How a millennial couple built a cafe
Rodrigo Ang Escobar and his girlfriend Andy Wong saved most of their income from office jobs in Makati City in preparation for a married life.
Instead of spending the money in a grand wedding, the couple decided to put up a business that can support a family. Last year, they quit their jobs and established Sulok Cafe in a busy corner of Antipolo City just across Ynares Center at L. Sumulong Memorial Circle.
“When we had the money, we thought we could not be stuck in our jobs. I, for one, cannot be a father if I spend more than 12 hours in the office. I would not be able to fulfill my role as a dad. She also spends four hours a day to commute from Antipolo. And we were salaried employees. We don’t want to be stuck as employees, so we made sure that once we move on to the next stage of our life which is marriage, we would be better off,” he says.
Escobar says they chose to have their own business first, before the wedding. Aside from being a couple, they are now business partners.
“She is my longtime girlfriend for seven years since college. I am 25 and she is 26. We first met at University of Asia and the Pacific where we were studying. She was taking Business Management and I was taking Integrated Marketing Communications,” says Escobar.
Escobar, who got tired of a 12-hour work day, quit his job as a digital marketing professional while Wong, who used to commute for at least four hours a day between Antipolo and Makati, resigned from an electronic commerce company.
They applied what they learned from school and work in promoting Sulok Cafe, which now has one of the strongest online presence among the 16 cafes in Antipolo City.
“We now work full-time with Sulok,” says Escobar. “We want to have our own business. We are technically in the age group of millennials. I was born in 1992 and my girlfriend in 1990.”
Once they had the money, they looked for a good location for a business, even without a solid concept in mind, says Escobar.
Escobar, who lives near Katipunan Ave. in Quezon City, says they explored various areas in Quezon City, Marikina, Pasig and Antipolo during their weekend dates to find the best site. “We had no solid business concept. That’s why a number of landlords rejected us. We could not blame them because they would not bet on a tenant without a solid concept in mind,” he says.
When they found an ideal place at the second floor of Okinari Arcade Building near Ynares Center—a popular sporting arena in Rizal province—they immediately knew a cafe would be the right business there.
“That is what the location dictated. We made sure it had three qualities we were looking for. First is purchasing power of people in the area. Second is foot traffic and third is points of interest,” says Escobar.
Aside from Ynares Center, the cafe is also located near Pinto Art Museum, one of Antipolo’s main tourist attractions. “It had those three qualities that we were looking for,” says Escobar.
Escobar says Wong took the task of overseeing the construction of the cafe, while he was still rendering his remaining 30-day work in Makati. It is a 36-square-meter commercial space, which they divided into a 25-meter dining area and a small kitchen.
“We did not have a background on hotel and restaurant management. We studied to make professional-grade coffee two weeks before we opened. Most of our investments went to the acquisition of an espresso machine,” he says.
Sulok Cafe, which had a soft opening in July 2016, now has seven tables and 22 chairs. About 60-percent of the coffee shop is a non-smoking area.
“At first, we did not know where to source the coffee beans. But once we got the word out, it is the suppliers who approached us. Very recently, we have established a good supplier connection,” he says.
He says through economies of scale, they are able to bring down their prices. “It is cheaper to buy your products such as coffee and milk in bulk,” says Escobar, who goes to Antipolo public market everyday to source most of their supplies.
“Here, we were able to apply all the discipline, skills and temperament we developed while working for different companies in the past four years,” he says.
Escobar says they decided to choose the name Sulok Cafe, because they want to provide every customer a corner or a confined space that he or she finds comfortable to be in. “That’s how we envision Sulok to be for our customers. It is nothing pretentious—a corner that can be their personal space,” he says.
Aside from coffee and tea, Sulok Cafe is known for its good food, including pasta and meals. Janine Tolentino, who used to work in Las Vegas, prepared their menu. The cafe also employs a barista, three cooks, a helper and a part-time server. “We are a self-service cafe,” says Escobar.
“The price of the same drink and quantity is almost half of those in commercialized coffee shops,” he says. “But what makes us different is how we treat people. There is this certain appreciation that people give us. Once customers enter our coffee shop, we never call them sir or ma’m. We call them tito, tita, pare or idol. Yes, we are feeling close.”
He says Sulok Cafe has built a network of repeat customers. “What sustains a coffee shop is repeat purchases. That affirms you are doing a good job,” he says.
Escobar says the first year is about building the business, the second year is making it profitable and the third year is for expansion. “Two years and eight months is our realistic ROI [return on investment] target. With a growth rate of 10 percent to 15 percent on a monthly basis, we can achieve it in one year and eight months. But realistically, it is two years and eight months,” says Escobar, who has never had a hair cut since the business opened in July last year.
“That’s the symbolism behind my long hair. Once we have our ROI, that’s the time I will go to the barbershop,” he says.
The couple experienced a number of challenges in operating the business, including falling short of their sales quota for a number of days. “There was a time our sales reached only P398. There was a time we prepared our resume because we did not meet the quota. But we have high hopes for the business. This is our second year. In 2016, the goal was to operationalize the business. This year is to make it stand alone on its own, and next year is to have it franchised,” says Escobar, who looks up to businessman Edgar “Injap” Sia as a model.
“Mang Inasal of Injap Sia is the business model we follow. Start small, make it big and have it franchised,” he says.
Escobar has a piece of advice to other millennials who want to start their own business. “Start moving. Plans won’t get you anything unless you move it. It is when you’ve taken the first step that sets the pace for your business. Be brave and scared at the same time—brave enough to take on the call for putting up a business and scared enough to be delicate about the decisions you make. Don’t get too worried if you make mistakes. It is part of the process and one of the special things that will shape you to become an entrepreneur,” he says.
As to their wedding plan, Escobar says it remains the ultimate goal. “It will come. We are still young,” he says.