For many, after a long winter under a national lockdown, the announcement that restrictions would be cautiously relaxed over March and April came as welcome news. Few were relieved more than London’s hospitality industry, of which the vast majority survived through a combination of their own resources, loans, government support, and sheer work. As part of a new, ongoing series exploring the experiences and perspectives of restaurant workers in the wake of COVID and beyond, we are sharing their stories from the front lines.
First up: Ferdinand “Budgie” Montoya. After years of building his acclaimed Filipino restaurant Sarap through countless pop-ups and residencies, Montoya finally managed to secure a small site for a six-month stint at Brixton Market. Mere weeks after opening, Montoya’s restaurant was abruptly forced to close along with countless other restaurants across the country as the pandemic unfolded.
We caught up with Montoya just before the reopening announcement, as he reflected on the ups and downs of the pandemic, the sheer effort required to open a takeaway, and Sarap’s uncommon position serving what he calls ‘fascination-led’ cuisine in the middle of the largest global shutdown in living memory. His words follow:
During this time, like most businesses we have had to change what our original plan was. There was always a desire to take the business in two different directions, but it was difficult because there isn’t a huge reference point for Filipino food in the UK, so we felt stuck in a middle ground.
What our pandemic ‘pivot’ – for want of a better word – has allowed us to do is create the two styles of cooking I enjoy. One is what I enjoy eating regularly – the informal, street style food which we have now developed in reaction to these times.
The other, which is how we had intended to operate, and will do again when we are allowed, is a more ‘refined’ – I also don’t like this word – concept. I guess what I mean, is that I want to look at pushing the boundaries a little more, try to do tasting menus and things like that. I don’t necessarily enjoy eating in this way, every day, but in terms of working, if I am to cook 60 hours a week, this is how I like to cook.
The good thing with the current situation is that I can build two brands and differentiate between the two styles. So, the idea to open a more informal offering was always on the cards but the original plan was to build a reputation from the ‘restaurant’ – especially with the idea of Filipino food not being as familiar in this city – and then create a brand that was easy and successful to open in other corners of London. But at the first lockdown [Ed. note: Sarap opened 30 Jan 2020, and closed the Sunday before lockdown was official], we had a decision to make – do we carry on, or change completely?
What I didn’t want to do was to have a band aid solution. We wanted to create something that was fool proof, or rather, something that didn’t make us vulnerable. I needed to know that whatever happened we could still operate – that was the main goal.
We took our time to decide what we were going to do and then reinvested what little money we had, and borrowed a little bit more from the government from the Bounce Back loans to create what we have now, which is a beautiful use of a very small space. We have a counter dining area, a bigger kitchen, and more storage to cater for deliveries and takeaway – the amount of space for takeaway counters is definitely surprising!
We took – and continue to take – a very slow approach, purely because we know what we know, and we know what we don’t know; so, we need to explore that before we rush into anything. For the most part it has worked – we are still here. That is a win in itself.
But realistically, we are one major bill away from closing. For example, we have rent relief which is coming to an end very soon. That has been a survival tool, so now we need to think about ‘are we taking enough money to keep going?’. It’s the kind of thing that keeps me up at night.
We had spent so much time putting together an idea. With a crowdfunder and planning a restaurant, it takes years. Therefore, one of the biggest changes has been from a mental perspective – the cooking, the preparing, the set-up, the logistics – it’s a totally new ball game, the business we now have. I have only worked in restaurants and the people who are working here have only ever worked in restaurants. That approach has stuck with us, and now having to change to a takeaway business, mentally it has been a totally different scenario. It has been exhausting.
We had also spent so long trying to make sure we finished things last minute to serve fresh on a plate, to thinking that something has to be ready in five minutes of being ordered for a takeaway. Our biggest question was: How do we create a menu that has our quality and our mission in mind, but is ready to be pulled out of a fridge to put on the BBQ to be charred, or to be heated up, when ordered? It might look like our food is easy to travel, but it really isn’t. It degrades as it travels – you can only eat it within half an hour, or you can’t keep the chicken crispy!
The biggest impact for us as been to do with customers. In reality our cuisine is unknown and therefore it is fascination-led; we were relying on people thinking ‘let’s go there and check that out’, so the lockdown has really hurt us. That has been our hardest pill to swallow, we have lost our ability to feed London. Now our business is to feed a two-mile radius.
Our customer base is local Filipinos, and we are slowly increasing on the non-Filipino customer. But it isn’t food most people will eat three times a week, unlike burger, pizza, pasta. But what is interesting with Filipino food, is that it actually has a lot of familiar points. I don’t like to use the word fusion, but the reality is, is that it’s fusion food, but fusion over a long period of time – centuries! Even before colonial rule it was a trading spot. Therefore, it is so enriched in other cultures; most people will find a relatable aspect.
The food I know, and cook is from the Catholic cuisine, but there is a whole tapestry of other Filipino cultures and foods and I am constantly researching and learning. This is why I shy away from calling my food authentic. My cooking is about where I come from, my memory, knowledge, care and attention – that is how we are authentic.
Despite everything, we are still experimenting with ideas and have a few things in the pipeline, including meal kits, which has taken a long time to develop. We have also trialled doing click and collect – as well as delivery – which has worked out, but it is still all shot in the dark. We have to see how it all continues, day by day, week by week.
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