Be­tween surfing and mak­ing cof­fee at his land­mark El Union Cof­fee shop, Kiddo Co­sio had time to par­tic­i­pate at this year’s Madrid Fusión Manila, where he pre­sented a ni­tro-charged ver­sion of home­grown fa­vorite Dirty Horchata, a sexy con­coc­tion of rice milk, vanilla ex­tract, and cin­na­mon seam­lessly ebbing and flow­ing with al­mond essence and espresso.

“Taste it,” Co­sio says, as he places the mas­ter­fully crafted bev­er­age on the bar. One couldn’t help but feel that this emo­tional, en­joy­able drink is re­flec­tive of the wider changes hap­pen­ing in the sleepy mu­nic­i­pal­ity of Ur­biz­tondo in San Juan, La Union.

At once bal­anced and eclec­tic, La Union’s emer­gence as a charis­matic yet un­der­rated surf des­ti­na­tion into a bur­geon­ing hub danc­ing to the beat of its own drum is not as un­fore­seen as one would imag­ine. The scene in San Juan feels like a sit­com, straight out of a Friends’ se­quel, only in a sea­side set­ting and with­out the hook­ing up, its cre­ative heart spurred by a com­mon sto­ry­line shared among most of the town’s trans­plants.

“What makes La Union charm­ing is the com­mu­nity it­self,” says Raffy Castillo of smoothie bowls bar Makai Bowls. “You know the guys who do cof­fee and the peo­ple at Flot­sam and Jet­sam Hos­tel. These are the same peo­ple you hang out with, go surf with, or do yoga with.”

To think that it all hap­pened within the space of a cou­ple of years is all the more im­pres­sive. To­day, it’s home to a good pop­u­la­tion of out­siders—Manileños and for­eign­ers alike—chas­ing the coastal life­style in a town on the verge of break­ing through.

“If you walk down this lit­tle surf trip, they call this surf town now, from the bor­der of San Juan to Bac­no­tan, you’ll no­tice that food and bev­er­age is hap­pen­ing. Why? De­vel­op­ment is point­ing in this di­rec­tion,” says Co­sio. “An­other is be­cause La Union is just a re­ally cool place to visit. There’s a great com­mu­nity that pow­ers this town. They care about food and bev­er­age and the en­vi­ron­ment.”


Al­though El Union Cof­fee is one of the ear­li­est set­tlers in San Juan, it doesn’t feel an­ti­quated. In fact, it’s a good place to start to get a bet­ter han­dle of La Union’s F&B growth.

El Union Cof­fee is an in­de­pen­dent café that has eased into a big­ger, al­most en­tirely open ba­hay kubo- like space since its in­cep­tion in 2013. With its sturdy wooden tables, pat­terned floor­ing, piles of old mag­a­zines, cof­fee bean fra­grance in the air, and lit­tle cor­ner of vinyl records sold by one of Co­sio’s baris­tas, the café’s bare com­fort tips its hat to In­sta­gram. But be­yond the caf­feinated aes­thet­ics, a for­ward-think­ing cul­ture is the uni­fy­ing el­e­ment here.

“Cul­ture re­ally comes from the stake­hold­ers. We’ve just been very in­ten­tional to hire peo­ple who un­der­stand what we’re do­ing. We work with peo­ple who care about qual­ity, the com­mu­nity, and La Union be­cause from that comes the cul­ture.” Co­sio clearly un­der­stands the pulse of La Union’s F&B boom al­most four years on. He’s not chang­ing the core val­ues of cof­fee; in­stead he’s set­tling into a kind of flow that he can call his own, even if that means re­learn­ing how to run the busi­ness in an ever-chang­ing mar­ket.

“We want con­sumers to know how we do things, the name of the farmer, and the com­mu­nity that pro­duces the cof­fee,” he says, not­ing that Panama ac­counts for a ma­jor por­tion of their cof­fee beans, thanks to part­ner Sly Sa­monte, formerly of Craft Cof­fee Work­shop. “We don’t source only Filipino beans al­though this year that’s what we’re most ex­cited about.”

Lo­cal­ity ap­par­ently is the new defin­ing fea­ture of the province’s flour­ish­ing food scene. “We just came from a wild for­est ro­busta farm in Ne­gros. Bea MisaCrisos­tomo in­vited us over, and Sly and I went dur­ing the last har­vest this year to ex­per­i­ment on some new fer­men­ta­tion and pro­cess­ing meth­ods that could po­ten­tially in­crease the qual­ity of their cof­fee.” Co­sio’s milk also comes from two towns away from Bo­long’s Farm in Bac­no­tan. “I think they’ve worked with the De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture as well to get this hy­brid cow that can pro­duce milk but also sur­vive the trop­ics.”


An­other man who ex­em­pli­fies the same laid-back and lo­cal mind­set is Simone Mas­trota, an Ital­ian who has spent the past few years cul­ti­vat­ing a ca­reer in pho­tog­ra­phy in the US but has since redi­rected his at­ten­tion to mak­ing choco­lates through Ti­gre y Oliva, which takes its name from his two daugh­ters. “We were try­ing to start some­thing in Europe but it wasn’t the right mo­ment over there,” he says. “It’s harder be­cause ca­cao isn’t grown there. The kind of in­vest­ment you need to start is way higher. Here, you just throw a seed some­where and there will be peo­ple who will want to be part of that. I felt that kind of en­ergy.”

That spirit of ad­ven­ture and spon­tane­ity to put down roots in a place like La Union makes Ti­gre y Oliva’s bean-to-bar choco­lates the most deeply per­sonal en­deavor Mas­trota has un­der­taken. One could eas­ily get a sense of this in the way he ex­plores the lim­its of Philip­pine ca­cao ori­gins and en­forces it with his Ital­ian her­itage through carta varese, a tra­di­tional wrap­ping pa­per made in his home­town of Varese.

“That was an­other thing that made me strongly think about this op­por­tu­nity. The ca­cao beans were def­i­nitely world-class; re­ally good or at least re­ally in­ter­est­ing, con­sid­er­ing I didn’t re­ally know the farm­ers per­son­ally,” he says. Right now, the col­ors and tex­tures of Mas­trota’s ca­caos come from Davao, with each bar named af­ter the lo­ca­tions where the beans are sourced, whether it’s a

“You know the guys who do cof­fee and the peo­ple at Flot­sam and Jet­sam Hos­tel. These are the same peo­ple you hang out with, go surf with, or do yoga with,” says Raffy Castillo.

As with many gen­tri­fi­ca­tion pro­cesses, the threat of fast

changes is al­ways present. Which is why sus­tain­abil­ity

is a key fac­tor in how en­trepreneurs are run­ning not just their busi­nesses but the whole town

as well.

sin­gle farm such as Sto. To­mas in Davao del Norte or a co­op­er­a­tive like the Sta. Maria from Davao Oc­ci­den­tal, which is a group of 30 to 40 lit­tle farms that get to­gether to pro­duce beans. Be­cause Mas­trota fore­goes in­gre­di­ents other than ca­cao and sugar, much of his bars’ strength lies in the speci­ficity of their ori­gin.

He is also think­ing about the fu­ture of La Union by work­ing with lo­cal farm­ers to bring a new prod­uct to life: the province’s first ever bean-to-bar choco­late. “I made some bars us­ing ca­cao from Bac­no­tan just for fun and it was in­ter­est­ing.” A few tweaks to the fer­men­ta­tion process and in the tree grow­ing pat­terns and his lit­tle ex­per­i­men­ta­tion could lead to a profitable po­ten­tial for the town.

For now though, the pri­mary goal of Ti­gre y Oliva is to in­crease its pro­duc­tion from 1,000 bars to 2,000 every month, which is a tall task for Mas­trota, who does ev­ery­thing him­self. But his vi­sion to put the Philip­pines on the map and be part of the global move­ment is still strong and for­mi­da­ble.


As with many gen­tri­fi­ca­tion pro­cesses, the threat of fast changes is al­ways present. Which is why sus­tain­abil­ity is a key fac­tor in how en­trepreneurs are run­ning not just their busi­nesses but the whole town as well. “[Gen­tri­fi­ca­tion] can be good as long as it’s man­aged prop­erly,” says Denny An­tonino who is set to open his highly an­tic­i­pated smoke­house Papa Bear in June. “I’d like to see more re­sorts here use proper black­wa­ter sys­tems to fil­ter their sewage.”

For his part, An­tonino sticks to an ethos that rein­vig­o­rates the en­tire sup­ply chain. “I want to help the farm­ers and source black rice from them. I don’t mind pay­ing a lit­tle more than what they sell to dis­trib­u­tors since they kind of get the raw end of the deal.”

Papa Bear is the re­sult of a bro­ken heart lead­ing to cre­ative cathar­sis: An­tonino un­der­went dou­ble an­gio­plasty at 36. “Get­ting sick like that changed my frame of mind so I thought of other things.”

The thrust at Papa Bear is reimag­in­ing the smoke­house con­cept. The menu uses Amer­i­can smok­ing tech­niques but with Asian in­gre­di­ents and fla­vors, as An­tonino be­lieves in wrestling with the blind spots of Manila’s smoke­houses. “Most of them im­port their wood, which isn’t ex­actly eco-friendly. My plan is to see what I can use here like lo­cal fruit wood or coconut char­coal. Ide­ally, I’d like to work with na­tive black pig. It’s rather tasty and lends it­self well to low and slow cook­ing.”


There is an­other, more ar­chi­tec­tural story that is defin­ing La Union’s progress. Ves­sel Hos­tel, which sits on a scenic point of the town and was once fondly re­ferred to by res­i­dents as an alien ship, sym­bol­izes a new be­gin­ning on

“Surfing sim­pli­fies your life. It re­duces your needs to the ba­sic stuff,”

says Buji Libarnes.

the hos­pi­tal­ity front. Built by pro­lific tan­dem Buji and Nikki Libarnes, Ves­sel Hos­tel ex­hibits what can be done in a bustling town with a smaller foot­print. Much of the hos­tel is built on re­pur­pos­ing old ob­jects: four 20-foot con­tain­ers on the sec­ond floor house pri­vate rooms and two 40-foot con­tain­ers on the third floor hold the big­ger dorms. But the key part of Ves­sel’s story started when the Libarnes de­cided to build their house.

“When we bought the prop­erty, there was a 20-foot con­tainer left by the pre­vi­ous owner so we de­cided to move it a few feet and asked the lo­cals to help us carry it. We then built the house from that con­tainer,” Buji says. “I just left 50 square me­ters of free space at the back for a gar­den or a busi­ness in the fu­ture.” Af­ter com­plet­ing their unique house, the Libarnes grad­u­ally added the hos­tel in stages, or­gan­i­cally sculpt­ing it out of their home and even­tu­ally see­ing the vi­sion come to life early this year.

But more strik­ing than the artis­tic small-scale hos­tel’s form is its smart, sus­tain­able de­sign tee­ter­ing be­tween Ja­panese min­i­mal­ism and smooth retro stylings. “Most of the wood is also re­cy­cled, ’yung mga paleta lang. We also tried to fac­tor in pas­sive light­ing and cool­ing; hence a lot of jalousies let in 100 per­cent of the wind,” says Buji, adding that the water from air-con­di­tion­ing is also used to water the plants.

Climb to the top of the hos­tel and the Libarnes’ de­sign in­flu­ences are ev­i­dent in every di­rec­tion. From the re­cy­cled palochina and lou­ver blocks to the lat­tice walls that re­call the hy­per­nos­tal­gic vibe of the ’50s and ’60s, it’s an elas­tic land­scape that shows how good vin­tage de­sign can marry the town’s past with a green fu­ture.

In its own way, Ves­sel Hos­tel is as much a state­ment to the di­rec­tion most of the en­trepreneurs in La Union are head­ing as it is a def­i­ni­tion of the cou­ple’s rea­sons of re­lo­cat­ing to the province. “Most of the busi­ness peo­ple here started out as surfers who fre­quent La Union. Then they fell in love with the place so they had to find a way to sus­tain the life­style they want,” says Buji. “Surfing sim­pli­fies your life. It re­duces your needs to the ba­sic stuff.”

“That’s what we love about La Union, too. The sense of com­mu­nity here is very strong,” says Nikki, pre­sent­ing the fact that all three of their staff mem­bers, an all-around handy­man, and even the neigh­bors are very much a part of the hos­tel’s sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship with the town. “And we try to sup­port lo­cal in­dus­tries, too.” Surf­board ren­tals and lessons are passed on to lo­cals; laun­dry is out­sourced to a lo­cal laun­dro­mat lov­ingly called Wash Me Nae Nae, which uses ecofriendly soaps.

La Union’s self-aware, mat­ter-of-fact ap­proach to the sheer change of pace is cen­tral to the speedy evo­lu­tion of the province’s iden­tity. Agri­cul­ture and tourism have al­ways been a source of pride, but with tourist ar­rivals ex­pected to rise this year—num­bers reached nearly 300,000 in 2015—ow­ing to the in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ments set in North­ern and Cen­tral Lu­zon, the abun­dance of Manila en­trepreneurs launch­ing busi­nesses here is elec­tri­fy­ing La Union’s fledg­ling F&B scene.

There’s an en­trenched re­al­ity at play here mak­ing it ap­par­ent that La Union has found its ideal—and what an ideal it is.

(This page; clock­wise) Makai Bowls’ green, choco­late, and berry smoothie bowls; Denny An­tonino’s smoke­house Papa Bear is an homage to his father fig­ure rep­u­ta­tion at Your Lo­cal; Steel con­tain­ers at Ves­sel Hos­tel are prop­erly in­su­lated us­ing lou­ver...

Kiddo Co­sio and his cof­fee con­coc­tion

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