The launch of Alegria Manila in Bonifacio Global City (BGC) back in 2017 permeated the metro’s F&B community like urban folklore. At the center of the story was chef Charles Montañez who opened the Latin American after-hours bar after six long years. He’s been depicted as a fine culinary artist who had to eagerly wait for his creation to simmer and pass his palate before he could set it on a plate for others to experience.
Yet four years after, including two spent on a global economic crisis, Montañez seemed to transition from patient to impulsive. From April to June this year, the Grupo Alegria executive chef and chief executive officer unveiled Alegria in Singapore and Café Alegria and its sub-brand Buena Vida by Alegria in Forbestown, BGC.
He has the rest of his calendar filled with other launches: Alegria Cantina in Alabang (opening September 2021), Hacienda Alegria in Tagaytay (January 2022), Alegria Dubai (2022), Cafe Alegria in Dubai (2022), and Alegria Beach Club in Boracay (2022).
That’s a total of eight new concepts opening within the span of a year.
One has to ask Montañez the big question: “Why?” To which he becomes categorical. “The big answer is if we don’t have companies still pushing or people still being optimistic, then who will be left to do it? Businesses closed down, jobs have been lost, and the risk we are currently taking is not just meant to keep us afloat but, if lucky, to still generate income.”
Amid a business-paralyzing pandemic, the young chef prefers to keep a fit, positive, almost crazy mindset. And he has his reasons.
Expanding the Alegria brand instead of birthing new concepts altogether might just be the smartest move when it comes to venturing out. There’s the easy association, with only slight tweaks to the menu and aesthetic that would resonate with the market better. But Montañez reveals the adjustments weren’t left to these alone.
In contrast to the buzzy, metropolitan vibe of neighboring Alegria Manila, Café Alegria gives off a more easygoing ambiance with its all-day brunch concept. Hidden above it, Buena Vida is a neon-lit cocktail and bottle lounge room meant to stand alone in the future like the flagship located at the Uniqlo Building.
Alegria Cantina will feature an amalgam of Latin and Asian cuisines, cooked via wood-fire in the open. It offers a “refined yet comforting” experience, hopeful to win the taste buds of Molito’s more upscale diners.
Hacienda Alegria will be the biggest iteration yet at three floors spanning 3,000 square meters. It cleverly utilizes the real estate, having different spaces to serve different markets: a main dining room with a huge open kitchen, a private chef’s table room enclosed in a garden, a party place with a Latin-inspired bar, and the top area with an open-fire Argentine roasting pit intended for parties, art exhibits, and other functions. The entire Hacienda features Taal as its backdrop.
Hacienda Alegria will be the biggest iteration yet at three floors spanning 3,000 square meters. It cleverly utilizes the real estate, having different spaces to serve different markets: a main dining room with a huge open kitchen, a private chef’s table room enclosed in a garden, a party place with a Latin-inspired bar, and the top area with an open-fire Argentine roasting pit intended for parties, art exhibits, and other functions.
Meanwhile, Alegria Singapore is basically the brand’s new flagship, finding itself in Keong Saik district, a conservation area with a nightlife and dining scene as pulsating as Manila’s. It’s on a temporary menu following its soft opening as Montañez himself plans to launch it fully once he’s able to travel overseas again.
Montañez is particularly excited for Alegria’s first international offshoot. “We braved its opening since it has always been my dream to have a restaurant in Merlion City. It’s because of the vibrant food scene and the level of demand in the F&B industry in that area code—which I find very challenging.”
“(The) slightly different menu represents the progress of the brand—from where we started and to kind of aim to live up to the competition in Singapore, which I think is one of the best in Asia.”
Like a pop artist on tour after coming to terms with his art and ultimately his sense of self, Montañez ends each workday tired but satisfied. It is the dream for someone who, in his youth, had to switch from interior design to culinary arts to music and then back to cooking.
“I personally aim to pour out everything I have been doing for years,” says Montañez, who would work with Cargofish’s Matthew Hornsby-Bates at the start of his career.
Obviously, producing all these concepts at once has not all been smooth sailing.
For example, Montañez had planned to open Alegria Singapore in 2018. But as life would have it, along with COVID-19’s entry to the picture, he encountered delays. With enough drive plus the power of technology, however, the chef would see his oeuvre come to life little by little.
“I only planned on flying back and forth to make things happen in both Singapore and the Philippines. But due to travel restrictions, we have been limited with our movements,” he says.
“Internet is valuable today. I dealt with the construction through Zoom meetings almost every day along with the entire team, from the industrial designers to the contractors. I spearheaded the design and concepts for the entire company. I also communicated with the kitchen team through the same platform; it was a struggle for us to send recipes and do R&D’s from Manila then send them over, as it is really different when you get to work with the guys side by side.”
“The best thing we did as a group is that we established trustworthy people to run things while I am away. Our partner Ysrael (Landicho), the team that I got to work with during my time in Kilo Kitchen Singapore, and the friends that I made in the city were supportive whenever we needed help. I also met Mr. Ben Ho of Eminent, a very good kitchen design consultant based in Singapore, whom we decided to onboard for all Grupo Alegria concepts in the Philippines plus the upcoming Dubai outlets.“
All these years of Montañez being meticulous both in his craft and in choosing his collaborators have paid off. Even amid a pandemic, never before has he been this dead-set with his goal and clear with his execution. Never mind all these local government red tape slowing down the entire process, he says, as he looks back on his journey.
“This has been the mantra [and] why we have put so much value in creating jobs and keeping our businesses alive. I personally feel like being aggressive during these times really makes a difference, as we try our best not to add to the numbers of jobs being lost,” Charles Montañez says. “Being brave and daring really played a part in being willing to create businesses and jobs for people.”
“It’s lighter and easier now. I have been blessed to have beautiful people around me, namely Mayor Randy Salamat, chefs Gilbert Borja and Chico Orcine, mixologist Errol Barbosa, and Arnold Rabino. My partners and my team all give me room to create and execute ideas efficiently. We all share the same faith in each other—and that’s crucial. A team should be able to trust each other to flourish together,” he says.
If at all, the crisis pushed his entrepreneur side to home in on overlooked opportunities and, instead, capitalize on them. Say, cheaper leases, cheaper construction costs, more bargains.
“And the people we try to work with—furniture makers, sound tech, interior designers, and everyone else—are much more keen to work because of the pandemic. We have been consistently learning how to value blessings in the form of working even better.”
“The pandemic might be a challenge, but when I look and talk to the people around me, I can feel the same vibe that I felt when we were just starting out. The energy doesn’t lie, and when you all have the same vision, the road to get to where you want to be really lights up. Together, you create fire that is truly felt.”
A sense of fulfillment
It’s indeed the people—Montañez’s real “why”—that are the reason he’s able to pull off this bold business act. Next to them, creative exploration and self-gratification only come second as motivating factors.
“I started out being an employee in F&B companies, and ever since I started my own, I have always tried to make shots with the staff in mind,” he opens up. “I have experienced being one in the same industry for years. I know the struggle, and this helped trigger the ‘push’ button in me.”
“Alegria has always been for the people; we create spaces for everyone to be able to express and trigger good emotions. After all, alegria means joy. Originally, it was meant to be called Ousadia Alegria—with the first word translating to ‘daring,’” he explains.
“This has been the mantra [and] why we have put so much value in creating jobs and keeping our businesses alive. I personally feel like being aggressive during these times really makes a difference, as we try our best not to add to the numbers of jobs being lost,” he relates. “Being brave and daring really played a part in being willing to create businesses and jobs for people.”
True enough, Grupo Alegria has since beefed up its roster,from the board of directors to the rank and file. It goes to show that in growing a flexible, capable business, no matter the looming catastrophe, investment is key.
“Daring to be different is really what inspires me and my partners,” Montañez says. “We keep the vision and mission alive, so we can have them all set when everything comes back to normal.”