It may seem obsessive, but Eli Antonino made it a point to interview each of the 407 employees of The Moment Group, the company she started with partners Abba Nappa and Jon Syjuco.
With a degree in hotel and restaurant management, Antonino knows a restaurant’s staff can make or break the business. “Culture is very important to us. I’d like to know that each and every employee that walks in is, somehow, a fit. I don’t interview them for their qualifications—I interview them for personality and for their potential,” she said. “These people are going to be your family, so if you don’t meet them from day one, if you don’t have a say on who joins your family, it’s kind of all talk.”
It is a philosophy that should serve the company well amid its aggressive expansion. The group has opened 17 restaurants since the three partners got together in 2011.
In 2012, they opened their first restaurant, ’Cue Modern Barbeque. They followed it up with BurgerBar that same year, and then Filipino restaurant Namnam the following year.
BurgerBar and Namnam have since expanded under 8Cuts and Manam, respectively. The group opened 8Cuts and food court concepts Manam Express and Q-Daddy in 2013. But 2014 was the biggest year for The Moment Group as they opened 11 restaurants, including Linguini Fini from Hong Kong and Bistro du Vin from Singapore, and local concepts Phat Pho, a venture with the Abaca Group of Cebu, and Mecha Uma, with Chef Bruce Ricketts.
The number of restaurants the group has opened has impressed food writer JJ Yulo. “I admire them for what they’re doing. It’s a little scary—scary or brave, depending on how you look at it,” he said, referring to the 11 restaurants the group opened in 2014. “In any country, no matter how big the food scene is, that’s a pretty big number. But they pulled it off. These guys do their homework. They’re abreast with the global food scene and they have the cash flow [to follow through with their ideas].”
Yulo said The Moment Group is not only about delivering good food, but also customer experience. The way he sees the restaurant business, food operators should be able to deliver both, while still making customers feel they are getting value for their money. “I think a lot of The Moment Group’s concepts are spot on. It feels like they worked on it,” he added.
Serving underserved markets
There is a method to The Moment Group’s madness. “We focus on the unserved, the underserved, and the badly served market,” said Antonino.
For instance, they came up with the concept for ’Cue because they felt the market was unserved. “There wasn’t really a barbecue place at the time. Everybody does barbecue, but it’s only a section in their menu. We wanted ’Cue to be the go-to place for barbecue—any kind of barbecue.”
The group is not stopping there. They are hunkering down for further expansion, with plans to open two more homegrown concepts—a bar and a Japanese restaurant. They will also open more 8Cuts outlets, and even franchise it, here and abroad. In December 2015, the group also brought in the Michelin-starred Taiwanese concept Din Tai Fung.
Amid all these, Antonino, as the CEO, needs to make sure operations are smooth. If this means interviewing each employee, then so be it. “You just need to find the time,” she said.
Changing restaurant landscape
What is at stake is a business which is up against pretty tight competition in a segment seen to have a lucrative landscape, according to market intelligence firm Euromonitor International. In a 2014 report, the research firm painted a rosy picture for the country’s full-service restaurant category, citing the increasing affluence of urban consumers.
“Catering to more affluent consumers, the category will be among the first to benefit from Filipino diners’ willingness to spend more on food and dining experiences.” It added, “Young adults and professionals are expected to see dining out as a means to socialize with other people, indulge, and reward themselves.” The report also added that full-service restaurants will also be driven by higher-income diners’ demand for more authentic food offerings and their willingness to try new, exciting dining concepts.”
Giving the staff their due
The Moment Group is banking on this. And they are betting on their food and their service to give them an edge. That is why Antonino feels strongly about giving staff their due.
“What I dislike is that people who work in the industry don’t get what they deserve in terms of pay. Sometimes, I’m astounded about the stories that I hear. I think maybe that’s what I’d like to advocate for other entrepreneurs to address.”
While she is calling the shots these days, Antonino remembers doing more taxing work when she and some friends put up Lokal, a restaurant-bar in Libis in 2000. “We were cleaning dishes, throwing garbage ourselves, doing the cashier work—we also did the marketing.” She also worked the front desk at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York, and even manned the hotel’s coat check service for extra cash. It is no surprise she identifies with the service crew.
“The F&B (food and beverage) industry is all about service, it’s all about your staff—it’s ridiculous to me that people don’t understand that.”
She added that she hopes that people in the industry learn sooner than later that, even before the guest, you have to take care of your staff, or else your guest will never be happy. "You’ll never have consistent service, you’ll never have consistent food if you don’t treat your staff well.”
Maricris is the former managing editor of Entrepreneur Philippines magazine.
This article was originally published in the March 2015 issue of Entrepreneur Philippines magazine.