The food industry is a competitive playing field, but these CEOs have mastered the recipe for success. These are their stories.
With each day, we are learning to cope and live in the pandemic world. Foot traffic is on the rise in malls, people are indulging in retail therapy, and a fair share of the local businesses are rebounding from losses suffered in the past two years. The food industry was hard-hit, for sure, but the determination to overcome challenges has fueled these three CEOs to come back stronger than ever.
Rafael’s Tapas Bar and Restaurant (IG: @rafaelsrwph)
Good food has always taken center stage in the Carmona family. Back in Davao del Norte, the clan’s patriarch, Rafael Carmona, regaled his wife and kids with his signature homestyle cooking. “Growing up, my dad always told us that nothing brings people closer than dishes prepared from the heart,” shares Rafael’s CEO Henjie Carmona.
“Never scrimp on ingredients,” he continues. “Make the ordinary extraordinary. Food appeals to all of the senses. Make them remember how good they felt while eating your food. They’ll surely come back for more if you do—these are just some of the advice Dad gave us.”
Fast forward to November 2019, when the CEO put up Rafael’s Tapas Bar and Restaurant in Newport World Resorts (formerly Resorts World) as an ode to his late father and the latter’s unparalleled passion for saporific dishes. The Spanish-inspired Filipino menu was enthusiastically received by diners, but the pandemic forced the establishment to close just four months after.
When the lockdown was lifted, Carmona’s team focused on developing food that were suited for take-out and delivery—which they marketed to groups that had a steady requirement for packed meals for employees. Although they lowered prices and cut costs, the quality of the served fare was never compromised.
“I had to infuse more capital to the business knowing fully-well of the uncertainties that lay ahead. But, I believed—and still believe—that we were offering something special. It was just a matter of time when Rafael’s would be the dining destination [that] I had envisioned it to be,” says Carmona.
Today, Rafael’s is frequented by young people and families alike. Its luxurious interiors, punctuated by commissioned art pieces, attract a niche crowd—not only with discerning palates, but also those who appreciate the finer things in life. For PHP 30,000 consumable, private functions may be held at the mezzanine where the VIP room (complete with a gold gilded bathroom) is located.
House bestsellers include Wagyu Beef Caldereta, Petronila’s Chicken (an elevated take on Inasal served with pineapple rice), and Beef Salpicao. For the month of August, the restaurant will offering a limited edition Executive Lunch menu (available from 12 noon to 3PM).
Henjie’s advice to future restauranteurs? “You need to be passionate about food,” he ends. “Being highly interested and happy in your work makes everything worthwhile.”
Rafael’s Tapas Bar and Restaurant is located at the 2nd Floor Garden Wing, Newport World Resorts, Pasay City. Call 09189206128 or 09664705355 for reservations.
Hanakazu Japanese Restaurant (IG: @hanakazujapresto)
Started by husband and wife Hiroaki and Lorna Otsuka in 2005, Hanakazu (a combination of the names of two of their children) has built a solid reputation by serving authentic Japanese cuisine—since its inception along Aguirre Avenue in BF Homes, Parañaque. Prior to putting up his own business, the late Hiroaki sharpened his Japanese culinary skills in the high-end Tsukiji restaurant in Greenhills, where he served as Executive Chef for 17 years.
The pandemic brought an onslaught of financial challenges to the company, so when the opportunity came to collaborate with the Chan family, Lorna Otsuka opted to reopen Hanakazu—this time at The Bellevue Manila. The move to Alabang made their food more accessible to the South-based community.
“We were able to survive the brunt of the multiple lockdowns through favors with suppliers. Thanks to long-standing and good business relationships built over 15 years, I was able to ask for deferred payments, lower rent and even short term loans to cover employee salaries, “ says Mrs. Otsuka candidly.
“I consider my team as the backbone of the business—they are my family,” she adds. “Most of them had to take pay cuts at the height of the pandemic so we could all survive. There’s a reason why many of the staff have been around since the day we started. Our family-centered approach is what makes us stand out in the industry.”
How good is the food at Hanakazu? Well, loyal patrons and new guests are continually flocking to the restaurant to partake in exceptional Japanese offerings. It’s not unusual to spot celebrities from local tinseltown in the premises, too. What’s more, their smokeless grilling tables are a definite must-try! Some of the restaurant’s bestseller include ebi tempura, saikoro steak, sukiyaki and fresh seafood—maguro, salmon, toro, hamachi sushi, and sashimi.
As for her advice to future restauranteurs? “Good food and proper location go hand-in-hand,” enumerates Lorna Otsuka. “Create added value to your existing menu. Treat your employees well. And be passionate about your business —don’t give up so easily!”
Hanakazu Japanese Restaurant is located at 2/F, The Bellevue Manila. For orders and inquiries, you may contact them at 09178867276.
Girasol (IG: @girasoltagaytay)
Taking inspiration from fields of golden sunflowers while dining in Provence, retired lawyers Rafael and Pearl Rodriguez built Girasol as their unique way of enriching and embracing the joy that life has to offer. “Our family loves food and the sense of sharing that naturally goes with it,” enthuses Rafael. “’Girasol’ is Spanish for sunflower and we thought that it would be the perfect name for our restaurant.”
“By God’s grace, we realized our dream in 2019, and now, are able to welcome our guests with such warmth that the sun provides the flowers,” he adds.
But like all other businesses, everything came to a halt when the pandemic set in.
The Rodriguez-led team then quickly adapted a survival frame of mind and focused on identifying opportunities. They started the take-out and limited delivery service, used the veranda for al-fresco dining, and allowed The Cellar to be booked for small private functions where COVID risks can be minimized.
A fund was also set-up by the company from which employees can borrow without interest certain amounts payable from their salaries post-pandemic. Cost-cutting measures were taken and capital expenditure for improvements on the establishment deferred. With these practical measures in place, the business was able to pull through.
Presently, Girasol is bustling with activity—especially during the weekends when travelers are aplenty. Its charming, spacious, and well-lit interior have made it a favorite among locals for dining, as well as for events. But the highlight of the place has always been its food—Continental-Filipino savory dishes crafted by Chef Michael Prado. Made with the freshest of produce grown in Girasol’s very own gardens, bestsellers include Bulalo, Beef Tapa, Beef Ribs Barbecue, Wild Truffle Pasta, and Quattro Formaggi Pizza.
What advice can the couple give to future restauranteurs? “Choose a good visible location with enough parking lot. Build your culinary team and be reasonable in pricing. Research the food trends here and abroad,” Rafael ends.
Girasol is located along Aguinaldo (Tagaytay-Nasugbu) Highway, Alfonso, Cavite