“These are exciting times for Filipino food in London,” declares Nadine Barcelona, the founder and director of LUZON, a contemporary Filipino restaurant in London. In case we don’t take her word for it, Nadine immediately backs-up her claim. She cites influential sources in the UK, such as Rhubarb, a formidable food company with British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal as one of its board of directors. Rhubarb anticipated “Philippine Cuisine” to be one of the buzz words for 2016 and forecasted the interest in Asian cuisine to branch out into Filipino dining this year.
Food and entrepreneurship were far from Nadine’s childhood ambition. Born and raised in Mindanao, Philippines, she started off wanting to be a doctor. Two years at pre-med school, however, made her shift gears to fashion, which brought her to London. It was only at a stage in her life when Nadine found a lot of time in her hands that she discovered her true calling.
How the restaurant was conceived
“I threw many dinner parties for friends, which I truly enjoyed. They say there’s nothing better than doing what you love for a living. And that’s what I did. I turned my pastime into a pay check,” Nadine says. “At that time, I was well aware of the gap in the London market. There were no modern Filipino restaurants around. Traditional Filipino restaurants existed in London, but they catered mainly to Filipinos. None that Londoners, with no idea of the cuisine, would find inviting. And that’s how the concept of LUZON was born.”
Nadine presented her idea to potential investors. One of them saw the potential in LUZON and came on board as an investor and business partner. From an idea, Nadine developed the restaurant’s concept, brand and marketing strategy. LUZON promised modern Filipino food in a warm, casual and friendly setting. Nadine emphasized that although the food is sophisticated, she is careful not to class LUZON as a fine dining restaurant.
Then came the challenge of finding the right chef who could embody the brand. A search on Google led her to Chef Rex de Guzman, who was already positioned as the leader in contemporary Filipino cuisine in the UK.
The early months – phase one
LUZON opened its doors to the public in August 2015, operating two days a week. For the first three months, they set-up venue in the hip, Generator Hostel in Russel Square. These first three months are what Nadine refers to as phase one.
Opening as a pop-up restaurant, before taking the leap into extending it into a fully operational restaurant was a strategic decision for LUZON. Investors thought it was a wise move to minimise risks and use the time to allay uncertainties about introducing a new concept in the market. Phase one was also an adjustment stage, to determine whether certain variables associated with running a restaurant would work.
“During this phase, our primary focus was to put the brand out there and to reach out to as many market segments in London as we could. Our location at Generator Hostel gave us the boost we needed in terms of marketing. We were mentioned on their website and received substantial publicity from press evenings. We also used this period to fine-tune our menu through customer feedback.”
When asked how much is needed to open a restaurant in London, Nadine points out that start-up capital vastly depends on many factors, such as size, location and marketing plans. “The beauty of a pop-up restaurant,” explains Nadine, “is that you don’t need to break the bank to set up one. In fact, with as little as GBP 5,000, one can easily run a no-frills supper club in a small venue, relying on social media and mere word of mouth for marketing.”
What’s phase two?
Luzon is now on phase two, opening once a month in the heart of Battersea. According to Nadine, this phase is focused on developing a money-making business model to convince investors of the restaurant’s viability. This phase is crucial for Luzon in order to secure its own fixed premises by the end of this year.
LUZON in Battersea (Photo by @londoncookingproject)
Social media plays a big part of Luzon’s marketing strategy. “Restaurants pop-up by the dozen in London, if we become inactive on social media, even just for a while, people will forget us,” says Nadine. “So even if we open only once a month on phase two, we remain visible and active on social media.”
How many covers should they make to break-even? Nadine pegs it at thirty covers a night to break even. For a restaurant like LUZON, with a present seating capacity of around thirty five, this means tables have to be turned-over to make money. In addition to food sales, Nadine attributes a significant part of the revenue to alcoholic beverages.
The challenge and reward
Luzon was conceptualized to attract Londoners to Filipino food. Nadine profiles the target market as a vibrant people always on the look out for something new. And once they discover a new place, a new cuisine or a new experience, they pride themselves for the discovery. That’s how Nadine wants Luzon to stay in the minds of her guests.
The challenge is to please the subtle palates of the British. To do so, many of the dishes they create have to be reinvented to suit their taste. This means toning down strong flavours characteristic to many Filipino dishes, such as Sinigang and Adobo, without losing the key elements that make a dish Filipino.
On the flipside, Nadine finds reward every time she sees how Brits enjoy the food. “When I see my guests close their eyes with pleasure as they relish a spoonful of our iced avocado parfait, forexample or enjoy the duck leg humba so much, they pick it up with their hands and gnaw the bone clean, those to me are my greatest achievements,” says Nadine.
Clockwise from left: Red Snapper with ‘bistek’ sauce, Humba duck leg and tomato and salted duck egg salad (Photo courtesy of LUZON)
Luzon is the first among a series of Filipino concept restaurants by PHUK Restaurant Group Limited. Luzon is the company’s solution to acquainting the British people to Filipino cuisine.
Nadine says, “Once Filipino food has broken into the London food scene, we plan to introduce another concept restaurant, not as modern as Luzon when it comes to food, but also with an interesting twist, such as a Filipino tapas style restaurant.”
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