Ann Añasco and her husband Jon were just about ready to open their Filipino restaurant Esmeralda Kitchen back in April 2020 when, on March 16, the entire Luzon was placed under lockdown.
“I clearly remember that day. So when that hit us, we thought it would be only about two weeks or so,” says Añasco. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. “I had to let go of my people because there was no way I knew how long this would last.”
She put her restaurant dreams on hold and started a baking and food tray business at home, using this time to get her name out there and showing people in her village that she can cook.
“I’m not from the F&B industry. I’m a dentist by profession. So when I finally opened the restaurant in November of last year, I realized that I couldn’t run this big of an operation if I didn’t seek help from people that are seasoned in the industry.”
“Esmeralda Kitchen was almost perfect,” says restaurant consultant Cyrus Cruz. “It started out [with] good, solid, home-style recipes created by the owners. Their issue was they weren’t sure if this product was in the right place at the right time. They didn’t know how to position the restaurant.”
She enlisted The Food Agency, a boutique agency that specializes in creating restaurant and hospitality concepts and helping clients execute ideas from start to finish, to tie loose ends together.
“Esmeralda Kitchen was almost perfect,” says managing director and chief restaurant consultant Cyrus Cruz. “It started out [with] good, solid, home-style recipes created by the owners. They had a beautiful, thoughtful place with loads of character. Their issue was they weren’t sure if this product was in the right place at the right time. They didn’t know how the market would react to it. They didn’t know how to position the restaurant.”
“When I came on board, I talked to the consultants, the owners, the head staff, and customers. What we did was we tied everything together. We wanted it all to sound harmonious. We identified Esmeralda’s personality. We said, ‘Ok this is how she talks. This is the food that we serve.’ The market we cater to is very similar to Esmeralda’s peers,” Cruz explains.
Through this audit, Cruz was able to imbue the restaurant’s collaterals and even its social media accounts with Esmeralda’s personality and voice. The agency was able to set a consistent and clear direction that not only attracted the right crowd but also served as a guide for the type of food and service it provided.
“Our food is like the name Esmeralda—classic and mysterious. We have our kare-kare and lechon but we elevate it. We wanted the restaurant to also feel nostalgic while you’re eating food you’re familiar with. Hopefully it strikes a memory,” Añasco says.
The Food Agency has worked with 285 properties and opened 160 restaurants since opening in 2009. But this second quarter of 2022 has been their busiest yet.
“A new generation of restaurateurs are here and they’re so different. They’re eager, they’re involved, they’re informed. They’re very enthusiastic and it’s giving life to our F&B industry,” he says.
Here, Cruz offers advice for those planning to take the leap into opening a restaurant.
Keep it lean
“The number one learning during the pandemic—and it’s something we continue to preach to clients—is to keep your team extremely lean but don’t let customers feel it. What we’re trying to do now is to create a lean team that can multitask and own a whole zone. For instance, if you’re at the front of the house, you can also manage the cashier and also the bar if possible.”
“Creating a restaurant is not like a production line where you can create a mold and produce it and it does it automatically. A restaurant is like a performance every single day. There are so many moving pieces,” says The Food Agency chief restaurant consultant Cyrus Cruz.
Experience is your staff’s best teacher
“The staff needs to be happy. They need to be confident. They need to believe in their product. We do a lot of immersion programs. If we’re trying to teach them top level service, they need to experience it for themselves. You can’t just teach it and hope that they can do it themselves.”
No two restaurants are the same
“Creating a restaurant is not like a production line where you can create a mold and produce it and it does it automatically. A restaurant is like a performance every single day. There are so many moving pieces.”
Be all in
“My best advice is to be 110 percent in. It can’t be a sideline. A sideline will remain a sideline. But if you’re looking for something grander and bigger, you have to jump in and give it your all. I completely understand of course they have to think about their family, should they leave their jobs, switch careers. But if you know this is something you want to go into, save up and then jump in.”
Seek the right professionals
“Seeking professional help is very important. Unless you’re a seasoned restaurateur or hospitality expert—although even those guys sometimes need help—it’s always good to have the right people looking out for you. We have a lot of clients that are chef-owned restaurants. And they specifically know their limitations. They need help with other stuff, with operations, with branding, marketing or sales.
“Restaurateurs know they need well-seasoned chefs. Not just to create an amazing menu lineup but they also need help and expertise to manage the back of the house. The devil hides behind those margins. Especially with restaurants, every peso counts.”