18 July 2017

Mentorship: TUSK Social's Kyle Francia learns from OTO's David Ong

When starting out in an industry, there will always be the inevitable pitfalls.  This, however, prolongs the process when finding one's place in the field. It is a paradox budding creatives know too well: wanting to shorten the process while understanding that true excellence takes time.

But what if you can fulfill one side of the equation without compromising the other? This conversation aims to answer just that.

Unlike the usual Q&A format, we brought together two professionals from the same field to exchange ideas on the topic matter. This time around, we have Kyle Francia of TUSK Social and David Ong of The CuratorEDSA Beverage Design Studio and OTO. Francia is a 25-year old who started in the food and beverage industry through working at 12/10 — an izakaya restaurant and bar in Makati. While Ong is a renowned coffee and cocktail connoisseur, who is one of the pioneers of the modern renaissance that the industry is experiencing as of the moment.

With varying degrees of experience in the beverage industry — Francia is relatively new to the scene, while Ong is more established — it's interesting to note how both perspectives line up every now and then, particularly when it comes to working the craft. From waiting for the right moment to understanding the customer, in the end, the two talk about this and more in the excerpt below.

Words by Pam Musni & Photos by Zaldine Alvaro

David Ong and Kyle Francia

Waiting for the right moment

KYLE FRANCIA: Correct me if I'm wrong, but as a part-owner and manager of The Curator Coffee & Cocktails, EDSA Beverage Design Group, and OTO, how was the industry before you came in? This is for both coffee and cocktails.

DAVID ONG:  Before I got back to Manila in December 2011, I made myself a five-year goal that consisted of The Curator Coffee & Cocktails and EDSA Beverage Design Group, but didn't act on it immediately. When I returned, I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were quality coffee and cocktails in the form of Kuppa and Blind Pig. Apart from these two, there weren't any other players.

KYLE: Was it you personally who didn't act, or the market that did not act?

DAVID: Me personally! I felt like I had to be observant of the market for a good amount of time before jumping into it. I knew what I wanted to do — that is to have a place that served both third wave AND specialty coffee (there's a difference) as well as craft cocktails. On top of this, I was nobody... And I needed a solid team. This was when I met my partners for The Curator and EDSA BDG: Jericson Co, Bernice Tiu and Kerwin Lo (who also owns Kuppa).

KYLE: And this was around what year?

DAVID: This was in 2013. CRAFT Coffee Workshop had just opened then... I ws sitting down the bar sipping my coffee when I heard a random guy talking about things that I was interested in with his friend — and it turned out to be Jericson and Bernice!

KYLE: This is the one in QC, right?

DAVID:  Yes! After a few chats back and forth that lasted months, we decided that it was time to do something together.

My mom's brother, Jappy Gonzales owns a fashion company called H&F Retail Concepts, and one of the brands that he brought in is Fred Perry. He gave us our first gig on Father's Day Weekend last June 2013 as we served free coffee care of Fred Perry in four of their stores. We've been doing it every year since then!

The following week after, renowned food & beverage connector, JJ Yulo chanced upon us and invited us to the first ever Pinoy Eats World event at The Podium — Manly Eats. This was when we tested the full concept of coffee and cocktails together.

Come August 2013, we moved into the backroom of Cyrano Wine Shop & Deli who Jericson's brother, Jonathan was a partner of. Those were the days... The "Meth Lab" days when we would make do of the space and whatever personal equipment we owned. A few weeks later, we moved into another one of Tito Jappy's shops called Archives d'Homme et Femme for a coffee pop-up that alsted three months... Which ended when we formally opened The Curator on December 5, 2013 — Repeal Day, of all days!

KYLE: Which closed recently.

DAVID: Yes. We were very fortunate and grateful that they left the space with us. We renovated it last year and reopened it in December 2016 — now, we serve coffee there from 7AM to 10PM.

More than passion

KYLE: You've obviously had a great experience with the quality of coffee and cocktails you've had in the past. When you guys decided to bring it to the Philippines, as you said, not a lot of people were used to it.

There's always this narrative about bringing in new concepts. People always say it's like passion projects — we're not doing this for the money, we want to provide better flavors. But for me, it's a bit over-used at one point, because you stack everything to whether it's really the passion for the project, or finding a niche. For you, is it about something the market hasn't been provided with yet and wanting to be the one that provides the service?

DAVID: I would say it's a little bit of both. If you've been to The Curator, the way that it's laid out is that it's basically a place FOR US, an extension of our home, where we could entertain guests. Thus, the communal tables, the long couch, and the seats by the bar. We felt that this setup was conducive to organic engagement... A place where we could talk about what we love to do and exchange ideas.

Unfortunately, a product can't speak for itself especially if it's new and unfamiliar to the market. Because of this, education is equally important. However, I'm in the belief of not forcing down unwarranted information into people's throats — instead, we focus on two things: execution and service. We continue to do this today. Fortunately, our customers have been extremely receptive of our efforts.

At the end of the day, it all boils down to intention. Personally, I'd always prefer to revisit a coffee shop and/or cocktail bar with great service and pride for what they do.

KYLE: As compared to a place that's really nice?

DAVID: Yes, that's the sad reality... What's "Instagram-able" versus the actual product and soul.

To me, success is relative. On one side, there's the "recognition" wherein people know who you are and what you do. Moreover, respect what you're doing for the industry, the community and the country. On the flip side, "Return on Investment" is just as important.

The balance between the two is the goal for me when I think about venturing out. In a nutshell, The Curator logo.

KYLE: The Curator ampersand?

DAVID: Exactly. If you look closely, it's a coffee cup, a couple glass, AND an ampersand. Sure, it's coffee and cocktails, but what's more important is that we improve on knowledge and technique everyday... What's MOST important is that we add value to something, to someone. Thus, the ampersand in which we strive to build genuine relationships one coffee and cocktail at a time.

I don't think that it's just The Curator either. You've worked at 12/10 and The Girl + The Bull — when you reach out to consumers, was it always easy.

KYLE: No, it's not.

DAVID: When they come in, customers expect certain things... But at the end of the day, I feel like it's summarized to two things: 1) How was the drink/food? 2) How was I treated?

If the answers to these questions are "great" and "even better," then we'll have returning customers who'll eventually become regulars... Who'll eventually become friends. To me, this is what it's all about.

Understanding the customer

KYLE: The first time I really had a proper cocktail was with you, and you were the one who made it... pero grabe, you came into it with all the right questions: "What do you like to drink? What kind of flavors do you look for?"

DAVID: Really? Well, thank you! I feel that taste is very subjective. Everybody has different preferences, and that's okay. I guess that it's just a matter of figuring out what those are and how you're feeling palate-wise as well as emotionally.

KYLE: And it's weird — I came into it thinking that I knew these flavors, but it was on another level... like even if you customize it as much as possible towards what you think the guy will like, it's still up to the original customer to be, I guess, accepting of whatever experience comes.

DAVID: I think so! For sure, people will have some reservations on certain flavors. Again, we all have preferences that we adhere to, but I feel that Filipinos' palates are evolving and so is our curiosity. Despite this, we still want to tailor-fit the drink and the experience around the customer. In my opinion, the only way one can do that is through great hospitality.

On the same boat

KYLE: When you guys first started off, the market knew nothing about you. As you said, when we got into 12/10 — the whole izakaya thing — people were a bit hostile, a bit apprehensive, because they didn't know how the concept was. And it was a bit harder for you guys because you were providing premium cocktails, premium pressing... so how did you guys convince a new market to change the way they think about this product?

DAVID: It's true, you know. I would like to return the question to you, actually.

KYLE: Well, that's kind of why I'm asking you — I don't really know how to approach this.

DAVID: That's what I'm saying... We're in the same boat even if I've been in the industry for three years, and you just for a few months! Going back to what I said earlier, there is no definite recipe to success — I don't consider myself as successful. Not yet, at least.

No matter how idealistic or passionate you are about what you do, people will always question why you do things a certain wait. For me, I want them to ask more questions! That way, we're more engaged with our customers and the rest of the industry... AND WE ALL GROW. A rising tide lifts all boats.

But don't forget Economics 101, "No money, no honey." It IS a business after all.


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