciating time at home, my home line and flower line are also getting a boost. Casa di Marghi, Fine Living Things table linens and Fiori di Marghi, Food and Floralscapes long-lasting orchid arrangements are also getting quite popular.
“ The challenge that this crisis has given to us stakeholders in this amazing industry has caused us to come together as a family, helping and supporting each other, lobbying for our causes as a team, uniting with one voice to help us get through this together. ”
Third and most important, the challenge that this crisis has given to us stakeholders in this amazing industry has caused us to come together as a family, helping and supporting each other, lobbying for our causes as a team, uniting with one voice to help us get through this together. We are one to help not just our businesses but to support our beloved staff first so that they too may weather this most difficult time. We don’t know what lies ahead for our industry, but we know now that facing this storm together, with arms locked (virtually), we will make it and continue to do what we do best to offer you that magical dining experience that will allow you to celebrate life and its best moments together at the table.
Edited by Tanya T. Lara