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Staying afloat

By Amy Uy Published Jul 27, 2022 5:00 am


Two years ago, I wrote that as a seafood business owner navigating through the pandemic, “we shall ride the rocky waves till we reach calm waters.”

Indeed, the pandemic hit us in a succession of waves. We had surges when we shut down some stores and then reopened with caution each time the coast seemed clear. We did this while treading that delicate balance between risking our employees’ health if we sent them to work and saving their lives by providing the livelihood they needed even if it meant not turning a profit for our company.  

Like most businesses, staying afloat was then our top goal. Not just for ourselves but for the employees and families who relied on us for survival. 

Read what Amy Uy wrote about their food business in InBetween: Life in the Fish Lane

We did survive, although smarting from severe losses. At varying points, we closed our seafood outlets at the malls for a total of seven months between mid-March 2020 and December 2021. Then when things began to look up at the start of 2022, the Omicron variant sent us rock-bottom again as entire families either caught the virus or voluntarily locked themselves up at home.  

Seafood lovers at Davao Tuna Grill

The financial losses came from still having to pay rent and other charges to some malls even while stores were closed. We also supported our workers financially during the closures. And then we had so much inventory that had gone bad and could no longer be sold (we stored so much seafood in our freezers before the initial lockdown). Serving cooked seafood via online delivery was also not exactly ideal, so we could not “pivot” as conveniently as others did 

Apart from losing money, we lost a few good people — thankfully not to COVID-19 but to other opportunities and options. It was hard for them as they only worked every other day when store sales were low. Some workers who had been with us for years left to open small businesses or sought employment elsewhere or abroad. Some packed their bags and moved to the provinces. Others resigned to take care of kids who had to be schooled at home.

The lunch crowd at Sea/Salt

Now, as the end of the pandemic nears, we feel fortunate to have weathered these turbulent tides with just a few casualties. Three of our branches are now closed for good. We needed to do this to cut our losses, to stay afloat and remain steady. Through it all, we emerged with this takeaway: that in moments of great difficulty, one cannot get by without the goodness and kindness of others. And that our common survival is hinged largely on our relationships with one another.

As we turn the next page to close this dark chapter of our history, we intend not just to survive but also to thrive.

In our case, we relied on partnerships nurtured over the years as well as new ones forged during the pandemic. These were with comrades in the industry who shared their expertise and resources; with mall management who graciously granted our requests for rent concessions; with our frontline store personnel who reported for duty despite the threat to their health and safety and who willingly took on the work of two people in low-performing stores; and with our loyal customers who cheered us on with their support and were forgiving of our mistakes. These were, and continue to be, our lifeline throughout this ordeal.

Sea/Salt is a crowd favorite for its wide selection of Filipino and modern Asian seafood cuisines

As we turn the next page to close this dark chapter of our history, we intend not just to survive but also to thrive. The pandemic gave us moments to rest and reset. We have charted a new course with newly opened stores. The forced respite allowed us to develop, test, and enhance a novel seafood concept that connected us to a welcoming, adventurous, and enthusiastic customer base. We have since excitedly played up to their preference for more creative items on our menu, along with other changes that offer better value for their money and a pleasing customer experience.

The entire Sea/Salt crew is fully vaccinated

Our operations team has become more thorough in sourcing ingredients and more prudent in using them. Our managers have exceptionally handled manpower deficits in certain stores. Our employees have also learned the value of avoiding wastage and maintaining store facilities and equipment diligently to cut costs and minimize downtime. They have faithfully observed measures to protect their health and safety against the virus, and willingly availed themselves of vaccinations the moment the call was sounded. Our crew has also complied with constant improvements made in the preparation and presentation of even tried-and-tested dishes, accepting that in this age of social media, food must not only taste good but also look even better. And that to win customers, we should strive twice as hard to make the dining experience extremely worthwhile for the folks who dare venture out to eat.

The first branch of Sea Shack at the SM Grand Central Station has become a crowd favorite

Our collective efforts have slowly met modest success. Still, we must overcome a few more hurdles to regain the pre-pandemic sales we once enjoyed. With hybrid work arrangements being the norm moving forward and e-commerce gaining firmer traction, the prospects for businesses like ours that rely heavily on mall foot traffic will be less. Add to that the rising cost of goods and labor, and the expectation of higher taxes as the nation pays the huge debt it acquired to get us through the pandemic. Lastly, there remains the danger of the virus coming back in various other forms, threatening to undermine the gains we have made.

Yet as we steady ourselves amid the aftermath of this pandemic, we embrace the future believing in the old saying: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” We are certainly wiser than we were two years ago. We have met our limits in this line of business, but at the same time have affirmed our strengths, and are more determined to improve on them. We soldier on toward rebuilding lives and the economy as emboldened business owners, armed with the experience, knowledge, courage, and faith we need to paddle through the twists and turns that may still come our way.

We have gotten this far. We have reached calm waters. We shall stay the course and, with the Lord’s mercy, we shall prevail.