‘Virtual restaurant’ offers the taste of the familiar

SOME dishes from Hey, Jaew! — WWW.INSTAGRAM.COM/HEYJAEW/

IF I close my eyes right now, I can still taste the savory skin of the chicken and hear the familiar din of conversation in Poblacion’s Senor Pollo and Khao Khai. Although the pandemic precludes me from such pleasures, Daniel Mabanta, founder and director of Shoreditch Food, Inc. (the parent of both brands), allows one to get the taste of tropical evenings once again by opening Hey, Jaew, billed on its Instagram account as a “virtual restaurant.”

What is a “virtual restaurant”? It is a restaurant that exists only in the virtual space — it has no physical presence for dining in — whose food is strictly for take-out or delivery. The food itself is made in a “cloud kitchen” or “ghost kitchen” — “centralized food production facilities where brands can rent a space to prepare food exclusively for delivery or take-out,” according to F&B Report. “A facility can house more than one virtual restaurant with a shared kitchen, similar to a co-working space, or a business can own one facility and house all of its brands’ production under one roof like an incubator.”

“Even pre-pandemic, we were toying around with the idea of having a cloud kitchen,” said Mr. Mabanta in an e-mail to BusinessWorld. “In theory, it is alluring: low overhead, plenty of room for creativity. So when COVID came around, we felt it was the right time to execute and make that pivot.”

“I’d differentiate us from a home kitchen because we are a legitimate, registered business, we pay rent exclusively for our kitchens, which are commercially zoned properties, and our cooks are trained in actual restaurants. So definitely, we are closer to a restaurant than a home delivery service, we are just one that is selling mainly in a digital space.”

The restaurant is named after the condiment/dipping sauce ubiquitous in Thailand called jaew (pronounced “jao”). “‘Hey, Jaew!’ just sounded catchy to us, as well as sort of a play on words for the phrase ‘Hey Joe!’ and even somewhat resembling that famous song by the Beatles,” said Mr. Mabanta.

Hey Jaew’s menu consists of strange but familiar tastes: think Chicken Inasal (with that jaew from which the restaurant’s name is taken), Khmer Coconut Pork, Lechon Kawali, Lo Mein, and a dish called Island Bird (fried chicken, but with banana ketchup aioli and Thai som tum).

It looks as if Mr. Mabanta still banks on Shoreditch Food’s strengths: aside from the aforementioned brands, there is also Bernie’s Southern Fried Chicken, giving a sense that the company’s strength is in preparing chicken quite simply, but with unexpected flair. “There are qualities of both Khao Khai and Senor Pollo, but that doesn’t define us as a brand. Hey Jaew is mostly Pan Asian, a broad term, which gives us a lot of room to experiment with different cuisines. Right now, the menu is predominantly Thai and Filipino, but there are Hawaiian, Japanese, Korean, Chinese elements too. That’s the beauty of calling yourself ‘Pan Asian,’ the possibilities are endless. And, yes, it is a fusion, but not in a pretentious way. Bottom line, we just want everything to taste good,” he said.

One of the strengths of Shoreditch’s restaurants is their vibe as boho-chic evening watering holes. Asked how Hey Jaew retains that, despite having the food delivered at home, he said, “By having a solid product, focusing heavily on the delivery aspect, and investing in guerilla marketing. Social media has been crucial. But really, our food has always been democratic and delivery-friendly, so while ‘vibe’ is important, we are able to survive without it. We were never fully dependent on alcohol sales.”

Hey Jaew is just one of their reactions to the times. “We have to maintain relevancy amidst this difficult time,” said Mr. Mabanta. “In the past few months, in addition to opening online brands, we added a brunch menu, hired our own fleet of riders, bottled our products like our popular chimichurri sauce, expanded our kitchens to accommodate other concepts, and developed our own delivery websites. We can’t grow complacent, we have to continue pivoting until this pandemic blows over. It’s a full-time job.”

Like other F&B businesses, Shoreditch Food has had its problems thanks to the pandemic. “Unfortunately, we have had to close down branches where landlords weren’t flexible and rent remained unreasonably high. But the silver lining is that it has allowed us to commit to the cloud kitchen model while reducing our unnecessary overhead as much as possible,” he said. “In terms of pivoting our business model, we are just fully focused on delivery and marketing, while maintaining some dine-in operations. For the time being, this has kept us afloat.”

Mr. Mabanta’s restaurants were usually located in places that came alive at night (at least pre-pandemic) and they did have a sizable lunch crowd too. Those things, for now, are a thing of the past with quarantines and curfews in place. Mr. Mabanta is thinking of the future of spots like his. “For me personally, if I was to expand I would want to open in a mall, because they currently have the highest foot traffic and the most lenient rental rates,” he said. “I think should the uncertainty of the pandemic continue, people in the industry should pivot to fast-casual. Fine dining (concepts where experience truly plays a monumental role) is essentially out for the time being which is why so many of the great restaurants of the world have shut down — and may continue to do so. Right now, I would focus on food that travels well, that defies trends and is ultimately satisfying regardless of where it is consumed.”

Speaking about their future as a company, he said, “I just want to continue this trajectory — have a roster of brands via cloud kitchen/online restaurant, while maintaining some brick and mortar operations. Within these brands, I want to continue streamlining operations. Everyday is a learning experience and there is always something that can be improved. So we look not only to survive, but to improve ourselves as a company daily.

“Reviewing our monthly profit and loss statement is crucial to see where and how we can improve and become more efficient. I’m not a numbers person, but having a firm grasp of accounting is crucial,” he said about what the pandemic has taught him about business.

“There is no singular thing that we can rely on to bring success. A balance of quality, service, tightly run operations, branding and marketing is needed. If you master that formula then you’re on your way.”

Hey Jaew is on GrabFood, FoodPanda, and on Instagram @heyjaew. Contact them through phone or mobile at 7717-1240 or 0917-315-9151. — Joseph L. Garcia

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