Husband and wife Nowie and Odette Potenciano were already set for the coming summer.
They have five flourishing food businesses in Boracay—the four-year-old all-day breakfast bakery and cafe The Sunny Side Cafe, the piri-piri grill Spicebird, Supermagic, which offers freshly ground burgers and ice cream, Coco Mama, which serves ice cream in fresh coconut shells, and a Cantonese joint called Popo that opened just last March.
Apart from that, they are partners in Streetmarket Boracay, a hip food hall with eight different restaurants and an artisanal souvenir shop. The husband-and-wife restaurateur tandem already had stocks for the season, have spiffed up their shops, and trained their staff in time for summer. They’ve even invested in their home, located on top of Spicebird, to make it cozier since they spend 75 percent of their time in Boracay to manage their businesses. Indeed, they were ready for the onslaught of tourists—but definitely not the government’s decision to close the resort island.
On April 4, a spokesperson for President Rodrigo Duterte declared the closure of the popular beach destination for six months to fix sewage and environment-related problems. It was a decision that cost the tourism sector an estimated P56 billion and one that left more than 36,000 people unemployed, 100 of whom worked for the Potencianos.
“We were very distraught,” says Nowie, who along with the owners of almost 500 tourism-related businesses in Boracay, were only given three weeks from announcement to shutdown. “We had recently decided to concentrate all our efforts in Boracay and with the closure, we lost everything. Ninety-five percent of our customers are tourists, and with the island closed to them, we had no choice but to close all the restaurants. This means that we do not have income for the duration of the closure. It took us years to build our businesses and just like that, they were gone.”
Casualties of war
The short notice didn’t give them enough time to run down inventory. Though they were able to sell some of their goods to friends and contacts in Manila, they still had some considerable write-offs. What was most challenging though was relaying the sad news to their staff.
“It was one of the most difficult days of my life,” admits Nowie. “It was hard having to tell all of them that they would have no income through no fault of our own but the government. Even at this time, we still feel some trepidation. There does not seem to be a concrete plan in place and no definite date for the reopening. We feel worried for ourselves and for our staff, some of whom have been with us for a very long time.”
“For us, we know that the next six months without income would be difficult. But somehow we will survive. I don’t know how our employees will,” says Odette Potenciano. “Legally, we’re not required to pay them according to DOLE so long as we take them back once the island reopens. But we told them that we will try our best to look for something.”
With the government withholding any definite and firm information about the progress on the island, it’s hard for entrepreneurs and hotel operators to come up with any arrangements for their return. “For us, we know that the next six months without income would be difficult. But somehow we will survive. I don’t know how our employees will,” says Odette. “Legally, we’re not required to pay them according to DOLE so long as we take them back once the island reopens. But we told them that we will try our best to look for something.”
Fortunately, people in the F&B industry were quick to reach out and help. A week before Boracay’s closure, the Potencianos already had projects lined up.
The game plan from Boracay to Manila
Their friend from college Monique Fernandez-Garcia lent her events space in Alabang for The Sunny Side Cafe pop-up. Charles Paw and Dwight Co of Hole in the Wall did the same, giving up four of their concepts for their Boracay brands to take over. Coco Mama can be found at the Saturday Salcedo Market as well as in Flotsam & Jetsam in La Union. Wildflour also took in some of their staff for temporary employment at one of their restaurants. “We’re lucky to have a base in Manila and to know people in the industry. People are helping us out and so it would be wrong for us not to help our staff,” says Nowie.
“Our goal for these pop-ups is really to provide our employees with some income while the island is closed. Six months without income is a long time. Being able to provide income for them for two or three months during the closure would be a big help.”
Their intention is indeed noble but it comes with a price. In order to make these endeavors happen, they had to ship equipment and stocks from Boracay to Manila. This included items from tables and chairs to grills and cutlery. There is also the complexity and expense of having to send over 40 of their staff and providing them with accommodation while they are in Manila. They’d be very happy if they break even with all the expenses.
“It’s hurting us financially to do these things. And it would have been cheaper for us if we did nothing,” adds Nowie Potenciano. “But at the end of the day, if we didn’t try to do these for our staff, some of whom have been with us since the beginning then we wouldn’t be happy.”
“We’re not doing this for profit. That was never the goal. If there’s some profit, great,” says Odette. “We go through peak seasons in Boracay when everyone works for long hours. We see their dedication. We thought of that and said that we can’t not do anything for them.”
“It’s hurting us financially to do these things. And it would have been cheaper for us if we did nothing,” adds Nowie. “But at the end of the day, if we didn’t try to do these for our staff, some of whom have been with us since the beginning then we wouldn’t be happy.”