Features

How food markets are giving restaurants a run for their money

Customers are lured to the variety of flavors and price points that these food markets provide

Photos by Peter Feghali, Max Oh, Andre Benz, and Lance Anderson/Unsplash

The term “curate” has long left the exhibition halls of galleries and evolved into a hip catchphrase that has seeped its way into conversations revolving around everything from fashion and design to online content, and now, even gastronomy. This particular “art” is seeing a lot of airtime in Manila’s wide range of weekend food markets, where organizers promise a thought-out selection of dining and drinking delights successful in luring local and foreign foodies of every palate and persuasion. Not quite contented with the growing number of restaurants spawning in the metro, city dwellers have taken an affinity to food markets. Consequently, 2016 saw its proliferation in not only shopping malls and private villages but also churches.

SAVORY STANDARDS

The Gourmand Market staged by Trish Panlilio, Dara David Roa, and Dong Ronquillo stands out for its artisanal products that are often not commercially available. “Anyone can pretty much join The Gourmand Market. We’re keen on promoting the growth of homemade delicacies and vendors who are looking to start their own business. I believe that we’ve done quite well in this regard—our home cooks get to introduce their products to their market while diners have the novelty of trying food only made available on this occasion,” says Panlilio.

One that is more community-based is Backyard Grill. Staged by Northern Living and Southern Living magazines, it brings the market to various exclusive villages so the brand can connect with its readers, donate to charity, and gather families to an afternoon of hearty food and soulful sounds. In this hyperconnected world, we wanted to bring people out of their homes, away from their computer screens, and commune with their neighbors through good food and entertainment, says managing editor Denise Alcantara. Backyard Grill has a unique model where we bring food concepts from the north to the south, and vice versa.

“What excites people about coming to food markets is the novelty of trying something new and really good for the first time, and coming back to old favorites who also like coming up with new items for the market to try,” says Gwen Cariño.

Gwen Cariño, who co-founded the yearly Best Food Forward with entrepreneur Timmie Hilado, shares that food markets are a great way to discover new trends and concepts—from crunchy-crab sandwiches and salted egg and tapa chips to alcohol-infused brownies and tinola-flavored paella from the kitchens of chefs, culinary students, home cooks and bakers, and even entrepreneurial little girls who want to sell butter beer and Milo cookies. “I think what excites people about coming to food markets is the novelty of trying something new and really good for the first time, and coming back to old favorites who also like coming up with new items for the market to try,” says Cariño.

It also helps that organizers often hold a strict screening process to ensure that participating vendors offer food that are not only market-ready, but palatable to the tastes of an increasingly discerning band of diners. Each of the 100 or so vendors in Best Food Forward, for one, should live up to the market’s brand. “We really go out of our way to taste their food—we can’t have a ‘best food’ market and dish out bland choices,” she says, adding that most diners who attend the annual charity event spend the first day sampling different offerings, and the second day hoarding their favorites. “It’s been like that the last two years,” she observes. 

MARKET BEHAVIOR

Between the growth of the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry and the purchasing power of the country’s burgeoning middle class, and with people spending more time in transit than they do preparing their meals at home, food markets provide the closest things Filipinos have to home-cooked dishes at affordable prices. Add to that the millennials’ characteristic of being always on the lookout for the next big thing.

Mercato Centrale, the weekend market in Bonifacio Global City (BGC) by Our Awesome Planet proprietor Anton Diaz and entrepreneur RJ Ledesma, was an idea born out of the former’s regularly held Ultimate Taste Test (UTT) where he invites home-based vendors to showcase new products to a test crowd of around 1,000. “The idea was the audience can be food critics for a day, and the vendors can use the event as a platform to test the market for their business,” explains Diaz.

Most of Mercato’s first vendors come from the UTT database. What started as a morning weekend market in BGC in November 2010 eventually shifted its operations from day to night, with the partners finding it more lucrative to take advantage of the growing number of BPOs and multinationals moving their headquarters to the thriving central business district. It has also expanded by opening new markets in such highly frequented areas as Glorietta and Ayala Technohub as well as staging seasonal markets and pop-up and lifestyle events in different parts of the country.

“We’re really particular about our vendors. It doesn’t mean that if you have the money and can pay rent, then you get to join. People expect a certain level of food quality and curation from Mercato, so vendors can only join when they qualify in the taste test,” says RJ Ledesma.

Ledesma shares that his company operates more like a food start-up incubator than a market organizer. In fact, Mercato has been the birthplace of popular restaurants like Manang’s Chicken, Mary Moo, Mama Lou’s, Brasas, and Sunrise Buckets. For the initial capital home-based entrepreneurs need to dish out to become a vendor—it’s P3,000 per night for a minimum of 12 nights—the Mercato Centrale team mentors them in everything from operations and marketing to finance and product development.

“That is if they pass the initial taste test,” Ledesma is quick to point out. “We’re really particular about our vendors. It doesn’t mean that if you have the money and can pay rent, then you get to join. People expect a certain level of food quality and curation from Mercato, so vendors can only join when they qualify in the taste test.” The food also needs to be able to tell a story—a factor the partners are more particular about than anything else. “Whether you’re a Filipino or a foreign vendor, food makes for a great way to share the story of your culture. It’s what our diners find most exciting about Mercato—learning the stories behind the food they are eating,” shares Diaz, citing last year’s winner of its annually staged Next Big Food Entrepreneur as an example. “An Indonesian and Filipino couple won. When they got married, the woman’s dad gave her his secret recipe for bakmi goreng, which they now sell in our markets. It’s really heritage, heirloom recipes like these that tend to be a hit among diners,” says Diaz.

DIFFERENT MOTIVATIONS

Beyond variety in food and market concepts are the motivations that power these events. Created primarily because of the founders’ “love for food,” Best Food Forward differentiates itself by being a “food market with a cause” with all of its registration proceeds funneled into social projects. “We organize feeding programs with Unang Hakbang Foundation and two other barangays. It’s something we started from year one and continue to do to this day,” shares Cariño.

Cres Yulo, co-founder of Pinoy Eats World, organizes food events that gather “like-minded people who love good food and good vibes” where guests get to mingle among themselves as well as with the chefs and the home-based entrepreneurs behind the products. Sometimes the market organizes “mashups on the fly” among purveyors selling similar products for the weekend.

“Sometimes we also invite up-and-coming singers and bands to jam and do live sessions. Like our vendors who are new to the business and have no voice yet, we invite musicians who are not yet in most people’s radars. It’s why our events attract the open-minded ones, the adventurous ones, and those willing to go all the way to where we are, excited to discover new things,” says Cres Yulo. 

“Sometimes we also invite up-and-coming singers and bands to jam and do live sessions. Like our vendors who are new to the business and have no voice yet, we invite musicians who are not yet in most people’s radars. It’s why our events attract the open-minded ones, the adventurous ones, and those willing to go all the way to where we are, excited to discover new things,” shares Yulo.   

Indeed, further boosting the staying power of these food markets is the fact that they’ve become not only food destinations, but a melting pot of people from different walks of life. “Different people buying food from different vendors, and then salo-salo. I think that’s what continues to attract people to these markets—the food is varied, the price points make sense, and the conversations are always fun and lively,” says Ledesma.

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