In adapting to the changing times, every business knows too well how important it is to foster a sense of openness. Revisit the brand, tweak the menu, restructure the team a little—these are all part of the dynamics of an ever-evolving entrepreneurial venture. 

While chef Steve Shrimski of Cebu’s compound of quaint restaurants Circa 1900 abided by these, he believes that the rigors of entrepreneurship also come down to logistics, values, and, in his own words, DNA—elements  that he especially had to rely on in the process of creating a new brand during the pandemic. 

Whereas Circa 1900 charms patrons with colonial houses-turned-restaurants, plated food service, and a full waitstaff, Steve’s new cloud kitchen Potluk Asian Kitchen serves food in carton boxes. Whereas the venues inside the Circa 1900 expanse—Casa Uno and Casa Dos—draw people in with their home-away-from-home setting, Potluk encourages customers to enjoy their packed food in their own homes. It’s a total shift for the Australian chef, who first built a name in Cebu in 2009 with Canvas Bistro Bar Gallery at Ayala Center Cebu.

Yet, as he reiterates, these are all just logistics that proved to be easier to adjust to—as long as his core values remained intact. “The transition from serving gourmet food at a fine dining site to packaged crew meals was no different. We applied the same respect for food—from handling quality ingredients to being precise in the method of cookery,” Steve and wife Eya reveal.

“Even in a crisis, the values that form the foundation of the organization’s culture must not only be espoused but also seen in the behaviors, actions, and decisions made,” Steve and Eya Shrimski says. “For us, it gave clarity in direction and transparency within the team; it made a difference navigating through a crisis we were all not prepared for. Our values helped us keep things in check.” 

A family affair

Serving a variety of Asian food, the name Potluk came from the Shrimkis’ humble beginnings in Sydney.

“It was our garage back home where we made chili sauces. As we wanted a hot one for ourselves, we threw all the ingredients that were lying around into a pot. And we liked it. We started bottling them to sell in the gourmet markets,” the couple narrates.

“Potluck basically means nothing very specific or precise, but what is available and around, put them all together and produce a good-tasting product—that is fresh, tasty, and still contributes to the well-being of the diner,” they say. 

Steve launched the brand in September last year out of equal need and want. As he kept the restaurant Cicada Tapas and Bar and Noshery Bakery and Sweets at Casa Dos both open to serve pickup and delivery orders, he and his family spent the rest of their downtime, well, cooking.

“To minimize the anxiety, we experimented with old favorite recipes and cooked the food we missed and used to enjoy,” recall Steve and Eya. “We would reminisce about our work assignments overseas in Asia—Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Hong Kong, China. So, as we could do more than just reminisce, we would recreate dishes we wanted and would post photos with descriptions online.”

Potluk's pad krapow gai
One of the first dishes offered is the spicy “Pad Krapow Gai” or stir-fried chicken with Thai basil, chili, soy, and oyster Sauce with wok-fried egg and organic brown rice

The Shrimskis found no difficulty concocting, with their own garden at home from where they’d source organic ingredients. They had the same ease preparing since they were literally just cooking for themselves. Visuals of these light, healthy, and seemingly easy-to-do dishes posted online eventually intrigued friends.

“People kept messaging, requesting to buy the healthy home-cooked comfort meals we were eating at home. So, we started Potluk,” the couple says. “You get what we like to cook at home—and more.”

The digital detour

While supervising a now leaner team behind Casa Dos, the Shrimskis led another for Potluk. But a lack of feel in doing business online posed a challenge in their transition. From conceptualizing dishes that would withstand long deliveries to measuring client satisfaction, the couple had to educate themselves anew.

“We invested in an extra fridge and freezer to ensure all food is stored safely and correctly, so they can always be fresh. This was critical!” the couple says. “Our presentation standards and takeout menu had to be thought through. For example, there are dishes that won’t travel well like crispy food that eventually gets soggy.”

In the Potluk pipeline are dressings, condiments, sauces, stir-fry pastes, and ready-to-cook items
Most of Potluk’s dishes are old recipes from Steve and Eya’s work assignments in Asia like pad Thai, char siu tamarind pork, samurai soba noodle salad, and kimchi pancake with garlic prawns

“The menu could not be too technical, difficult, or time-consuming to produce. It had to be simple.”

The digital nature of the kitchen obviously meant a lot of self-learning, too. Simply posting dishes online and receiving likes and comments on it, they realized, was nowhere what online entrepreneurship truly is.

“How to make the menu size suitable for selling online—the variety, the sections, when to post, how often to post were all new,” the couple admits. “You watch what other people do and see who is effective to emulate. You then develop your own strategy that works.”

Beyond the branding

Soon enough, Potluk saw success. And while the Shrimskis believe that it’s the down-to-earth dishes that appeal to middle-class sensibilities, the result can also be attributed to trust.

“Potluk has been easier because these are simple comfort food dishes recognized globally. It is easily understood by the locals through their travels, and the prices are very affordable. The market does not need to be convinced to try it, as there is a little bit of brand equity through Circa 1900 and Canvas. The trust has been there to give it a go,” the couple shares.

The Shrimkis find delight in clients calling their food lami (tasteful) and sulit (of great value) on top of the positive feedback (“creative, clean, and well-presented”) they receive about their delivery and packaging.

Potluk’s menu also changes often, including the types of cuisines served.

“Sometimes, it depends on what is freshly available, but we serve familiar cuisines like Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Malay—but mostly with our own twist to make it special and different,” the Shrimskis say. Withstanding these frequent adjustments are Potluk’s bestsellers: pad Thai, char siu tamarind pork, samurai soba noodle salad, and kimchi pancake with garlic prawns.

“Sometimes, it depends on what is freshly available, but we serve familiar cuisines like Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Malay—but mostly with our own twist to make it special and different,” the Shrimskis say.

Withstanding these frequent adjustments are Potluk’s bestsellers: pad Thai, char siu tamarind pork, samurai soba noodle salad, and kimchi pancake with garlic prawns.

There’s also more to come on the menu, as Potluk plans to launch its own pantry items that will include dressings, condiments, sauces, and stir-fry paste. It will also have ready-to-cook items meant to serve families and other big groups.

The values that matter

Recently, the Shrimskis have been discussing how to broaden their venture with an online shop. With the cloud kitchen poised to peak, Steve and Eya maintain a receptivity to change as the number one value they have clung to en route to success.

“We were constantly changing up every week, to remain relevant and to meet the needs of the customers and that of the staff, too. We did not always get it right the first time, but we were willing to change and to redirect without losing focus on continuity,” the couple says.

“Do not rely only on one income stream. Develop different forms of revenue stream—whatever is needed. When we could not serve alcohol, our mixologist was quick to engage in creating non-alcoholic tonics made from ingredients grown within the garden.”

Casa Uno gearing for a comeback
Casa Uno’s colonial atmosphere and plated food service had to take a backseat due to COVID-19
Circa 1900's own vertical herb garden
The Circa 1900 restaurants are now 85 percent dependent on the garden for their herb supply

The Shrimkis are also applying the same principle to Circa 1900, which is renowned for hosting weddings and other corporate events. Casa Dos, for one, isn’t just operating on QR codes for contact tracing, ordering, or even reservations. It’s also set to house Green House at Casa Dos Garden, an open-air, polycarbonate-ceilinged pavilion aimed at accommodating no more than 50 guests. It’s the Shrimskis’ response to the new normal in events.

Above all, the Shrimskis say it’s about building strong trust and enduring relationships with people. 

“It cannot always be business as usual. Do not forget the human aspect. Establish value in relationships—with customers, suppliers, staff, and neighbors,” says the couple. They emphasize that mutually beneficial relationships, such as buying from locals engaged in natural farming and investing in staff professional development, all make a big difference in the business.

Case in point: their vertical herb garden project. “The restaurant is now 85 percent dependent on the garden for the herbs. This allows us to use fresh herbs and save cost, and [have a] sense of pride with what [the team has] done together.”

“Even in a crisis, the values that form the foundation of the organization’s culture must not only be espoused but also seen in the behaviors, actions, and decisions made,” the couple says. “For us, it gave clarity in direction and transparency within the team; it made a difference navigating through a crisis we were all not prepared for. Our values helped us keep things in check.”