Legacy restaurants stand their ground against coronavirus

Published September 3, 2020, 7:10 AM

by John Legaspi

Decades-old Aristocrat and Little Quiapo continue to serve well-loved dishes in crisis

Before the pandemic, restaurants and other food establishments would open their doors to welcome diners and make them feel at home with delectable dishes in an atmosphere that matched the cuisine. Food and scenery would go hand in hand at restaurants, holding the key to an unforgettable dining experience, and for the owners, a way to sustain the business. 

“A restaurant is a fantasy,” said New Yorker businessman Warner LeRoy. “A kind of living fantasy in which diners are the most important members of the cast.” That couldn’t have been more true these days. With the loss of foot traffic at restaurants in the past months, the magic and life of dining seem to have run out on some local food establishments. While others have sadly closed their businesses for good, some are finding ways to survive the pandemic, many of them the long-standing kind. 

With more than eight decades of serving Filipinos, The Aristocrat Restaurant has witnessed many wars and revolutions in Philippine history. Even with the virus threatening the world today, it refuses to close its doors. 

“The Aristocrat  Restaurant is built on its deep history of local culture and cuisine, Filipino values, and most important, love,” says Ahlia Al-Sulaiti, the restaurant’s marketing coordinator. “Lola Asiang’s (the founder) love for good food and family, which extends to her customers, helps us foster goodwill and create a legacy that has kept our restaurant standing and well-loved by countless Filipino families for over 84 years.”

Among the oldest restaurants in the country that strives to continue its operation is Little Quiapo. Named after the most bustling areas in the city of Manila, the restaurant was first a food stand on campus at UP Diliman in 1949. Through the years, it has gained fame for its halo-halo and palabok, and now has branches all over Metro Manila.

Photo by Roy Tamayo

“As part of the third generation in our family operating the restaurant, we, as well as our staff, believe in our founder’s (my grandfather, Irineo G. Bartolome) motto, which is to ‘treat customers like kings.’ It is important to maintain excellent quality food, as well as exceptional service,” says Little Quiapo manager Miguel Caleon. “In our restaurant, our customers feel like they are at home, they eat good food, and are being cared for by our staff.”

In a conversation with Manila Bulletin Lifestyle, the leaders of two iconic Filipino restaurants share how they keep their business afloat in this crisis and what it takes to build a brand with a lasting flavor on Filipino palate.

What practices has your restaurant implemented to keep going in the pandemic?

Ahlia: First is to ensure the health and safety of our guests and employees. We have heightened our health and safety measures. In fact, the restaurant follows at least 10 safety protocols as S.O.P, so that our guests feel safe and at ease inside store premises. 

We adhere to the safest procedures in terms of food preparation and food handling to ensure our dishes are always well-prepared. 

In terms of innovation, as restaurants heavily rely on deliveries now, we have recently launched the restaurant’s online delivery service (https://delivery.aristocratph.com/) to reach more guests and enable them to order without leaving their home.

Miguel: When restrictions had eased a little, we opened our doors to our customers once again, equipped with the necessary practices for health, safety, and sanitation. We still do not accept dine-in as of this writing, only takeout and delivery. Prior to the lockdown, we did not offer delivery services, mainly because our restaurant would get so full and busy with dine-in and takeout orders. But now, we have a delivery service (with our waiters and cooks as delivery riders) so that they can still enjoy our food in the comfort of their homes. We have implemented a skeletal and rotational work force, given the need for fewer people on-duty since there is no dine-in and our operating hours are cut short. We have also been more active with our social media accounts, so that our customers are constantly updated.

What does it take to build a lasting brand?

Ahlia: It’s the ability to adapt in the current sway and trends. We are very much active in all our digital platforms and are very keen in releasing content and projects that will be greatly appreciated across all ages, especially the younger generation who spends a lot of time online and are always on the lookout for new deals, innovations, and promos in the food industry.

Miguel: In this day and age, when there are a lot of restaurants to choose from, as well as different cuisines to try out, consistency is key to staying relevant. Parents have brought their children here, and those children now grown up are bringing their children and even their grandchildren to the restaurant. The cycle continues, as old memories are shared, new memories are made, and tradition is passed on. 

Little Quiapo’s halo-halo

We have been happily serving hearty, homecooked food for decades, and our customers have grown old with us. It is very common for us to hear an elderly customer comment about how our palabok or halo-halo has always tasted the same as they first started enjoying it some decades back. 

What is the future of restaurants?

Ahlia: In the event that the community quarantine will be extended, we would probably see more restaurants offering and promoting their food on digital platforms with contactless payments, as well as making their serving sizes a little more compact and portioned, just to be safe. Also, there is an emergence of offering frozen food and cook-it-yourself for guests to prepare their favorite restaurant food at home.

As for The Aristocrat Restaurant, we are open to further adapt and explore current trends, for us to be able to reach different communities and offer our well-loved Filipino favorites.

Miguel: It will be challenging for restaurants to continue to operate, should the community quarantine extend. For those that took a risk operating during quarantine, there have been good days, and definitely not so good days. Majority of the restaurants’ source of income comes from dine-in services. There is just so much uncertainty to everything that’s happening currently. I think that as long as you maintain safety practices, build a certain security for your customers, making them feel safe buying from your restaurant, then the business will be in good hands. For restaurants to stay relevant, cost cutting should not be done. Instead, keep the same quality of food, and strengthen social media presence. 

Little Quiapo’s interior

Despite everything that’s happening, and the current state of Metro Manila, we consider ourselves blessed and lucky to still be in operation. We are very thankful for our loyal customers, who continue to patronize our food and products prepared with love. Rest assured Little Quiapo will continue to do that even in the middle of pandemic.