A corner full of dreams
How is it like starting and growing a business as a millennial? It takes a lot of daring and persistence.
This was how a young couple, Rods Escobar and Andy Wong, put it when asked about how they are holding up managing their small but well-frequented café—a year after first plunging into the food business without any other capital but their four years-worth of savings, a funky idea and the enthusiasm of youth.
Rods and Andy, both in their mid-20s, are the owners of Sulok Café, a whimsical yet high-quality food hub tucked in a corner of a two-story building along L. Sumulong Avenue, just in front of the Rizal Provincial Capitol in Antipolo City.
Since it opened in August last year, Sulok Café has become an instant online sensation, raking in rave reviews from both serious coffee drinkers and casual food lovers.
“When we started, there were no concrete, ironed-out plans. The only thing that was clear at that moment was that we wanted to have our own food business,” says Andy, who gave up her previous fulltime work in e-commerce to pour all her energy into putting up the business. “We knew what we wanted and we just went for it though the risks were high.”
Challenges and experiments
And the risks were indeed high.
The young couple had to contend with “real, very serious challenges” that any starting business owners need to address.
“The first challenge we had to face is looking for a space to rent. We went to the more popular food districts in Metro Manila such as Maginhawa and Kapitolyo but we were not able to get a spot. In fact, a lot of lessors turned us down because they doubted our capability in running and sustaining the business. Some even discouraged us… At that point, I realized that being a millennial didn’t really play well to our advantage. However, one young business owner believed in us and closed a deal. That’s how we got this corner spot here in Antipolo,” says Rods, who, like his partner, quit his digital marketing career after four years of working in a well-established advertising agency to go fulltime at Sulok Café.
But it was not only looking for a spot with a considerable target market that the couple had to deal with. They decided to start the business with only their joint savings as their initial capital. Rods and Andy “technically gambled off” their savings—which was initially reserved for starting their own family—all for their “baby” that would be Sulok Café.
“There came a point when we were almost close to bankruptcy but we just stayed the course. That was the time when we had to think of ways to be very experimental and creative,” says Andy. “Rods and I had to brainstorm on ways to minimize the costs, especially in the construction and interior design of the shop.”
“We did the design ourselves and we did not even hire a contractor. We only hired local carpenters who agreed to work pakyawan and do the necessary renovations in compliance with what the municipal hall requires for establishments like this. Andy and I had to be here all the days of the construction… We even had to think twice about settling for a commercial grade espresso maker and buying a second-hand cake chiller, which we eventually did buy,” recalls Rods.
The couple also admitted that they saved up resources by getting design ideas from Pinterest. They wanted to make the café look updated but still unique, without the promise of making it “expensive-looking” simply because they cannot afford it. They resorted to repurposing materials that were “readily available or cheap” like the fruit pallets that now serve as accent walls in the shop.
As the construction of Sulok was taking shape, Rods and Andy also had to look for the “right persons” who could help them develop a unique menu for the food and beverages that they would offer.
The couple said that they were “foodies” but they did not really know anything about the art of brewing coffee.
“We really needed outside help… I still remember how Andy and I stalked baristas on Facebook and sent them cold emails asking if they were willing to teach us the basics of brewing coffee. We also pitched our concept to them,” says Rods.
Luckily for Rods and Andy, a professional barista from a famous commercial coffee shop heeded their call. It was this barista who taught the couple coffee-brewing basics until Rods mastered the craft himself.
“Now, I am the one training our own baristas. In fact, we always hire baristas with zero experience. We want it that way because I want to be the one training them. In this way, we can be sure that our brew is uniquely Sulok’s and not that of other coffee shops,” explains Rods.
The couple also asked Chef Janine Tolentino, Andy’s family friend who used to work at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, to help them develop a menu that is familiar to coffee shop goers but with their own Sulok twist.
“We wanted a menu that is simple and commonly found in coffee shops but is also unique enough to carry our Filipino brand. For example, instead of using the usual basil-based sauce for our pesto pasta, we use malunggay; and instead of using shrimp or anchovies for aglio e olio, we use mushrooms and tuyo,” says Rods.
“For this kind of business, you really need to outsource help from others especially if you’re not an expert. That’s one of the things we have learned in putting up this business,” adds Andy.
Despite the high risks and the challenges that the young couple had to address, Sulok Café officially opened for business with a very strong online following. Thanks to the digital marketing background of Rods and the flexibility of social media, Sulok Café easily reached its target market.
With the online content that Rods and Andy develop in the café itself, the business acquired an online presence.
“We simply didn’t want to sell a brand or a product; we want to sell value. That is why on social media, Sulok Café speaks as if the brand is a person. It’s ‘feeling close’ to the clients because we want our relationship with them to be like that of close friends,” explains Rods.
It is, in fact, this “feeling close” concept that has resonated well with the customers and followers of Sulok Café. Based on the comments of people who follow Sulok on their official social media accounts, it is that “friendly atmosphere” that won them over.
“Our social media engagement rate reaches 30 percent with 15,000 to 20,000 impressions generated per content that we publish online. By marketing standards, this is way beyond average. Also, 90 percent of our organic customers who visit Sulok have social media as their main touchpoint,” explains Rods.
At present, Rods continues to develop online content for the official social media accounts of Sulok Café, tailor-fitting it to specific audiences such as foodies, young professionals and students, and even 40-60-year-old Facebook users. “In Sulok Café, we don’t stage our food and take fancy photos of it for our posters and online marketing content. Instead, with their permission, we use our customers’ pictures from FB or Instagram for our online posters, and they like it,” says Rods.
Aside from online marketing, the couple are also actively seeking other media partnerships to widen their customer reach.
For millennial dreamers
Sulok Café’s story is a testament to what the future of small- and medium-scale businesses will be in the hands of millennials.
For Rods and Andy, finding one’s business niche today means keeping up with current trends, being highly creative, opening oneself to the possibility of failure and embracing the use of new technology.
“If there is one thing I learned in putting up this business, that would be the importance of preparation. It is good that Rods and I worked first before starting the business. Because of that, we were able to save and we gain experience. Another one is to be realistic, to be open to failures,” advises Andy to millennials who also dream to start their own business.
“The gift of youth is good for business. It is good to be a young entrepreneur because you can still make mistakes, and making mistakes while you are young is also good. Sometimes people may see us millennials as foolish, and while that may be true, we can always ask advice from those who are more experienced and learn from our mistakes,” adds Rods. “What is important is that we are always ready to take risks.”
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