By Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat
The notion that social enterprises find it hard to make money is not actually true. This is proven by Sari Café, a coffee shop founded on the advocacy of “kawang-gawa” (charity work) by promoting local food products.
Company founder Ms. VANNA GONZALES-RODRIGUEZ discovered that it pays to start a small business that also helps uplift other small enterprises along with it. The idea of inclusiveness is what drives the growth of the business.
Established in October 2015, Sari is the first ever home-grown café, restaurant, and store in Dasmariñas, Cavite.
Vanna and her husband AJ have previously worked with social enterprises. Both were active Gawad Kalinga volunteers during their college days. Thus, they thought of a business that is inclusive of other startups. Since they are also food lovers, a café restaurant business was the first thing that came to mind.
But it could not be the usual coffee shop. They would like a coffee shop that will serve as a showcase of Filipino pasalubong.
The plan was further bolstered by the fact that there was no local coffee shop then in Dasmarinas, Cavite where they live. So, the concept was just perfect for the community.
Thus, the name SARI Café was born. Sari is short for Sariling Atin & Sari-saring Produktong Pinoy.
SARI Café was opened in an abandoned house in downtown Dasmariñas, just a walking distance from the church. They used old furniture pieces that they up-cycled from an old bar.
It is styled to look like a uniquely Filipino. It is fun modern brand but with homegrown roots. They use local ingredients in creative ways through their bestselling milkshakes, pizzas, and other comfort food.
“We hope to address the lack of creativity in the use of our local products. We hope to expand the use of local ingredients so that more small producers in the community are supported and that a wider audience can gain an appreciation of local products,” says Vanna.
When SARI Cafe opened, they were pleasantly surprised by the warm reception of the locals.
Its menu includes well-loved beverages like locally sourced coffee and tea, delicious milkshakes in unique Pinoy-inspired flavors (Mango Graham, Ube Keso, Barako Espresso) or old- time favorites (Cookies & Cream, Chocolate Overload, Strawberry), and a wide range of dishes with a Pinoy twist such as our bestsellers: Pinoy Adobo Nachos, Longganisa Carbonara, Tapa Pizza, Kasuy Sansrival, Bibingka cheesecake and Filipino breakfast favorites, among others.
So far, its bestsellers are milk shakes, particularly Mango Graham milkshake, and pizza longanisa. They also have mango graham milkshake. Longanisa pizza is their bestseller and angus tapa beef pizza. They offer Ube milk teas and hot teas, and hot choco drink.
Their products are all affordable, too. The milkshakes range from P110 to P125 compared to P150 to P180 in metro Manila. Their pizza is at P230 to P280 and very affordable rice meals at P135. Enjoy a cup of Barako, coffee for just P60 pesos and Americano at P80 while the latte is just P90.
“We have to be accessible because our customers are mostly students and professionals,” adds Vanna.
“Sari Café has a Filipino culture ambiance with a fiesta atmosphere,” says Vanna adding that sometimes they also play local games.
Sari Café has become so popular among the locals. Students hangout there on weekdays and do their projects. When you visit Sari on a weekend, you would see young professionals or students hanging out in the afternoon and in the evening, you’ll see grandparents and families bonding.
Aside from the locals, some customers from Pasay and tourists come to Sari Café curious from what they heard about Sari Café.
True to its mission to bring along other startups, Vanna partnered with other social enterprises such as Mga Likha ni Inay Inc. (Creation of Mothers), a homegrown enterprise based in Laguna that seeks to empower women micro-entrepreneurs to reach the market and create better lives for their families.
Mga Likha ni Inay products are displayed on their shelves at the coffee shop.
They also partnered with Bote Central Inc. for their house blend of Arabica, Excelsa and Robusta. Bote Central is a family-owned corporation established on March 22, 2002 with a vision of Working to Clean & Save the Environment by using agro-forest products for livelihood.
At present, the company is focused on the joint production and consumption program of Philippine coffee, rationalizing the supply chain and embedding Fair Trade principles to promote the Philippine coffee industry’s sustainability.
Another partner is Tsaa Laya, which produces premium tea collections uniquely Filipino, using organic, local herbs, fruits, and spices.
They have honey from Palawan. They also have lemon ginger, chili oil and other native products from Dasmariñas and Marinduque. More are going to be displayed on their shelves as they add new local products with new partners.
“The cafe aims to celebrate what we love about the Philippines and about being Filipino by highlighting local coffee & tea, featuring homegrown ingredients in our menu, and showcasing local products from different parts of the country. As a company, we also hope to uphold Filipino values of excellence, genuine hospitality, resilience, and creativity,” says Vanna.
For the past three years, Vanna said that cumulative sales have already reached P19 million. It has been a very good journey for Sari Café, which started with P600,000 that included some of their wedding fund. Now, they have a satellite branch at the DLSU hospital.
They look at the future with outlets to be built around schools initially around other parts in Cavite and the CALABARZON areas. This is to respond to several inquiries for franchise opportunities.
Vanna is also looking at starting with franchising now that they have become part of the Philippine Franchise Association (PFA) where she was a runner up at the “NextGen,” a new generation in franchising competition during the 27th Asia Franchise Philippines 2019, an annual event hosted by the PFA. Vanna competed at the NextGen just a few days after she delivered her baby via caesarean section.
But Vanna said that the challenge really in a restaurant business is consistency and quality. For its part, Vanna said they have to write all the recipes in a manual to ensure they have consistent quality in their products.
Vanna also noted that while the restaurant business is doing very well, they need to improve the marketing for the products that they showcased on their shelves.
“We have to do more in marketing and promoting these products to the public. Hopefully, we can create more awareness that we have good local products that we can be proud of,” she adds. Already, Vanna also helps in the relabeling of some of the products to make them more attractive to customers.
There is also the need to improve profitability and efficiency through the setting up of a commissary for centralized production of ingredients to cater to multiple branches, as well as the development of more innovative products in its menu.
“Me and my husband are both super nationalistic,” says Vanna who met her husband AJ while doing volunteer works. Even in college at Ateneo De Manila University where Vanna finished development studies and her husband development economics, they were already very active with Gawad Kalinga. Her husband also worked with social enterprise Hapinoy.
“We have common values and goals that is why we put up a business out of our common goals,” says Vanna, who is running the business while her husband is also working for his own micro financing business and a research job in UP.
It is now obvious that an inclusive business model pays.
“It pays to be a social enterprise. For us, it is personal as it sets us apart because there are lots of coffee shops already but we have a solid brand identity as we help other startups and promote Filipino products. So, we have a stronger brand identity,” says Vanna.
Because of its partnership with other social enterprises, they also become better. They create jobs and provide income to these people. With that, Sari kind of elevate their suppliers, too, by providing startups access for their local products on the coffee shop’s shelves for free.
“We are creating a chain of support enterprises. On our end, we are thankful we have social enterprises as partners, we are like a chain of social enterprises,” she adds.
It’s a simple and scalable concept, but it also allows room for creativity and innovation. The concept is proudly Filipino in its roots but aims to be innovative to cater to a broader audience.
In the past 3 years of its operation, Sari has become a highly rated cafe on Trip Advisor, and is the only local café in Dasmarinas to be featured on several television channels.
“It pays to be a social enterprise because this is not a mere kawang-gawa although that is the primary purpose but then there is good return to you,” she says.
In her unfinished pitch at the PFA competition for lack of time, Vanna would have wanted to say that they plan to build a Sari Café in every town. She dreams of Sari Café becoming a tourist destination or a tourist hub or a pasalubong center for all that is authentic Filipino.
Second, Vanna hopes that Sari Café shall reach overseas and serve as lounge for Filipinos overseas.
“We have communities abroad where our kababayans could hangout and eat Filipino delicacies,” adds Vanna adding that their model is really align with the ‘It’s more fun in the Philippines’ as they showcase the Filipino culture.
Vanna has only this to say to the aspiring entrepreneurs.
“It is okay to start small,” says Vanna. In fact, Vanna said they started with a small coffee machine but with very good return on investment. Now, they have two coffee machines already.
Second advice: “Ask for support, don’t be shy to seek help.” She herself has sought for help because while her strength is in marketing, she cannot cook.
“Collaboration is key. We have a chef friend, who helps us in the kitchen, and we both learn as we go along,” she adds. In fact, the main reason she joined the PFA contest was because she wanted to gain mentors and join a network.
Third, it is important to have a solid brand identity because that will be your distinguishing mark.
“Our brand identity that is proudly local has set us apart from other cafes,” says Vanna.
“Our experience in the past three years has taught us a lot in terms of facing challenges, innovating, and sustaining the business.”
Sari aims to be the No. 1 local community café and restaurant in terms of affordability, quality of food, service, and ambience, with brand loyalty from customers across different generations and sectors.
More than ever, Pinoy pride is thriving and local products are slowly gaining the spotlight.