Serving nostalgia

Heir to a food business established in 1894 by her great-great grandfather, this young restaurateur is set on promoting dishes with a history to a new generation of diners.
Juliet Bato
Panciteria San Jacinto

“There are a lot of new market trends, which are way more attractive, branding-wise, and the industry has also become more fast-paced. A legacy brand [only] appeals to a niche market.”

Panciteria San Jacinto is a family business that entrepreneur Juliet Bato is unabashedly proud of and deeply treasures.

“Our great-great-grandfather came all the way from Guangdong, China with his siblings and started selling bitso-bitso (deep-fried glutinous rice flour dough dipped in brown sugar) and congee, using a yoke and a basket,” she recalls. “Eventually, they opened [an] eatery named Karihan Antigua, which became Panciteria San Jacinto, from Calle San Jacinto [where it was located], now Tomas Pinpin St. in Binondo.” It expanded to a branch, beside the old Delta Theater in Quezon City, while franchises to the Chinatown cuisine were offered to the public.

(Left) Juliet (front row, left) with Panciteria San Jacinto’s veteran staff: Leo the cook and (back row, from left) mother Nancy and waitstaff Angel, Rona and Vina. (Right) Panciteria San Jacinto’s bestsellers, including fried rice and pancit. CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS

Juliet literally grew up in the restaurant business. She says: “San Jacinto, or as I call it, ‘tindahan (store),’ meant more than just a livelihood to me. I was engrossed in every aspect of the restaurant, from the backroom to the kitchen, down to the plates on the table. As early as seven years old, I enjoyed manning the counter on weekends or washing the dishes when our staff was swamped. My papa Romeo assisted customers, who usually came in groups, and managed the hall. My mama Nancy was all around too, waiting on tables and preparing orders. On less busy days, I turned the restaurant frontage into my playground and the tables into my study desks.”

The business may have survived World War 2 and several disasters, including a devastating fire on T. Pinpin St., but when Juliet’s father passed away in 2009, it had to close down.

Useful skills

Juliet was on another track at the time, studying for a bachelor of arts degree in consular and diplomatic affairs at De La Salle University (DLSU). After graduating in 2011, she worked as technical assistant at the DLSU-Robredo Institute of Governance before a three-year stint with public relations (PR) specialist Perkcomm Inc., followed by other similar jobs. “I was working at an NGO (nongovernmental organization) after college and realized that that sort of job was not yet meant for me. When a friend said that their agency was hiring, I immediately applied even without any PR background at all,” she says.

That decision was to serve her well. The marketing skills she picked up helped her reboot Panciteria San Jacinto when the time came. “I always wished that I would be the one hiring a public relations company for my own brand,” she says. “But I also knew that everything I learned on the job, I could eventually apply, and I was right. I chose to work first in a corporate setting to gain more knowledge, and those years taught me a lot, not just about PR, but also running a business and talking to different types of people.”

“It was always at the back of my head to keep my father’s memory alive. I know in my heart that this is my true calling. I also want to continue a heritage brand that dates back to1894, and educate a new generation of diners that our food is not just delicious, but also full of history,” she adds.

Like her great-grandfather before her, Juliet started out small, using the popular Sidcor weekend market in Quezon City as a test platform. “That was my first step in reviving the brand. It involved low capital and involved no commitment because your contract is on a monthly basis. I rented an 8-by-8-meter booth and shared it with another seller because I was scared things might not work out.

“The day before I opened, I cried so much because I was doubting myself and the brand. How would I sell something that was forgotten and only the older generation knew or could appreciate? Not many could even understand our Spanish-named dishes.”

At the start, Juliet and her mother sold cold cuts, gradually adding items from the restaurant menu, as well as other home-cooked dishes. They rotated these weekly so as to offer a sense of variety. “I guess this is where I strategized to attract, not just our loyal customers, but to try to tap a new market,” Juliet narrates. “The entrepreneur in me was kicking in. From a half-stall to three stalls in less than a year. They weren’t even located together, so that everywhere you were in the food section of Sidcor, my food would always be seen!”

The response to the eatery’s return was enthusiastic, with a lot of their former suki (patrons) eager to share memories of the restaurant. Says Juliet: “They were so happy that we were back. A lot of them kept thanking us for opening our doors again.

“It was gratifying to hear their experiences at our restaurant, which happened even before I was born.”

Music to her ears was also being told by customers that their selections tasted just the way they remembered them. For this, she is indebted to her kitchen staff, saying: “We have cooks who have been with us for a long time. They were from the original restaurant in T. Pinpin and the branch in Delta. Luckily, even when we closed, those from Delta stayed and worked with us when we became a concessionaire in BPO (business process outsourcing) and government offices.”

Niche market

As if Juliet’s plate isn’t full enough, she is also business development officer for the All Out Fitness Group, supervising three gyms in Metro Manila. “I’m lucky that my day job allows me to work on my business and my employers are really supportive because I still have time to exercise and date,” she beams. “It’s all about time-management. I work at my day job from Monday to Friday. Nasisingit ko yung pagbili ng supplies (I am able to squeeze in buying supplies) during lunch breaks.

“Every Saturday, I go to the market with mama before sunrise to buy fresh produce, and then I rest. Sunday is Sidcor day when we set up at dawn and finish around lunch time. After which, I get to nap and be ready again for the next day’s work.”

When Sidcor stopped functioning due to the community quarantine, Juliet migrated the business online, accepting pick-up and delivery through Panciteria Jacinto’s official Facebook page and website. “It’s a different world, on-ground and online. It’s a good thing that we were able to pull it off after some trial and error,” she says.

Juliet observes that it’s more challenging to manage a legacy brand than build up something entirely new. “There are a lot of new market trends, which are way more attractive, branding-wise, and the industry has also become more fast-paced,” she says. “A legacy brand [only] appeals to a niche market.”

But despite daunting competition, this descendant of hardy immigrants firmly believes in the axiom that good food elicits good memories — something Panciteria San Jacinto has been offering through the years. “It’s when you eat something that triggers special feelings. That’s what is important and will last in the hearts of your customers,” she says.

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