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Highs and lows of online food sellers

By LAI S. REYES, The Philippine STAR Published Sep 03, 2020 6:05 am

Eight months into the pandemic, the restaurant industry is still bleeding. While some restaurateurs are still struggling to stay afloat — amid very high rentals, shorter operating hours, coupled with a 30- to 50-percent seating capacity — there are those who had no other choice but to close shop and venture online. 

Two chefs who have taken the leap shared the highs and lows of being online food sellers in “Mortar and Pestle,” a webinar organized by the San Miguel Foods Culinary Center.

Chef Joseph Viel of Commissario by Chef Joseph Viel and his mango cream pie.

Chef John Joseph “JJ” Viel of Commissario by Joseph Viel, and pastry chef Dave Cervantes of 22 Grams Patisserie both utilized the power of social media to market their specialties when the pandemic halted daily operations. 

“Venturing into an online food business isn’t necessarily easier, as many would assume,” said chef JJ. “Online business has no rent. And that’s probably the only good thing about it. Otherwise, the job is still just as exhausting as working in any food- and beverage-related industry.”

Chef JJ, who used to own and operate Cucina Rusticana Ristorante in Kamagong, Makati, first tried online selling shortly after the closure of his restaurant in 2013.

“Making money online back then was really difficult,” shared chef JJ, so he joined various food parks instead, as that was the “thing” during those years. “I always had my online business on the side, but I eventually had to rebrand, change concept and start from scratch.”

Because before you know it, a new entrepreneur with the next big thing is ready to take your place.

Online food selling 101

“Don’t be afraid to start,” said chef Dave, who was part of the pioneer pastry team of Solaire Resort and Casino. “Also, don’t be afraid to seek help. Focus on your product, adapt to your market and keep track of your mental fortitude.”

Chef Dave Cervantes of 22 Grams Patisserie.

In a business as fickle as the food industry, chef Dave said it is important to “survive physically and mentally.”

“Utilize the power of social media, not just to market your products, but also to look for fresh ideas, (cheap) supplies and trusted suppliers,” added Dave, who also worked as a pastry sous chef at Midori Clark Hotel and Casino and was a chef/instructor at Red Apron Cooking Academy.

Loca Banana cookies from 22 Grams Patisserie.

The amiable chef is the brains behind 22 Grams Patisserie, an online food business known for its Loca Banana Cookies, which was inspired by Pinoys’ all-time favorite snack, turon that’s made with wonton-wrapped saba with slivers of ripe jackfruit, fried and coated in a sugary crust.

Earl Grey Midnight cake by pastry chef Dave Cervantes.

He also takes pride in his new creation, the Earl Grey Midnight Cake, which is made with tea cold-steeped for nine hours. He uses local chocolate from Davao, Batangas and Agusan, and lemon curd made from Benguet lemons.

Oven-Roasted Herb Prosciutto chicken.

Chef JJ, on the other hand, is very hands-on with his online food business, Commissario by Chef Joseph Viel, which offers party trays ranging from sizes good for four, six and 10 persons. The menu features his bestselling Italian fare, such as the Cerveza Negra Beef Pot Roast and Oven-Roasted Herb Prosciutto Chicken.

The Cerveza Negra Beef pot roast by chef Joseph Viel.

“I agree with chef Dave. I also utilize Facebook and Instagram to market my products and source ingredients. I’m also on TikTok, where I share my recipes, offer insights to aspiring chefs and just have fun from time to time for visibility,” he added. “Remember, out of sight, out of mind.”

Well, it worked. Loyal patrons of Cucina Rusticana Ristorante followed him at Commissario. They just couldn’t get enough of his reimagined osso bucco, pot roast slow-cooked beef with Cerveza Negra, and his Mango Cream Pie for dessert, a recipe from his Italian nonna.

“I think the menu clicked because I get to offer what they probably miss so much by now,” enthused chef JJ. “Nothing will probably beat panlasang Pinoy, but I’ve noticed that we also love a good change here and there. And that’s what I capitalize on. If you’re tired of eating fried chicken or roast pork cooked in a charcoal pit, my customers know that there’s someone in Manila that offers something different.”

Chef JJ is a Hotel and Restaurant Management graduate, major in Culinary Arts, of De La Salle College of Saint Benilde. He continued further studies in Italian cuisine.

According to chef JJ, before investing in any equipment you have to study the market you wish to capture.

“From then on, figure out what you can offer them that others don’t have to offer,” he shared. “After that, build your menu. Your menu will dictate the items/kitchen equipment that you will need.”

Chef JJ advised that one shouldn’t rush into this process thinking it’s going to be easy.

“Forget all the preconceived notions that others may say, especially if they’ve never worked a day in the kitchen,” he said.

In the beginning, your best friend may cheer you on and say, “You can do it!” But it’s time to get rid of that mind frame. A lot of people have failed in this industry because they’ve embraced and understood the side of a customer who only sees the ‘easy’ side of doing the food business.

“Once you’re in that kitchen, running on three hours of sleep and coffee trying to make sense of the multitude of orders coming your way, while trying to appease an angry customer threatening to complain about your product online, where her ‘foodie’ friends will see, only then will you start asking yourself if you made the right choice.”