Third in line: Jon Choi on food culture

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In a country more known for tea, Jon Choi stumbled inside one of China’s coffee shops during a business trip for an IT job years ago. It was here that he began his love story for coffee, which has not ended but culminated in Magnum Opus, a third wave café found among the many restaurants of BF Homes.

Coming from his unorthodox introduction to the food industry, Jon shares his insight on the restrictions of dining back then, the openness of it now, and why there is a lot of room for the little guy in today’s kitchens.


On traveling

Jon has attributed traveling as the genesis of his restaurant, and he believes it is the reason why more good food is on its way. “I believe that [good food] has become more accessible over the past five or so years… I think people are more well traveled now than they were before. So it is quite easy to get access to both new, fresh concepts and the actual ingredients or components that will help support this concept.” He believes that the passion and ideas of those getting into the food industry were “sparked by either an eye opening experience in another country or something mind blowing that they couldn’t wait to share with people back here.”

He goes on in saying, “My point about travel and how accessible it is does not only apply to people that started these concepts, but actually people who might enjoy them as well. Because they may have tried a dish of a certain concept in another country and of course it only makes sense that they compare it to something here.”

The result is that people now have a high willingness to experiment and even higher expectations on both the quality and freshness of ingredients.


On familiarity          

Although Jon believes people are now more eager to experiment, they will still be much more responsive to something that they have had before rather than something completely alien.

I believe Filipinos have a preference,” explains Jon. According to him, affinity still plays a big part in what diners want to eat. “Even with high concept forms of dining wherein you do tastings, or omakases and these weird ingredients, I still think you have to run the side of familiarity.”

As a result, some high concept foods may be alien to some Filipinos.

“In the case of Magnum Opus, we were introducing something that is relatively new. So we wanted to showcase everything done our way.”

Two examples Jon cites is how their cappuccinos are different from the more commercial servings, which is done in the Italian-style, and how their brewed coffee takes upwards to ten minutes to prepare versus those simple off the pot coffees.

He continues, “We were firm with our ideals with regards to roasting and ingredients and the type of beans that we use.”

Jon is aware that Filipinos have an affinity for coffee, thus allowing him to put his own interpretation on the product with ease.



On what food is

People’s reasons for going out to eat are evidence on how food is changing. “Your clientele [before] is mainly people who address food as a social call,” Jon explains.  He says these were businessmen out to impress partners or families who haven’t seen each other in a long time. “It was less about the taste, the flavor, or the composition of the food. It was more of fulfilling the need for social interaction by using food as the vehicle.”

According to Jon, food should bring the whole package in terms of experience. He says, “[Food] should be de-commoditized. It shouldn’t be just seen as a product that has a price on the market and has to be cooked a certain way.”

“Unlike before, now we have people who eat alone for the pleasure of eating.” He believes how from being exclusively a social thing, it has now also become something more experiential.

“Food should be something that you want more than something you need.” He explains that it goes beyond its purpose for nourishment and becomes something sensory. “It’s the fragrance of the coffee, the aroma of the soup; it’s how good your wine is at the nose.” He reiterates that food should be wanted beyond its basic needs.

Jon finds it difficult to categorize the customers nowadays. “I’ve learned over the past year that everyone is very different but everyone is looking for something”


On starting up

Jon believes that a palpable resurgence of the entrepreneurial mindset has encouraged more people to open up new establishments. When asked whether there was a dark side to all this, Jon answers, “A lot of the times, people are driven by passion, which is good but even in my case, I dove right into it without knowing how to balance my finances, how to keep inventory, how my payroll is going to work.” He stresses that if you haven’t had a sense of a corporate job then eventually these cracks will begin to show when people other than your family and friends begin showing up at your restaurant. “If you don’t have the soft skills to back it up, it will be pretty bad for the business in the long run.”


On the competition

Despite the increasing popularity of stand-alone businesses, Jon states that these more independent businesses will probably not surpass mainstream businesses in popularity. “Independent cafes will always be an option. It will never overtake. It does not have the scalability of a commercial chain.”

Independent businesses though hold an advantage that mainstream businesses may not be able to duplicate. According to Jon, “It is very community driven.” He mentions that they go even as far as to help one another if someone is lacking a supply or an ingredient. “Everyone is just going into it semi-blindly.” In effect, they are all willing to help each other out as he calls it a two-way learning experience.


On selling out

Usually, when a restaurant becomes successful, expansion positions itself to be the next step. Although Jon has had offers to expand their place, he has opted not to do so. “Expansion is something of an iffy subject because we are very quality focused. We pride ourselves in only taking baristas who are able to exhibit the same amount of passion for coffee as myself, the owner,” Jon explains.

There are some restaurants that are able to expand without sacrificing quality. “It will ultimately boil down to the amount of passion involved and the clarity of the direction the owner wants to take his business to because there might be some indie-themed places that actually have a lot potential for expansion,” Jon believes. These types of establishments would be ripe for replication.

“This [restaurant] is the complete opposite of that”, he explains.


On the future

Jon believes that it is passion and the ability to share experiences and ideas that has changed the restaurant industry for the better. He doesn’t really know where exactly the industry is headed, but he is happy that more independent start-ups are popping up.

Looking at how and where Filipinos eat, it’s safe to say that they are all trends. The shift in the how, what, where, and why’s of eating is evident as food seems to be a limitless venture. And all that will sound appetizing no matter what side of the counter you are on.

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