Self-awareness might just be David Licauco’s strongest suit.
“Kailangan ko ma-figure out [how to draw in more customers on slow days],” he ponders out loud, as if willing the air around him for the right strategy to offset the weight of such a business reality.
As he sits in the adjacent table mentally fiddling with the marketing derailleur of Sobra Cafe, his first physical restaurant in Molito Lifestyle Center in Alabang, you get the impression that the debonair actor-turned-entrepreneur is riding through a baptism by fire.
It’s easy to dismiss this self-reflective process as him biting off more than he can chew or that the 28-year-old is swimming in the deep end of his ambitions. “Sobrang aggressive,” he describes his industry moves. “But I think it’s my personality talaga.”
Of course, restaurants do experience slow hours and days, and the reality is that generally most people dine out on weekends. But accepting this actuality and toying with strategies can usually lead to the most appropriate solutions and a state in which everything clicks into place.
It’s easy to dismiss the self-reflective process of David Licauco as him biting off more than he can chew or that the 28-year-old is swimming in the deep end of his ambitions. “But I think it’s my personality talaga,” he says about his rapid expansion.
Granted, this isn’t Licauco’s first rodeo in foodservice. His upbringing included working as a service crew at his mother’s fast food joints in Bicol as well as managing his own franchises like Turks.
“Nagse-serve ako as service crew, naglalagay ako ng ice cream. Kung sino ’yung mukhang mabait, dadamihan ko ng ice cream,” he says with a laugh.
Sobra Cafe, however, is his first standalone branded venture that was initially established as an online food delivery business during the height of the pandemic. He worked on it alongside Kuya Korea, which is now also flipping the script from digital to physical with a store currently being geared up for launch at UP Town Center in Katipunan.
“For Kuya Korea, the plan is for it to be a franchise. [They are] two different concepts. But sometimes kailangan mo din ng calculated risk,” he says.
David Licauco and his comfort food startup
When the pandemic brought everything to a standstill, Licauco, whose focus the last few years has been show business, admits that it gave him “time to reflect, stop, and pause.”
“If you’re bored and embrace your boredom then creativity comes in. I think dun nangyari ’yun. Isip lang ako nang isip until may nag-invite sa ’kin [to open a] restaurant.”
To his credit, what Licauco and his partners AC Adriano and chef Mike Victorioso of Agimat at Ugat Foraging Bar have created meets the demands of a dining public craving new experiences in new spaces.
When the pandemic brought everything to a standstill, David Licauco, whose focus the last few years has been show business, admits that it gave him time to reflect, stop, and pause. “If you’re bored and embrace your boredom then creativity comes in.”
The premise of Sobra Cafe is simple and one that is encapsulated in its implied vision: Food you deserve, food that uplifts, and food that boosts morale amid an uncertain period in time.
Their signature “You deserve this today” label originally plastered on their delivery boxes now emanate across the space and the menu.
Sure, it’s no Michelin-star restaurant, but it’s a fine beast in Alabang with beloved comfort food on offer and interior design that’s largely made for the Instagram and TikTok generation. The two-level flagship pays respects to the sign of the times where soothing coastal colors and barn chic pleasures hint at obvious escapist appetites. Potted plants sitting on the floor and hanging from above, as well as large aesthetic mirrors, set the backdrop for an attention-attracting bar that welcomes customers.
Upstairs, there’s plenty of natural light to pull trigger-happy Gen Z into their own nooks for well-lit TikToks, Reels, and Shorts of the breakfast-heavy menu that Victorioso and Licauco worked on.
The results are simple in execution but hearty in helpings. Skim the paper menu and you will be clued in on the kind of earnest items they offer. The Ono! Fried Chicken is a classic crisp boneless chicken sandwich replete with flavors from the pickled cabbage and a roasted bell pepper sauce wedged in between the brioche buns.
“Lagi kong sinasabi sa chef namin na we have to have food that people deserve, especially in the midst of the pandemic where people have a lot of problems,” says David Licauco.
There are also unassuming favorites that don’t just wallow in their familiarity but also get subtle embellishments from Victorioso to keep things interesting. From a mac and cheese bolstered by pork belly burnt ends—his playful take on soft and firm textures—to a French toast best eaten with a latte, the food here are decent examples of staying true to Sobra Cafe’s humble origins in Licauco’s condominium.
But it’s their beef tapa bowl that’s rightfully cooking up a storm among customers, thanks to tender morsels of US beef and a smeary mix of fried garlic chips and an over-easy egg rousing palates with striking saltiness, savoriness, and some sweetness with each bite.
“Lagi kong sinasabi sa chef namin na we have to have food that people deserve, especially in the midst of the pandemic where people have a lot of problems,” says Licauco.
Facing the realities of a food business
At the risk of sounding cliche, Licauco is like a sponge—but one who is confident in his own skin.
It’s easy to criticize celebrity entrepreneurs, especially if you consider cases of flopping in the restaurant business. However, the courage of characters like Licauco who dive headfirst into these ventures is laudable enough to make these kinds of attempts resonate with many aspirants in pursuit of their own entrepreneurial dreams.
For instance, getting the current Sobra Cafe space was a window into the future Licauco and hopeful restaurateurs would face. “During the pandemic, we’d always come here because of the open space and then I saw a place right beside Miyazaki,” says Licauco. “The next day, I called up Molito and asked if I could present my concept. They gave me a schedule and after five days I presented.”
It’s easy to criticize celebrity entrepreneurs, especially if you consider cases of flopping in the restaurant business. However, the courage of characters like David Licauco who dive headfirst into these ventures is laudable enough to make these kinds of attempts resonate with many aspirants in pursuit of their own entrepreneurial dreams.
The experience was nerve-racking to say the least. He didn’t get the space he wanted but was offered a different one instead. That said, his pluckiness and trust in his product proved significant. Since that debut presentation to mall complex executives, Licauco has had an interesting run with how he deals with customer feedback, including one on TikTok where a user pointed out acoustics concerns on the second floor.
In true entrepreneurial fashion, Licauco personally commented on the post, acknowledged the customer concern, and vowed to make some adjustments—a move that could only benefit his new relationship with the Alabang community.
While Sobra Cafe has some ground left to cover for fixing flaws during its soft opening, Licauco’s humility and conviction manage to have moments that make you realize what this little cafe could really become.
And, as pointed out, there’s no shortage of self-awareness for the engaged and energized entrepreneur looking to rebrand your perception of what abundant, value-driven comfort food is.
After all, their name “sobra” says it all.