Why food mar­kets are giv­ing restau­rants a run for their money


Food mar­kets are like food courts and food halls, only bet­ter. And it’s not just be­cause of the live en­ter­tain­ment

The term “cu­rate” has long left the ex­hi­bi­tion halls of gal­leries and evolved into a hip catch­phrase that has seeped its way into con­ver­sa­tions re­volv­ing around ev­ery­thing from fashion and de­sign to on­line con­tent, and now, even gas­tron­omy. This par­tic­u­lar “art” is see­ing a lot of air­time in Manila’s wide range of week­end food mar­kets, where or­ga­niz­ers prom­ise a thought-out se­lec­tion of din­ing and drink­ing delights suc­cess­ful in lur­ing lo­cal and for­eign food­ies of ev­ery palate and per­sua­sion. Not quite con­tented with the grow­ing num­ber of restau­rants spawn­ing in the metro, city dwellers have taken an affin­ity to food mar­kets. Con­se­quently, 2016 saw its pro­lif­er­a­tion in not only shop­ping malls and pri­vate vil­lages but also churches.

Sa­vory Stan­dards

The Gour­mand Mar­ket staged by Tr­ish Panlilio, Dara David Roa, and Dong Ron­quillo stands out for its ar­ti­sanal prod­ucts that are of­ten not com­mer­cially avail­able. “Any­one can pretty much join The Gour­mand Mar­ket. We’re keen on pro­mot­ing the growth of home­made del­i­ca­cies and ven­dors who are look­ing to start their own busi­ness. I be­lieve that we’ve done quite well in this re­gard— our home cooks get to in­tro­duce their prod­ucts to their mar­ket while din­ers have the nov­elty of try­ing food only made avail­able on this oc­ca­sion,” says Panlilio. One that is more com­mu­nity-based is Back­yard Grill. Staged by North­ern Liv­ing and South­ern Liv­ing mag­a­zines, it brings the mar­ket to var­i­ous ex­clu­sive vil­lages so the brand can connect with its read­ers, do­nate to char­ity, and gather fam­i­lies to an af­ter­noon of hearty food and soul­ful sounds. “In this hy­per­con­nected world, we wanted to bring peo­ple out of their homes, away from their com­puter screens, and com­mune with their neigh­bors through good food and en­ter­tain­ment,” says man­ag­ing ed­i­tor Denise Al­can­tara. “Back­yard Grill has a unique model where we bring food con­cepts from the north to the south, and vice versa.”

Gwen Car­iño, who co-founded the yearly Best Food For­ward with en­tre­pre­neur Tim­mie Hi­lado, shares that food mar­kets are a great way to dis­cover new trends and con­cepts— from crunchy-crab sand­wiches and salted egg and tapa chips to al­co­holin­fused brown­ies and tinola- fla­vored

paella from the kitchens of chefs, culi­nary stu­dents, home cooks and bakers, and even en­tre­pre­neur­ial lit­tle girls who want to sell but­ter beer and Milo cook­ies. “I think what ex­cites peo­ple about com­ing to food mar­kets is the nov­elty of try­ing some­thing new and re­ally good for the first time, and com­ing back to old fa­vorites who also like com­ing up with new items for the mar­ket to try,” says Car­iño.

It also helps that or­ga­niz­ers of­ten hold a strict screen­ing process to en­sure that par­tic­i­pat­ing ven­dors of­fer food that are not only mar­ket-ready, but palat­able to the tastes of an in­creas­ingly dis­cern­ing band of din­ers. Each of the 100 or so ven­dors in Best Food For­ward, for one, should live up to the mar­ket’s brand. “We re­ally go out of our way to taste their food—we can’t have a ‘best food’ mar­ket and dish out bland choices,” she says, adding that most din­ers who at­tend the an­nual char­ity event spend the first day sam­pling dif­fer­ent of­fer­ings, and the sec­ond day hoard­ing their fa­vorites. “It’s been like that the last two years,” she ob­serves.

Mar­ket Be­hav­ior

Be­tween the growth of the busi­ness process out­sourc­ing (BPO) in­dus­try and

the pur­chas­ing power of the coun­try’s bur­geon­ing mid­dle class, and with peo­ple spend­ing more time in tran­sit than they do pre­par­ing their meals at home, food mar­kets pro­vide the clos­est things Filipinos have to home-cooked dishes at af­ford­able prices. Add to that the mil­len­ni­als’ char­ac­ter­is­tic of be­ing al­ways on the look­out for the next big thing.

Mer­cato Cen­trale, the week­end mar­ket in Boni­fa­cio Global City (BGC) by Our Awe­some Planet pro­pri­etor An­ton Diaz and en­tre­pre­neur RJ Ledesma, was an idea born out of the for­mer’s reg­u­larly held Ul­ti­mate Taste Test (UTT) where he in­vites home­based ven­dors to show­case new prod­ucts to a test crowd of around 1,000. “The idea was the au­di­ence can be food crit­ics for a day, and the ven­dors can use the event as a plat­form to test the mar­ket for their busi­ness,” ex­plains Diaz.

Most of Mer­cato’s first ven­dors come from the UTT data­base. What started as a morn­ing week­end mar­ket in BGC in Novem­ber 2010 even­tu­ally shifted its op­er­a­tions from day to night, with the part­ners find­ing it more lu­cra­tive to take ad­van­tage of the grow­ing num­ber of BPOs and multi­na­tion­als mov­ing their head­quar­ters to the thriv­ing cen­tral busi­ness dis­trict. It has also ex­panded by open­ing new mar­kets in such highly fre­quented ar­eas as Glo­ri­etta and Ayala Tech­no­hub as well as stag­ing sea­sonal mar­kets and pop-up and life­style events in dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try.

Ledesma shares that his com­pany op­er­ates more like a food start-up in­cu­ba­tor than a mar­ket or­ga­nizer. In fact, Mer­cato has been the birth­place of pop­u­lar restau­rants like Manang’s Chicken, Mary Moo, Mama Lou’s, Brasas, and Sun­rise Buckets. For the ini­tial cap­i­tal home-based en­trepreneurs need to dish out to be­come a ven­dor— it’s P3,000 per night for a min­i­mum of 12 nights—the Mer­cato Cen­trale team men­tors them in ev­ery­thing from op­er­a­tions and mar­ket­ing to fi­nance and prod­uct devel­op­ment.

“That is if they pass the ini­tial taste test,” Ledesma is quick to point out. “We’re re­ally par­tic­u­lar about our ven­dors. It doesn’t mean that if you have the money and can pay rent, then you get to join. Peo­ple ex­pect a cer­tain level of food qual­ity and cu­ra­tion from Mer­cato, so ven­dors can only join when they qual­ify in the taste test.” The food also needs to be able to tell a story—a fac­tor the part­ners are more par­tic­u­lar about than any­thing else. “Whether you’re a Filipino or a for­eign ven­dor, food makes for a great way to share the story of your cul­ture. It’s what our din­ers find most ex­cit­ing about Mer­cato— learn­ing the sto­ries be­hind the food they are eat­ing,” shares Diaz, cit­ing last year’s winner of its an­nu­ally staged Next Big Food En­tre­pre­neur as an ex­am­ple. “An In­done­sian and Filipino cou­ple won. When they got mar­ried, the woman’s dad gave her his se­cret recipe for bakmi goreng, which they now sell in our mar­kets. It’s re­ally her­itage, heir­loom recipes like th­ese that tend to be a hit among din­ers,” says Diaz.

Dif­fer­ent Mo­ti­va­tions

Be­yond va­ri­ety in food and mar­ket con­cepts are the mo­ti­va­tions that power th­ese events. Cre­ated pri­mar­ily be­cause of the founders’ “love for food,” Best Food For­ward dif­fer­en­ti­ates it­self by be­ing a “food mar­ket with a cause” with all of its reg­is­tra­tion pro­ceeds fun­neled into so­cial projects. “We or­ga­nize feed­ing pro­grams with Unang Hak­bang Foun­da­tion and two other barangays. It’s some­thing we started from year one and con­tinue to do to this day,” shares Car­iño.

Cres Yulo, co-founder of Pi­noy Eats World, or­ga­nizes food events that gather “like-minded peo­ple who love good food and good vibes” where guests get to min­gle among them­selves as well as with the chefs and the home-based en­trepreneurs be­hind the prod­ucts. Some­times the mar­ket or­ga­nizes “mashups on the fly” among pur­vey­ors sell­ing sim­i­lar prod­ucts for the week­end.

“Some­times we also in­vite up-and­com­ing singers and bands to jam and do live ses­sions. Like our ven­dors who are new to the busi­ness and have no voice yet, we in­vite mu­si­cians who are not yet in most peo­ple’s radars. It’s why our events at­tract the open-minded ones, the ad­ven­tur­ous ones, and those will­ing to go all the way to where we are, ex­cited to dis­cover new things,” shares Yulo.

In­deed, fur­ther boost­ing the stay­ing power of th­ese food mar­kets is the fact that they’ve be­come not only food des­ti­na­tions, but a melt­ing pot of peo­ple from dif­fer­ent walks of life. “Dif­fer­ent peo­ple buy­ing food from dif­fer­ent ven­dors, and then salo-salo. I think that’s what con­tin­ues to at­tract peo­ple to th­ese mar­kets—the food is var­ied, the price points make sense, and the con­ver­sa­tions are al­ways fun and lively,” says Ledesma.

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