It has been two years since news reported the first cases of the Covid pandemic, two years since the lockdowns and community quarantine and two years since the requirement of face masks and face shields (which we definitely do not miss).
It has already been two years for the food and restaurant businesses reeling from the effects of the pandemic. With thousands of businesses shut down because of Covid-19, it has gotten everyone curious to know how some remarkable businesses, especially in the food industry, managed to keep themselves afloat while their competition closed.
The minds behind these successful businesses show that with enough grit, strategic thinking and a whole lot of faith, they have what it takes to become a Modern Tao Ke. In this article, we get up close and personal with one: Restaurateur Jervy Santiago, the man behind Harmony Cantonese Kitchen who was able to keep his Chinese food takeout store up and running amidst the pandemic.
Getting to know a Modern Tao Ke
It is not known to all that aside from being a restaurateur, Jervy Santiago is also a marketing expert and a sought-after professional photographer for almost two decades already. “I shoot all kinds of photography. I do ad campaigns, product shots, food shots, weddings and other events. I also do advertising campaigns and corporate profiles for annual reports,” he said.
Santiago also considers himself an avid foodie. Customers would be amused to know that his food takeout business, Harmony Cantonese Kitchen, actually started in November 2018 because of his cravings for an authentic Cantonese machang. “I’ve been craving for that pero wala ako makita, kahit sa Binondo, wala. I was really frustrated then I said, ‘You know what, ginagawa to ng lola ko noon eh’. Then I went to my cousin who was very familiar with this cooking, so tinanong ko sa kanya,” he said.
Tasting the nostalgic flavor of the Machang he was looking for in his cousin’s cooking, he introduced it to his wife, Lyn Santiago, who successfully replicated their lola’s special recipe on the Chinese dish.
Wanting to share this flavorful dish with others, Santiago started sending it as gifts to his photography clients. He remembers sending one to Eat Bulaga’s executive producer, who also shared it with the show’s trio, Tito, Vic, and Joey who surprisingly liked the dish. “I was surprised kasi di ko ineexpect na magugustuhan nila yung ganung lasa. Kasi mas inclined ang Filipinos sa salty and strong taste. Kung matamis, dapat sobrang tamis, kung maalat dapat lasang lasa yung alat. So di ko inexpect na magugustuhan nila,” he shared.
Eventually, family and friends started ordering their family’s Machang, which prompted Santiago to sell more of this Chinese delicacy which would soon turn into a full-fledged business called Harmony Cantonese Kitchen.
Expanding the business
Santiago’s business started out with only food deliveries but he placed himself in the shoes of his customers and saw a minor flaw. “If we will do this online food business, and we will only serve 1 product (Machang), nanghihinayang naman ako sa delivery fee,” he said.
Santiago’s solution for this is to expand his products so that his clients have more to choose from to fully maximize the delivery. Today, Harmony Cantonese Kitchen boasts of a wide variety of Cantonese food favorites such as the Radish Cake (made with their family’s secret recipe), Taro Cake (their once-in-a-blue-moon dish, making their customers always have their eye out for its next production date), pata tim, ribs glazed in special strawberry sauce (a crowd-favorite, so don’t forget to add this to your next order) and almond jelly float (well-received by older customers because of its refreshing, not too sweet taste and melts-in-your-mouth texture) which their customers definitely have to try aside from the Machang for a complete Cantonese cuisine experience.
Strategy as the key to the pandemic
Every entrepreneur would agree that strategy is crucial to navigating the pandemic. For Santiago, he opted to have his restaurant offer a food take out and delivery service instead of putting up an actual restaurant because of the uncertainty brought by the pandemic.
He also had to strategize how to keep up with the influx of orders on their online business, especially during the pandemic when not all hands are on deck with staff unable to come to work.
He highlights that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for navigating your business during a pandemic as every business is unique and has its own strengths and weaknesses. For Santiago, he advises that the best way is to fully assess your business and make use of past experiences as reference for how to conduct the business in the present and future.
Harmony Cantonese Kitchen as a standout
With so many Chinese restaurants to choose from, it is vital that your restaurant has a main selling point that makes it stand out from the rest of its competition. Santiago highlights his restaurant’s main edge from other similar businesses.
First is consistency. Keeping in mind that his customers will always come back for the quality and taste of their dishes, Santiago highlights that consistency is a must in their commissary. “We are very careful in launching new items on our menu. We have to make sure of its consistency by cooking it for several weeks or months with the same quality before we launch it,” he shared.
Santiago also takes pride in saying that his restaurant’s cleanliness is another factor that makes Harmony Cantonese Kitchen stand out from the rest. “I’m quite meticulous when it comes to cleanliness, especially with food. Like, we only use stainless wares for cooking and not aluminum. We use separate utensils for meat and non meat. We use aluminum pan for steaming our Taro and Radish Cake instead of the plastic microwavable containers. We wash and boil the bamboo leaves before using. We use cooking twine in wrapping our machang instead of plastic straw. Things like that. That’s how much we value our customers,” he said.
Lastly, Santiago highlights his restaurant’s top-tier service to their customers, with the goal in mind of being willing to go the extra mile to make them satisfied with their Harmony experience. Given that most of their customers are senior citizens, it can be challenging to ask them to book their couriers for food delivery but for Santiago, extending patience and keeping their clients happy is one of the best business practices for all.
Message for aspiring Modern Tao Ke’s
For ambitious entrepreneurs who want to be like Jervy, his top advice to become a Modern Tao Ke is to adapt to the modern ways of business and advertising but remain true to the traditional authenticity of your product.
“Yun yung hanap ng tao eh, the authentic taste of our Machang. There may be new, innovative ways on how to sell your product specially with the advent of social media advertising. But our product’s authenticity should always remain the same.” said Santiago.
Indeed, there is no denying that the online world is the most effective advertising and marketing tool of today. This has been highlighted with the onset of the pandemic and although businesses are slowly bouncing back from its effects, there is no denying that having an online arm for your business is still a very good idea as it is one of the most promising ways to conduct business today. Take it from Jervy Santiago himself who strategically utilized the online world to market and keep Harmony Cantonese Kitchen afloat amidst the pandemic, earning him the rightful recognition as a true Modern Tao Ke.
Satisfy your Chinese food cravings now and take out or have it delivered from Harmony Cantonese Kitchen. Check out their flavorful and savory Cantonese dishes through Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/HarmonyCantoneseKitchen/ and Instagram: @harmonycantonesekitchen