Restaurant Conceptualization

This was the talk I gave for the DINE PHILIPPINES at SMX Davao last July 2014.  This year's theme is Filipino Competitiveness Amidst ASEAN Integration.
Outside SMX
Outside SMX

Once in awhile, I get asked to give talks about food.

I’ve always seen myself as more of an observer and student of things that pertain to it, be it cooking or studying food ways or even the restaurant biz – but somehow I get lumped together with some really heavy hitters when I do these things. It’s humbling, to say the least, but I guess I must be doing something right then.

This talk, which I gave in Davao, was given as part of a series of conventions in the Mindanao region called DINE Philippines. Run by couple Adolf and Alu Aran, I see now that it’s their way of trying to raise the bar of the food scene on a national level. What I love most about these experiences, apart from meeting really wonderful people (and breaking bread with them!), is getting an education from my co-speakers – in this case French Baker’s Johnlu Koa, entrepreneur/social media specialist Homer Nievera, and GeiserMaclang’s Amor Maclang. Crazy right? I felt like a student attending a lecture.

DINE Philippines Davao Co-Speakers
DINE Philippines Davao Co-Speakers

At any rate, I just wanted to share with you, my Just Jonesing readers, my little part in all this, and hope you learn a bit from it too. Here is it, slightly edited to be easier to read, and without the slide show. Hope ya like it!

“Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen of Davao.

Today I’m supposed to talk to you about Concept Innovation.

Nowadays, I am sure you have noticed the surge in the food biz. Restaurants are opening at lightning speed, and sometimes they close at lightning speed to, unfortunately.

This may be because of several reasons – maybe they were in a bad location (because as we all know location is a key factor to success)… maybe the service was horrible and they drove people away (something we really have to address in this country, if you ask me!)… or well, maybe the food was just bad. OR…. their concept wasn’t tight enough.

Is there a formula for success? Not really, if you ask me. Even the best of restaurants with all the right pieces sometimes fail. Nothing is foolproof. BUT if your concept is tight, and you lock it down, and you have some luck on your side: then you have a fighting chance. Later on I’ll discuss with you some models which I think really work – places that have lines out the door because they’re doing something right.

But before that, here are some practical observations and some tips you may want to take into consideration when thinking of your concept, or if you’re considering entering the food business in general. Here they are in no particular order:

Your Local Identity by Plus63 Design Co.

Your Local Identity by Plus63 Design Co.


  • EMBRANCE THE MILLENIAL. (Here I showed a slide of 19-21 year olds, members of Antioch, a Catholic group I’m involved with in my parish) Embrace the mind of the millennial. They may not have that much spending power YET, but they are already changing the way things are done. They live to LIVE: they work to travel, journey to the unfamiliar. They are visual. They seek the unusual. They love to eat, take pictures, create. (Here I show a slide of a friend of mine, Mikka Wee) This is Mikka, 26, the managing editor of top food blog, and a good friend of mine. She encompasses everything a millennial is about, and who also happens to be an influencer. Millenials eat “carpe diem” (seize the day) for breakfast. Ride that wave and let it inspire you to drive your concept home.  


  • SOCIAL MEDIA, FOR NOW, IS KING. (Here I showed a slide of one of my recent Instagram posts – featuring a restaurant in Osaka that basically rounded up the best beef and pork cuts from all over Japan. Yes, it got a good number of hits!) In case you haven’t yet – take a long hard look at social media and hop on that bus, because at least until the near future this is how things are going to get done. It is the fastest way to get the word out, it is how you can spread images of your business with the tap of a button. It is how information is and will be digested on a normal basis by a lot of people. By tapping into this resource, you reach not just those around you, but the whole world. This may all seem obvious, but you will be surprised how many are still not keen on social media.


  • ITS ALL IN THE DETAILS. (Here I showed slides of Gab Busto and Thea Rivera, owners of The Girl & The Bull in BF Homes – a visually arresting place, chockfull of eye candy) Here’s an interesting way to look at things too – take into consideration how visual people are these days, now more than ever. I’m sure you’ve heard or even use that app called Instagram – one of my favorite apps to use these days, because it’s so effective. I’ve read about restaurateurs that have planned and built their physical space to be instantly “Instagrammable” – a 21st century term, no doubt, but one that makes total sense. People will be taking snapshots anyway – apart from the food, give them interesting things to shoot. (Here I put a slide from Noriter – one of the coolest looking cafes I’ve seen ANYWHERE – and it’s one near DLSU, and mainly for students.) Clever details, amusing objects, transporting spaces (Here I showed a slide of The Black Pig in Alabang, because while their interiors are decidedly more adult, they still managed to put in a lot of details that will catch anyone that’s interested in design) --- let them share these with the world, and get added buzz immediately. Remember that you want to give an EXPERIENCE. (Here I flashed a slide of Sonja Ocampo and her Sonja’s Cupcakes – because her new shops embrace this aesthetic and really draw you in visually. ALL her new shops look great. No mean feat. 


  • PUT MORE EFFORT INTO YOUR SERVICE CULTURE. (Here I showed a pic of Ronnie, a Pinoy restaurant manager from Singapore, and who is really efficient and clearly some who loves his job) As you shoot ideas together, please also put some time into thinking about your service philosophy. It’s more than just serving food quickly and efficiently. It’s about how you respond to customers, the culture you cultivate, and what kind of atmosphere you want in your establishment. I for one would love see more restaurants where servers LOVE WHAT THEY DO, LOVE THEIR MANAGEMENT AND LOVE THEIR RESTAURANT. If you figure a way to make them have ownership too, to be truly proud to be a part of your front of house, there will be so much less headaches and so much more room to concentrate on what you’re there for: to give an awesome customer experience. Don’t coddle, but truly care - and watch the staff blossom. I’ve had the good fortune of meeting one of the management of the Les Amis group from Singapore – and he told me they take staff abroad to beautiful restaurants and let them see, taste and experience for themselves what a humming, successful restaurant is like as a diner. Now that may seem extreme for a lot of us, but I do get what he’s trying to do. He’s transforming them to be better-equipped front of house. (There is a book I highly recommend called “Setting The Table” by one of New York’s most successful restaurateurs, Danny Meyer. It’s a chockfull of inspiration as far as the service aspect of things go.
  • MAKING A CONCEPT IS LIKE THE SEARCHING FOR A LOVER: FIND THE PERFECT MATCH. (Here I put a slide of Iza Calzado.. mainly because I crush badly on her. Hehe!) Lastly, choose wisely the people you work with. Make sure you find a chef that is a fit with what you plan to do. There are a lot of progressive chefs out there who need like minded (AND business minded) people to team up with – these are the ones you want to seek out and partner with.

Consider all these as you’re cooking up your business, and you may have enough ammunition to do something proper and something that works.

Now to end things, here are a few homegrown restaurants and restaurateurs who I think are doing something special, and why.

  • Sensei Sushi – This is an anomaly in the restaurant world. For one thing, it’s in the tiniest sliver of a space in BF Homes – a bit hard to find for the uninitiated to the area. Plus it’s not really a “Japanese” restaurant so to speak, (although they do serve great ala carte sashimi, and tempura and stuff). What most people come here for are the tasting menus of whatever comes out of the crazy mind of Chef/Owner Bruce Ricketts. His thinking is so out of the box that one cannot fathom where his ideas come out of – especially when you consider he’s all of 25. Even he doesn’t know where his ideas come from anymore. But one thing is for sure – he creates some of the most amazing food I’ve ever had, period. This is a niche product, but one that works because he connects with his clients, and the food, while out of the box, still tastes of the delicious and the familiar. World class stuff. 

  • The Moment Group – This power trio is arguably one of the most aggressive restaurant groups in Manila these days, but no one can deny that they have a nose for what works. One of their newest concepts – 8Cuts Burgers, a spinoff of their Burger Bar – is quite the success story. They also have a barbecue restaurant, a great Pinoy concept (Namnam) that also packs it in, an upcoming concept with a Hong Kong restaurant group and… they’re now working with Bruce Ricketts. Expect much from these guys – observe and be inspired.

  • Him Uy de Baron (Nomama) - Now here is one of the most hardworking people I know in the industry, with 2 Nomamas, a whole slew of establishments consulting with him, and 2 more restaurants in the pipeline. He’s a thinker, is on top of what’s happening in the food world, and creative to boot. His latest is this placed called Kbap – a make your own bibimbap (stone rice bowl) concept, which I find clever, focused and progressive, and which has great chances of achieving because of the double whammy of serving the Korean flavor lovers and the rice eaters (basically almost everyone). Not to mention this hits on healthful eating, a growing trend seen everywhere.

  • El Chupacabra – This is another anomaly that I think there are things to be learned from. Located in a small street off of the unofficial Makati red light area, this is the Mexicali chain reinventing itself and getting down and dirty. There’s no a/c, and a lot of tables on the street – but it’s always packed with people wanting a cold beer and street tacos. If anything, it is indeed an experience. Clearly researched Mexican street food, done to the best of their abilities, and served as rough and tumble as they come. Yes, people want this too, and not just to be pampered in a white tablecloth restaurant.

  • Spring By Ha Yuan – The unlikely success story of this place begins with Suzy Lee, 3rd generation daughter of the owners of Ha Yuan. From not wanting anything to do with the business, Suzy suddenly takes interest and takes it into an entirely new orbit, taking her amah’s classic Hokkien dishes and giving it a modern spin and serving it to a broader audience.

  • Bon Bahn Mi – Here’s an idea that always appeals to me: the specialist. This place, in the middle of a quiet residential area in Makati, is run by a Vietnamese couple, and all they make is this traditional Viet street sandwich called the bahm mi. The blue print: pork belly, jamon, pate, and pickles, all in a softer than usual baguette, tweaked by the Vietnamese for the perfect sandwich bread. They have this, they have a spicy beef version, chicken, and a sweet roast pork one. They make everything, including the bread, in house – and whereas once they were unknown, they are now superstars of their community and beyond.

  • Wildflour Café & Bakery – This is place you either love or hate (mostly because it’s always crazy there and sometimes you have to wait a bit to get a table). What I love is that they make simple dishesbut do it very well, from salads, to soups, to pastas, sandwiches.. even their cocktail and coffee program is excellent, as are their pastries and breads (they are a bakery after all). It’s designed well and is very transporting (do check out their new branch is Salcedo Village), and the world class chef’s mandate is if you can’t make it properly in our small kitchen, don’t do it --- hence, they don’t overextend themselves. It invariably brings in a lot of foreigners who can relate very much to the food and the ambience. Smart, if you ask me. Not many restaurants look at this angle. 

  • Yardstick – So one of the owners spent many years working in some of the best coffee house in Singapore, and decides to bring his expertise here. The result? One of the handsomest places to have coffee in the city, with great coffee to boot, and owners who will happily talk to you about the finer points of coffee, and who can even train your staff and sell you the necessary tools to put up your own place. They even hold classes on how to make a proper cup and how to enjoy it. This is a one stop shop for coffee.

Gino's Pizza
Gino's Pizza
  • Gino’s Brick Oven Pizza – Lastly, there’s Gino’s. The owner, a basketball coach, decides he wants to open a very focused pizza joint. So he researches on the internet, and managed to develop one of Manila’s best pizza crusts. He’s also researched on how to make a carabao milk burratta – which is fresh mozzarella with a creamy center. While I hardly ever use the word “best” – his is the best burratta I’ve tried in the country. All because he was curious, because he is a hard worker, and because he kept his concept simple and tight: pizza and pasta – stuff everyone loves but which he managed to elevate and step away from fast food varieties. Suffice to say, it’s quite difficult to get into this place unless you come really early or late.

And there you have it, some tips, some examples and some inspiration. All you need now is some heart and passion, and a great idea to run with. Today’s Filipino diner is savvy, travelled, and searching for that great experience. Challenge yourselves and think out of the box, and you may just be the lucky one who gives them that experience again and again and again.