It is lunchtime and people are waiting for tables outside the newly opened Soi restaurant on the second floor of the newly reopened Glorietta 2 mall. In each group, there is a foreigner. Thai food appeals to a wider, more cosmopolitan crowd, and Soi owner Maritel Nievera knows this with more certainty now.
Soi (Thai for “lane”) is a spin-off of an earlier eatery called Oody’s. Ten years ago when Nievera opened Oody’s, the clientele for Thai food was just a small fraction of the restaurant market. She didn’t realize that, of course, until after she had opened at nine other locations.
“Expanding too quickly was not a good idea,” says Nievera, who was at the time sidelined by a pregnancy and needed to hand over the management of the family business to her husband and sons. The hasty expansion of Oody’s resulted into losses that prompted Nievera to close all branches but one, the Greenbelt 3 location that has always been a crowd-drawer. It also required Nievera to be hands-on again.
“It is important to pause often and assess your business,” says Nievera. “You need to keep reinventing, not just in the kitchen but also your management style, your operations and training, your research and development—lahat (everything).”
She says she sat her employees down to talk to them about customer service. She revamped operations and moved managers around, including her sons Ian and Adji.
But she keeps product development for herself. She says it was too important to delegate because of the nature of their product. “We deal in food, our product goes into people’s bodies,” Nievera says. She is right—there aren’t very many things more intimate than that.
“You have to be careful about what you change,” warns Nievera. “You want to keep the stuff that people like.”
Exhibit A for Nievera is Soi, a cozy restaurant with a pictorial and user-friendly menu that says “Not all Thai foods are spicy.” She has kept the Thai menu mainstays but upgraded them, such as the Pad Thai (fried noodles), Green Papaya Salad, Crispy Catfish with Mango Salad, Tom Yam, Chicken Pandan and Bagoong Rice.
At Soi, the cuisine is familiar enough to attract even non-Filipinos; the atmosphere, inviting enough for solo diners to feel comfortable in. The interiors are tastefully done—mirrors, wood panels and shelves, touches of Thailand in the lamps and figurines.
Aware that today more diners are looking for healthy food, Nievera is offering more seafood and vegetables than meat dishes at Soi. In fact, there is only one beef dish on the menu: Beef in Red Curry (this one has a notation of two chilies, so be warned).
Soi also has specialties for the no-meat crowd, the likes of Thai Kangkong sauteed in black bean sauce, Eggplant in Yellow Beans with Tofu, Vegetarian Pad Thai and Fried Tofu with Tamarind Sauce.
For the wellness set who are not necessarily vegetarians, Soi serves Sukhothai, which is fish and squid balls, tofu and bean sprouts in clear broth flavored with kaffir lime, lemongrass and cilantro leaves. The Minced Roasted Duck Salad, Prawns in Basil Leaves and Chillies, Chicken in Green Curry and Thai Sweet and Sour Fish Fillet are also highly recommended. Healthy drinks include pandan juice, lemon grass juice, pandan iced tea, and the hot lemon grass with ginger tea, which is a must with the sticky rice and mango dessert.
While a number of establishments touting Thai cuisine have sprung up hereabouts, they are mostly fine-dining restaurants. So when Nievera thought the market had become more familiar with Thai food and began concocting an idea for another Thai food restaurant, she took the path toward more casual dining.
“You cannot keep worrying about the competition,” says Nievera. “There will always be other restaurants. What you have to worry about is the quality of your food and your service.”
At Soi, food is prepared to order, with no MSG and no trans fat. Sauces and salad dressings are made from scratch daily, with ingredients like fresh tamarind, palm sugar, kaffir lime, shrimp paste and patis that are sourced from Bangkok.
For Nievera, this is a return to her food genesis. As a young entrepreneur, she had popularized the dining concept “ituro mo, iluto ko” in San Fernando, Pampanga. But she has also made her fortune from a restaurant concept that offers ready-to-eat food and caters to a basic human frailty: If you give them a feast, they will come.
Cabalen, her all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant, is an affordable favorite for large parties, be they out to send off a retiring coworker or to fete someone in the family marking a milestone or to treat some balikbayan guests dying for a taste of kare-kare (oxtail stew) and kuhol (snails). On the buffet table are traditional Kapampangan dishes and, of late, a smattering of Asian appetizers.
Cabalen now has 11 branches in malls, including those in Pampanga, Subic and Cebu, plus a standalone on West Avenue in Quezon City. Nievera says she will be happy to open branches in Batangas, Baguio and Davao once she finds partners in those areas. This coming week, she will be opening a Cabalen in San Bruno, California.
The Cabalen Group employs a staff of 600 to service, in addition to the restaurants, a catering business that can deliver party platters or to full service setups for private functions. Nievera also has a Filipino deli that bottles buro, taba ng talangka and bagoong, among other flavor enhancers.
Her extensive experience in buffet style restaurants has helped her segue into the a la carte business. Today she also runs Mangan, a Kapampangan restaurant with five mall branches, Ebun, another Kapampangan restaurant at the Mall of Asia, and the Spanish tapas bar Cerveseria, which is located in Greenbelt 3. All are in partnership with fellow restaurateurs Ricky Dee and Ricco Ocampo.
Having learned a hard lesson, Nievera has been quite selective with her Soi sites.
“Soi is located in malls where I know the clientele is more discriminating,” she says. “You want to be where there are people who have traveled to Bangkok at least and know the taste of Thai food.”
The new restaurant, located in the Glorietta 2 shopping complex at the Ayala Center in Makati (tel. 5530001), is the fifth Soi location to open its doors. Other branches are at Robinsons Place Manila (5231189), Greenhills Theater Mall (6953919), SM Mall of Asia (8364177) and Alabang Town Center (5510819).