On March 15, President Rodrigo Duterte imposed a Metro Manila-wide enhanced community quarantine in an attempt to arrest the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. For Theodore Amper, proprietor of the Manila String Machine, that meant his string quartet still had that one last day to perform at a wedding before rushing home to beat the midnight curfew.
The lockdown officially started on March 16 and was supposed to last until April 12. The Manila String Machine is one of the most popular string quartets in the country and they were fully booked for months. One month of no work should be okay. But as the quarantine extended and with no money coming in, Amper found himself in a desperate situation. “There were no live events,” the 42-year-old cellist and father of one says. “Many of my musicians have had to look for other ways to augment their income.”
Photographer Jorem Catilo found himself in the same situation. As one half of the in-demand and beloved-by-families Jorem and Sheila Catilo Photography business, which specialized in corporate, wedding and family photography, Catilo described how the months-long quarantine contributed to a considerable loss to their family income. The father of three said that business slowed down significantly, particularly event photography including weddings, parties, and corporate functions. “Also, our portrait sessions for families were put on hold. Good thing we still have corporate accounts but it’s become a challenge to shoot nowadays because of stringent safety protocols,” he says.
Being businessmen, Amper and Catilo suffered heavy losses, but even those employed by big corporations, like pilot John Go, felt the economic crash. “The quarantine has affected the majority of the flights, putting a lot of planes on ground due to cancellations. As a result, we are unable to fly that much,” says the 37-year-old, who works for one of the major airlines in the country.
The bright side
At the start, the quarantine was a welcome respite from their busy schedules. “The first month felt like a long vacation with the kids,” Catilo shares. “We had time to do a lot of activities with them from school work to fun games and movie nights.”
Amper put the lockdown to good use, too. “I learned recording, video editing, and online marketing. But most of all, I enjoyed spending time with my family,” he says. Go wasn’t sitting around doing nothing either. “I got myself busy at home, cleaning the house and working on some backlogs—personal and work-related.”
While being with their families 24/7 was a welcome treat, Amper and Catilo were still confronted with one looming daddy duty: to provide. “During the second month, it became clear the lockdown will be the new normal,” Catilo says. “We had to really think of a backup source of income if we are to survive this drought.”
Amper also tried making money, still through his music. He and his group had online gigs and some indie artists sought their recording services. “But it was just a handful. We tried the recording and teaching route, online performances, but it was just a fraction of the income we once had,” the musician relents. Go may still be employed but the company he worked for was hard hit by the cessation of flights. The pilot’s salary was cut in half. “The company has been implementing 15 days leave without pay every month, according to the guidelines of DOLE.”
Clearly, they had to come up with other ideas. Instead of moping, these men started new businesses with their partners.
A growing business
The lockdown gave Catilo the time to pour his energy into a longtime personal interest: farming. He and his wife Sheila started a small vegetable patch in their backyard. Despite all their efforts, Catilo had to deal with pests, and harvest was a big disappointment. “I waited for more than a month for nothing and that really set me back,” he says. “But instead of giving up, I remembered a quote from Mark Watney from The Martian, ‘I’m going to science the $#!+ out of this!’ That got me going and then I decided to really go all in and set up a more complicated system.”
Apparently, soil wasn’t Catilo’s friend, but his research led him to aeroponics and hydroponics. After more digging around on YouTube and joining interest groups on Facebook, Catilo was ready to try it out. “Hello soil-less farming! Getting materials to get started during the ECQ was so difficult and expensive, so I had to start with just a very basic setup,” he says, adding that he began with only a recycled Styrofoam box and cups.
It was enough to start Catilo on his new business, The Garage Farmer. He is now the proud provider of incredibly fresh salad greens to healthy food buffs.
Forced to diversify
At first, Amper and his wife Roselyn relied on their savings. But they are practical people, and are completely aware that they not only had a family to care for, they also had a mortgage that was as relentless as the pandemic. “We were pushed to do something because the emergency funds would run out in six months and the government has absolutely no idea how to solve this economic crisis,” Amper explains. “We figured we need a backup plan and it should be running before November, before we run out of funds.”
This backup plan had Amper approaching his former Manila String Machine clients. Many of them were successful businessmen like himself and he decided he could help them sell their products, a win-win situation. “We talked with the business owners and asked if we could apply as resellers, and by God’s grace, we were accepted!” he says.
Amper and his wife set up two online shops: Manila Meat Machine for frozen Japanese food like tonkatsu, gyoza, ramen, and more; and The Good Pillow for affordable soft and fluffy pillows. These were products that many Filipinos stuck indoors till who knows when will appreciate.
“Rose and I had always planned on starting something other than MSM, for financial security. The lockdown forced us to start it!” says the ever-optimist Amper. “I think the online selling business we opened during lockdown is a good chance to diversify!”
Cooking up a storm
Like many of us, Go tried cooking different things over the lockdown since eating out wasn’t an option. “One day, my girlfriend asked me to make a sushi bake for her,” he says. “Initially, I had no idea what a sushi bake was, so I checked some videos on Youtube and tried making her one.”
His first attempt was such a hit with her that when he toyed with the idea of selling his version of the dish, she was enthusiastic and supportive. He started selling late May, bolstered by seeing other people selling the dish online.
It took the couple a few days of figuring out the logistics of their new food business. “To start, the recipe and ingredients had to be finalized since when I first made a sushi bake, no clear measurements were followed,” Go says. “Steady sourcing of ingredients also had to be done to assure a steady supply.”
With every detail ironed out, they got cooking and selling and named their business Chef J On The Go. “We posted stories of the products on Facebook, and were glad that some family and friends tried it out.” Go’s sushi bake was so good, it quickly spread through word-of-mouth and now his days are busy cooking and personally delivering his products to as far away as Batangas.
Facing the future
The new ventures of Catilo, Amper, and Go are doing well as small businesses. They have their circle of friends to thank but they trust in the quality of their products and believe these new businesses will grow, whatever the future will look like.
Pandemic or not, Catilo thinks that his business is sustainable because there is always demand for fresh produce. “There is renewed interest in agriculture and people are more conscious of what they eat and where it comes from,” he says. “With hydroponics, our customers can be sure that what they get is fresh, clean, safe, with zero pesticides, and nutritious.”
Catilo has many exciting plans for The Garage Farmer, but his main vision is to break the notion of traditional farming wherein you need a big piece of land to set up a greenhouse before you can start. “You can start it right in your garage or any vacant spot in your house. In this light, we’re also selling the technology and making it accessible to anyone who wants to grow their own produce for personal consumption or for business. I’d love to see a farm in every garage,” the photographer says.
Amper, meanwhile, is still exploring his new role as an online seller. “Business is still slowly inching its way to a more sustainable reach of customers,” he says. “But we will definitely continue this even post-pandemic times.”
With a new source of income, Amper is also looking forward to creating new ways to adjust his music business model, especially since they plan to do more online activities. “Managing the String Machine and the Meat Machine at the same time would require a system that honestly we are still feeling our way around,” he says. Nevertheless, he’s filled with hope, an emotion definitely welcome after the months with no income.
Go is also happy with his new culinary career. His business is doing well at the moment, despite the scores of people who are selling sushi bake. “We still get steady orders to keep our business operating. We are also planning to introduce two to three more variants of our sushi bake soon, as well as launch a dessert that would complement it,” he shares.
As its sole cook, Go is aware that once planes are allowed to fly again, he won’t be able to cook as much. “We’ll have to see how feasible it is to continue with the business when everything is back to normal,” the pilot says. “But we’d like to continue with it.”
Forced into new careers, Amper, Catilo, and Go chose to make the best of a bad situation. For Amper and Catilo, they made the pivot quickly; as businessmen, they had been bracing for this day since they are aware that famine goes hand-in-hand with plenty.
“Even before the pandemic, we realized our career as photographers has a lifespan,” Catilo says. “We really had to have a backup plan in case the inevitable happens. This pandemic was just the catalyst we needed to create new paths.”
The Garage Farmer is also on Facebook and Instagram. Manila Meat Machine and The Good Pillow may also be contacted via 09189066377 and 09190073574. Chef J on the Go is also on Instagram.
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