Illo’s Party Trays serves joy and delectable eats fit for at-home celebrations
In our pre-pandemic time, food already had a significant role in our lives. It kept us strong, gave us energy, and fueled us to push through any obstacles we face every day. But during the onset of the pandemic, food gained a new purpose in our lives. It became key to many Filipinos’ survival as the unemployment rate rose last year. During moments we felt there was no reason to have fun, it became our humble source of joy, whether they came in the form of ayuda or homecooked meals sent by a loved one. Food helped us to be healthy, both physically and mentally. More importantly, it made us realize that there are still things in life that are worth celebrating, even in the middle of a pandemic.
That’s the core of chef N Rovillos’ food brand—life and celebration. Through Illo’s Party Trays, the Filipino chef was able to bring happiness to the Filipino table and give opportunities for others to thrive during the pandemic. Much like other food entrepreneurs today, Chef N had several failed business attempts—pizza station, catering, bar and grill, and a restaurant—prior to having his biggest break.
Established in December 2019, Illo’s Party Tray was born from a make-shift kitchen in Paranaque. Led by Chef N and his wife Anne, their food business was finally growing and starting to become a social media sensation as artists and celebrities were expressing their seal of approval regarding their products online. Unfortunately, the catering service faced a great challenge when the pandemic hit the country early in 2020. But instead of becoming one of his other unsuccessful attempts to penetrate the food industry, Chef N shifted gears and relied on a ghost kitchen setup to keep his business afloat.
“True to our ‘Dine at Home’ and ‘Celebrate Life Everyday’ slogans, we encourage our clients to continue celebrating important milestones in the new normal,” Chef N says. “The rave about the impressive quality sprouted from one word to the other and our following exponentially grew beyond our expectations. The rest, they say, is history. Our ghost kitchen business was our redemption. We ended our first year of operations serving 5,000 families.”
Now with over 330,000 followers on its social media accounts, Illo’s Party Tray has created the perfect formula to having a champion food business in this pandemic time—a tenacious spirit coupled with social media presence and, of course, good food.
In a conversation with Manila Bulletin Lifestyle, Chef N shares how the ghost kitchen setup helped his business grow in the past year, the goodness that comes from Illo’s Party Trays, and why, even in this time of health crisis, celebrating life is still important.
Was it hard doing business during this pandemic? Why or why not?
Yes and no. Yes, because everything is hard before it becomes easy. And no, because like all businesses last year, Illo’s has had to deal with the disrupting force of COVID-19. Still, instead of seeing what happened as a crisis, we turned this into an opportunity through passion, innovation, and persistence.
During the pandemic, we did not stop even for a day. People were ordering online since they cannot go out to eat and our business was among the first to introduce the ‘Dine at Home’ concept. The concept has become a signature element of our business model and has complemented one of the most obvious repercussions of the pandemic, which is mobility. We built further on these ideas and innovated to address sectors that will allow the brand to increase its relevance.
We introduced Gourmet Party Boxes for virtual parties, which serve hotel quality food in a box delivered to our clients who are working from home. We have corporate clients from pharmaceutical companies who have been sending hundreds of these boxes to our frontliners. Through our ‘Celebrate at Home’ packages, Illo’s brings the celebration right into their homes with our signature gourmet dishes complete with balloons and banners.
Can you tell us something about ghost kitchens and how it influenced the success of your brand?
We have extensive experience in the food industry and have quite a standard when it comes to taste, quality, and customer experience. Coming from our own restaurant business, to catering, and to other endeavors, we were thinking of putting up another bar and grill food spot, but was held off by the idea of scalability.
From experience, we knew we had to be relevant but at the same time different. So we thought of putting up a ghost kitchen business that focuses on producing freshly cooked, gourmet hotel-quality cuisines with no added preservatives—all served at home. It has become not just a business that markets food, but a business that elevates clients’ experience. Our business model has been further magnified during the pandemic. Since a lot of families cannot go out and celebrate, Illo’s has encouraged people to continue celebrating in the new normal, and has allowed families to bridge the distance, gap, and wonderful memories through food. The demand for this experience and food quality has enabled Illo’s to help several people who have been displaced from their jobs. While the effect of the pandemic for other industries have been severe, we have been lucky enough to bless other people with opportunities.
We have also established their own fleet that will deliver their products from Paranaque to anywhere in Metro Manila, Bulacan, Rizal Antipolo, Cavite, Tagaytay, and Batangas. Currently, our brand has grown from four people in 2019 to a family of 48 to date. We house them all to ensure the team’s protection and safety, complete with their own health cards.
Let’s talk about your food. What are your specialities and your customers’ favorites?
Our bestsellers include Chicken Galantine, Lasagna, Mozzarella Meatballs Pasta, Chef N’ Beef Salpicao, Kare Kare ni Lola Remy, Crispy Pork Binagoongan, Ribs Bicol Express, 40 Cloves of Garlic Chicken, Singaporean Chili Prawn, Baked Salmon Formage, Seafood Paella, Paella Negra, and Bagnet Paella. For desserts, the heavy favorites are Dark Chocolate Mousse, Strawberry Shortcake, Eggnog Flan Cake, Halaya Cream Rolls, and Alcapone Cinammon Rolls.
My personal favorites are Beef Caldereta, Chicken Biryani, and Lengua Champignon.
What is it with your food that brings people and loved ones together?
Food is a central element in any Filipino celebration. Any experience is elevated, any memory is fortified through great food. This is what the Illo’s brand is all about. More than the quality of our food, it is about how we innovate our dishes and provide a different sense of customer experience which humanizes our cuisines to real human connections.
For you, why are parties and celebrations still important even during this pandemic?
A crisis should not prevent people from celebrating important milestones in their lives—whether big or small. Humans are social beings, and to celebrate is part of human nature. Celebrations during this unprecedented time symbolize hope, resilience, and optimism. Hope that tomorrow will be better and it’s meant to be celebrated; resilience as a reminder that any obstacle can be surpassed with faith and our family around; optimism to look forward to the blessings that are coming ahead.
Our pandemic time has been the era of at-home food entrepreneurs. What advice would you give them to take their business to the next level?
My piece of advice to business owners who are dealing with the effects of the pandemic is to stick to their passion. It is important to have faith, to remain humble, be kind, and grateful.
What is next for Illo’s Party Trays?
While clients remain to enjoy our dishes, there will always be that space for surprises; whether that be through an upgraded ingredient, packaging or over-all quality and customer experience which will allow them to continue to look out for more. We are also constantly reviewing our dishes and are conducting R&D efforts for new cuisines to stay relevant and have a better hold on to our niche.
More than a year into the business, we are now expanding and putting up our second flagship branch in Greenhills. The goal is to also put up additional commissaries in North and South Luzon to widen our service areas. Commissaries in Visayas and Mindanao are also in the pipeline to further establish our reputation as a party tray household name in the country.