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Why restaurant reinvention is a big deal for business success

Even with a reputation that defined a decade, comfort food café Chelsea's viability fizzled to an end brought about by a changing market. In its place however is a new Japanese venture addressing the location's emerging population

Photos by Pat Mateo

Compared with many contemporaries who have come and gone in Bonifacio Global City, Martin Wisniewski and Kalel Chan rose to prominence when Serendra was still a destination for the Manila market. Nearly two decades on, Wisniewski and Chan are still at the forefront of the food industry owing to the way they’ve weathered an onslaught of openings from competitors.

The two aren’t also the types to shy away from a challenge. Last year, they embarked on several projects to update, renovate, innovate, and even close down some restaurants in their Raintree Group roster. M Café eventually met its demise while Stella and Rocket Room were transformed into Coconut Club and Friends and Family, which, unsurprisingly, has received positive reception from customers. So it might not even be a stretch to expect their latest revival to be a potential crowd favorite.

STARTING ANEW

With a landmark location in Serendra, the 12-year-old space formerly housing comfort food outpost Chelsea Market and Café has been deliberately stripped of its Western attributes to favor what Wisniewski calls “an all-day Japanese café.” The result of this change epitomizes how a fickle dining market (not necessarily Filipinos) can force the trajectory of a business into directions—up, down, or shuttered for good—no entrepreneur can prepare for.

“When we opened Chelsea, Serendra was a destination,” says Wisniewski. “There wasn’t any Bonifacio High Street yet. So we got the entire Manila at the time. Now, even in BGC itself, there are neighborhoods already, people on the other side of 5th Avenue don’t really come to Serendra.”

The Motto Motto rolls include crab sticks and tempura

In a place like Serendra where many expats reside, converting an upscale café into a playful establishment that embraces the new market’s inclinations seems like a pleasant opportunity to move forward, but businesses are anything but predictable. Despite reinventing into Chelsea Grand Café four years ago to tackle the market shift, Chan admits that “it’s really hard to read the market,” but there are clear signs when a restaurant has run its course.

“Number one is sales. You see it when your regulars are not coming back as much,” says Wisniewski. “If you don’t see them often anymore, you have to ask yourself why, and that’s a hard look at yourself. Is your food still good? Are you still consistent? Is there value in your restaurant? Is it still valuable compared to the ones around you? Just within our two-block radius alone there’s at least 50 to 60 restaurants and maybe 15 that compete directly with us.”

“I believe every three to six years you should change your concept, especially if you’re in a high-volume location. Eventually, people get bored,” says Martin Wisniewski.

Prior to relaunching the space as Motto Motto and splashing fresh colors on its predecessor’s palette, Wisniewski admits that breaking ground for a decades-old location that seemed to be at a dead end entailed plenty of introspection, patience, and even surprises.

“The biggest market here are the residents of Serendra and because we have Saboten, we know there are a lot of Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese who chose to live here,” he says of the new identity.

“Your number one priority should be good food but everything else has to complement that,” he adds. “Not everybody goes to a restaurant to eat. They like to hang out or work or chat with friends. Sometimes food is secondary to them. The world is changing. Manila is changing.”

Wagyu gyudon
All-day teishoku set
SLOW AND STEADY

Motto Motto is their fourth Japanese concept after Saboten, Chotto Matte, and Izakaya Sensu. Given the impact Chelsea had created when it first opened, it’s hard not to hold Motto Motto to the same standards of that time. But this café, which literally translates to “more, more” is exciting in its own right.

In the most obvious sense, Motto Motto is a departure out of necessity. Full of insight on what the market’s characteristics are like right now, at least within its vicinity.

Starting with eclectic color blocking contrasted with more overt design elements like Raintree Group creative head Jeremy Dim’s large-scale Daruma mural and informative infographics that educate customers on the differences of gunkan, nigiri, homosaki, and uramaki, the domain doesn’t feel as if it faced a limited budget and delayed production schedules. Instead, it clearly demonstrates the long-held fact that good design solves problems.

Raintree Group creative head Jeremy Dim

“We always kept the word ‘kawaii’ in mind while doing the designs, always injecting Japan’s distinct culture of cuteness,” explains Dim. “The menu colors featured a play of blues, pinks, and whites. These shades complement the interiors and gave the industrial look a softer touch. We think the mural defines what Motto Motto is all about, a contemporary Japanese restaurant that doesn’t take itself too seriously.”

Under the guidance of architect Noel Bernardo, the 200-sq.m space comprises subtle sequences reminiscent of the original Chelsea layout, only blown wide open with design interventions such as opening up the ceiling, upgrading electrical wiring, plumbing, and air conditioning systems, and avoiding unnecessary fragmentation to achieve a sense of scale. The glass walls remain unchanged to allow diners to soak in the seasonal character of Serendra while the reupholstered couches and installation of a sushi bar and a flamingo pink private room say a lot about the space’s progression as a distinct concept separate from its Japanese siblings and Western café roots.

“Botox or rebranding will only bring up your sales maybe five to 10 percent but a new concept gives you a whole new restaurant,” says Wisniewski. “We gave Chelsea Botox but didn’t lower the prices. People thought it was still, at the time, P650 per person when everybody around us was in the P350 to P450 [price range]. We didn’t get a new customer base, we just kept the same customers so it wasn’t worth it.”

But it’s the back of the house that reveals where the most shapeshifting occurred. “Mas lumaki ’yung kitchen. We extended the exhaust [and took the office space next door] kasi mas maliit ’yung exhaust before,” says Chan about the remodeling to fit the Japanese kitchen format. The change in concept also required equipment upgrades to be able to swiftly serve the new cuisine they are offering such as a yakitori grill that’s still in the process of completion, high-pressure burners for fast turnover during high-volume hours, and Japanese fryers for consistency. “If you load up, for example, tempura, you have five orders, hindi bumababa ’yung temperature. [For table-top fryers] kapag ni-load up mo ’yan, bababa ’yung temperature so iba ’yung effect [on the tempura]. Now, nag-a-adjust siya so you can achieve greater consistency.”

A random Pikachu find in Tagaytay ended up influencing the entire restaurant design
THINGS GREAT AND SMALL

The menu, which may feel too expansive for its own good, is just as inviting, amplifying the diversity of Japanese cuisine with all-day teishoku sets, family-style nabes, varieties of noodles, curry iterations, and even a shinkansen meal for kids. The menu is one of the most comprehensive and while in less experienced hands it could pose more problems than benefits, Wisniewski and Chan explain that it works in the location.

“Like what Martin said, if he lives here, every day he would want to try new things. Hindi ka magsasawa. If you only have 20 items on the menu, pupunta ka lang siguro once or thrice a month,” says Chan. “We had a guest whose daughter dined here for five days straight.” Motto Motto’s mood is reflective of the types of people they serve, too: young Asian expat families who now call Serendra home.

As such, rebranding or “Botox” as they call it, may have added a slight edge to Chelsea but a facelift is never the ideal mechanism for conveying a statement, finding ways to reconnect with customers, or getting out of a slump in a market that’s already moved on. “Botox will only bring up your sales maybe five to 10 percent but a new concept gives you a whole new restaurant,” says Wisniewski. “We gave Chelsea Botox but didn’t lower the prices. People thought it was still, at the time, P650 per person when everybody around us was in the P350 to P450 [price range]. We didn’t get a new customer base, we just kept the same customers so it wasn’t worth it.”

BY THE BOOK
Hamburger steak with grated radish ponzu sauce

It’s hard not to be impressed by the longevity of some restaurants, including Chelsea, but it’s just as hard not to wonder whether restaurants were really designed to last. Unless it’s a fast food joint that can operate virtually anywhere, there is something odd about a business surviving the test of time.

“Chelsea was my second restaurant and it was the complete opposite of my first, M Café,” says Wisniewski. “What it showed me when it became successful was that you don’t have to multiply a restaurant. It showed me that you should try to fit your concept into the area you’re entering.”

Motto Motto is re-engaging the market head on and though it’s only been around for a couple of months, the all-day Japanese café is making sure it won’t overstay its welcome.

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