The best time to open a new restaurant, according to this chef
When will the world go back to normal again?
I am one of the pragmatists, or maybe even pessimists, who say: 2025. Thankfully, other realists—or shall we say optimists—are ready to give the world a sense of normalcy by this December.
One of them is chef RJ Ungco.
He is one of those chefs whose careers I have been following since he graduated from Les Roches in Switzerland in the early 2000s. He started out with a little parish cafeteria, serving delicious pizza and pasta at Ponzo’s at the St. Alphonsus Mary de Liguori Parish in Magallanes, Makati, before venturing out to create Café Enye in Eastwood, the QKebab Shawarma Truck, Spatzle in Shangri-La Plaza, Parmigiano in Resorts World and Pedro n Coi in SM North Edsa, among others.
Then from working full-time in restaurants, he created his own consultancy to help others open their own restaurants or other food ventures.
One of those who consulted with him during this pandemic was Jean Dumaago-Descallar, owner of a three-story house in Quezon City, who was looking for options for the space since it stopped being rented out for film shoots for ads and movies.
She shares, “When I was young, my family could not afford delicious food, especially those served at ‘restos.’” So it became her dream to open a restaurant.
She also thought it would be a wise business move: “At least venturing into a new business in our own building will require less capital. We heard that a lot of restaurants closed due to high rentals.”
Her vision was met with optimism by Ungco, who believes that there can be an opportunity in the food industry, even if there is still a pandemic.
“Now is the right time to work on a fresh restaurant concept,” he says. “The economy will be back to normal after a few years so you create the concept and business now so that by the time pandemic restrictions ease and vaccinations allow businesses to operate regularly again, your concept will be ready to operate as well.”
He adds that this last quarter of 2021, specifically, is a good time to open a restaurant. First, because people are tired of home-cooked meals. Second, it’s the season for eating out. Third, people are already craving not only restaurant food, but also a sense of normalcy.
The key, though, is to offer a space that people can still relate to—not fine dining. Hence, the concept of Diner 55 was born: a “safe space” and “happy place.”
Beyond diner food, it will seek to bring comfort food from around the world, which is the chef’s specialty anyway.
“It’s about positivity, safety and comfort,” Ungco explains. This translates not only to the interiors but also to the food.
“The food will be goodness down to your soul,” he proclaims. He is bringing to the table all the comfort food that he loved from his travels around the world: Italian, Korean, Latin American, Mediterranean, and of course, Filipino.
The idea to expand beyond American diner comes from his years of experience with the Filipino market. For some reason, American comfort food appeals to just a limited market. Filipinos, even when eating out, still want Filipino food, with a foreign dish or two to try.
This pandemic, he also observed that comfort food was what people sought out, whether for dine in or for take out. So this is what Diner 55 will offer.
The space is huge: 550 square meters, with three levels. There will be ample space for social distancing, guaranteeing the “safe space” for your bubble.
The number 55 was added to the word Diner because soon-to-be restaurateur Descallar is turning 55. She also adds that it represents “two hands ready to serve and help.”
Diner 55 will have a soft opening on Nov. 4 and a grand opening on Nov. 29. Hopefully, it will truly be the restaurant of Descallar’s childhood dreams and be the “safe space” outside our homes that Ungco envisions for all of us, with all the delicious comfort food we love.
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