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Reality bites: Marvin Agustin shares food business experience, tips during pandemic

MANILA, Philippines — With every slice of his moist Kerot Loaf Cake, or as he sprinkles cheese powder on an UBaE Cheese Roll, or for every crunch that crackles as he sinks his teeth into his succulent roast pig dish Cochonillo, it is easy to think through his social media posts that Marvin Agustin is living the life despite the pandemic.

But “No,” he insisted during a recent virtual media conference for Maxicare. 

“Baka akalain nila Cochinillo lagi araw-araw ang kinakain ko, no. I do everything in moderation,” he clarified.

With entertainment venues still largely closed, showbiz work is limited, and so Marvin is among those stars pivoting into the food business to survive the pandemic.

“During this pandemic, and even before this pandemic, it’s very challenging to run a business. Very, very competitive ‘yung landscape especially in the food scene,” he confessed.

Almost two years into the pandemic, Marvin could get by and not only keep his businesses afloat but even expand into pastries and new brands. These are how he does it:

Shifting from dine-in to Cloud Kitchen model

As an International School for Culinary Arts and Hotel Management graduate, Marvin has successfully ventured into restaurants like Sumo Sam, which specializes in Japanese-American modern cuisine; Japanese restaurant John and Yoko, as well as Cafe Ten Titas. 

These restaurants, however, relied mostly on the dine-in service model, which has been disrupted or limited since the pandemic began last year.

“It’s a never-ending challenge, learning experience. Parang ngayon, magbubukas ulit ‘yung dine-in, biglang magsasara. Of course magpreprepare kami tapos tataas na naman ‘yung cases,” Marvin expressed his frustration.

Since he cannot rely on dine-in services, Marvin decided to try the Cloud Kitchen model.

“Sa Cloud Kitchen business model, kahit nasaan ka basta may kalan, pwede kang magtinda,” he explained. 

Related: Ghost Month: Pandemic gives rise to ‘ghost kitchens’

He has since put up his own cloud kitchen brand, Secret Kitchen, which is now an umbrella brand for his other food labels.

“Bagong bago ‘yung mga challenges na kinakaharap natin but kailangan natin silang harapin with caution and the right perspective.”

Learning new skills

Apart from acting, Marvin has been used to cooking since he was young, but not baking. Since only the delivery model is the one operational during the pandemic, and studies show that there is a growing market for baked goods during these times, the actor gave baking a shot.

“Actually, in the beginning, I wasn’t really planning to make a business out of it, ‘yung pagbebake. Nagsimula ako sa very basic na banana bread, carrot cake, to expanding to cakes and other pastries,” he narrated.

Thanks to his new baking skills, he has expanded his business to include cakes, pastries and Cochinillo in his portfolio.

“Good thing na naging matapang ako and I was able to challenge myself,” he enthused. “Good thing I experimented. Good thing out of fear ang naisip ko ay just to be creative and challenge myself to learn something new.”

Professionalizing his new ventures

Jennifer Haw, Operations Manager of Yummyverse Group headed by Marvin, said that at first, the actor began his baking businesses in his garage. She admired how the actor took risk in getting a proper kitchen or commissary as this would make any business look professional and assure customers of their commitment to good quality.

Part of their adjustments for the “new normal,” she said, is strictly following health protocols at work.

Marvin would always tell them, “Don’t put your guard down; always put your masks on. Walang maiiwan, dapat lahat sabay-sabay.”

Valuing teamwork 

Marvin, nonetheless, does not want to take all the credit.

“Teamwork is everything. Ang sabi nga ni (Amazon founder) Jeff Bezos, ‘For you to have a successful venture, idea is very important. Idea would spark a new beginning… But idea is only one percent. Ninety-nine percent is execution’,” Marvin explained.

“Especially in the food scene, in the business operations, hindi kaya ng isang tao, hindi kaya ng dalawa. Hindi kaya ng lima. Marami ang taong involved. Imagine, sa isang dish na lang, andaming nangyayari d’yan. Bibili ka ng ingredients. ‘Pag dumating na d’yan, titignan mo kung maganda ‘yung produce na dineliver sa’yo. Lulutuin tapos iseserve. Ipa-pack. Andaming nangyayari. So, teamwork is really important.”

In a food business, accidents like minor burns cannot be prevented, so part of Marvin’s strategies is to get Maxicare plans for his employees, especially after the Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) recently launched its new plans for small and medium entrepreneurs.

“Ngayon natin napatunayan na balewala ‘yung mga pinupundar natin kung ‘di natin inaalagaan ‘yung health natin. Kung wala tayong steps na gagawin para maproteksyunan ‘yung health natin, balewala ‘yung investments natin,” he expounded.

He admitted that at first, he hesitated to hire new staff and get insurance for himself, his business and his employees, thinking that these were just extra expenses.

“Wala na ngang papasok na sales pero andami mo pang kailangang bayaran – renta, suppliers, salaries of employees. Pero kung wala kang HMO, mas malaking gastos ang proproblemahin mo,” he pointed out.

“These plans are not protection for us ‘pag nagkasakit tayo. It’s also protection against the financial impact ‘pag nagkasakit ka kasi ang gastos gastos magpa-ospital… ‘Di ba sinasabi nga nila, ang pagkakasakit, ‘pang mayaman lang ‘yan?”

Getting HMO plans for his team members, he said, not only gives them and their families more peace of mind, but also make their staff feel important.

“If a member of your team doesn’t feel valued and respected, I don’t think you’ll succeed in getting the vision that you have. Napakaimportante na lagi natin ipinararamdam natin sa ating employees na mahalaga sila sa big picture ng ating business,” he vouched.

“Definitely fighting and hoping for better days. Hirap, challenged, pero I guess, what we can do is remain hopeful, optimistic. ‘Pag gising sa umaga, laban. Masarap kasi you still have a team that works hard with you. I’m thankful for that.”

Promoting business in proper platforms

According to Marvin, for a business to thrive and not only survive during the pandemic, being talented, having a bright business idea, and getting a team and an office are not enough. Promoting one’s products and services through platforms such as social media is also key.

“Andami kong nakikitang mga home cooks at mga kusinero, kusinera na mukhang masasarap ‘yung mga ginagawa nila, kaso sayang, hindi napropromote,” said Marvin, who launched his own YouTube channel during the pandemic to also help promote fellow Filipino home cooks.  

Maintaining work-life balance

Managing a food business might entail a lot of work, but Marvin makes sure to still find time to balance his life by spending time with his family and starting his day playing tennis.

“Looking back, ‘yung mga challenges ko sa buhay, nasanay ako sa mahihirap at challenging na situations. And also a good disposition. I chose din a good kind of lifestyle. I challenge myself, I work hard but at the same time, I do things to protect myself like exercise, rest, ‘yung kinakain,” he shared.

“Dito sa panahon ngayon, actually, we don’t know what works. ‘Yung mga akala nating advantages natin before the pandemic parang back to square one lahat eh. What is important now is that we listen to the new challenges, to the people that we work with, to our audience, old and new, so that we’ll be able to navigate and get out of this pandemic life. Sabi nga nila, pahabaan ng pisi. Magkita-kita tayo sa finish line.”

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