With an economy chiefly reliant on tourism, the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic came as a shock to the people of Coron. It was something they did not expect would have a devastating impact in their lives, living in what’s been known for many years as one of best islands in the world.
“When the pandemic hit, everyone panicked,” recalls American Chef Eric Hermes, who at that time had just settled in the island with his Filipina wife and started doing consultancy work for one of the hotels in town. “All the tourists left. Hotels were empty. Food establishments were empty, because they were not necessarily frequented by the locals.”
“The lockdowns were terrible,” says Nestlie, Chef Eric’s wife. “You can’t get from point to point. You can’t roam around. You have to request the kagawads to buy your stuff and deliver them to your place, which they can only do once a week.”
Like the rest of the world whose lives had been disrupted by the pandemic, it was essentially a time for the island folk to pivot in order to survive. With no tourists, everyone had to think of other ways to generate revenue. “[The pandemic] forced people to get creative,” says Chef Eric.
For the Hermeses, who started supplying different breads to a couple of hotels around town before the pandemic, their way to pivot was by opening an American takeout and delivery food business called Chowline, with pizza and pasta as their main offerings.
Realizing they can no longer be dependent on tourism, the people on the island likewise started exploring their other skills and interests. There were scuba divers who opened a craft beer brewery business. A chef who came to Palawan to become a diving instructor now makes great artisan sausages and sells them at his shop called Papa’s Meat and Deli.
“The positive effect is that the pandemic fostered an artisan community here, at least on Real St. where we’re located,” offers Chef Eric.
Those who had existing businesses learned to diversify their product offerings. Maambeng Farm, which was essentially a calamansi farm, started to grow other vegetables such as lettuce and pechay. Nestlie cites a lady diving instructor who has been quite successful in growing all organic peppers and basil.
Chef Eric himself has started to ferment his own chili sauce, since he grows chilies in his backyard. A backyard that now also produces bears fruits like bananas, langka, and calamansi. They also grow lemongrass and pandan.
“It’s not just the expat community that grew during the pandemic, but even the Filipinos who lived here in Coron also learned to pivot their normal lives into something that turned out to be even better,” says Nestlie. “It’s great to see that in the tough times, in that crunch that we felt, there were bright spots around.”
Continously evolving food scene
According to the Hermes couple, another positive change the past years brought to Coron is a richer food scene. Many entrepreneurs from Manila and overseas had seen the great potential of the island. Such that by the time the couple moved to Coron in 2019, there was already a vegetarian place, a Thai place, a tapas bar, a Mexican restaurant. “People figured out that it was a good investment to be on the island because it’s always the top island in the world. It was a good opportunity,” says Nestlie.
Also, food and service has gotten better in the island because owners and chefs are more hands-on in running their businesses. “Now, the owner’s the cook, the owner’s the cashier, the sales and marketing, the owner is everything,” Nestlie says, obviously speaking from experience.
The past years has undoubtedly been a great time for everyone to harness their creative culinary energy. Chowline’s menu, for instance, has changed quite a bit since the pandemic started. Aside from pasta and pizza, it now has chicken burger and chori burger, which have been met with good reviews. Last week, they launched their Asian-inspired dishes, which are based on Chinese takeout dishes popular in the US, from Yellow Cab’s Charlie Chan, PF Chang’s Orange Peel Beef, and Yang Chow’s fried rice. Their Wednesdays are Mexican nights where the star of the show is their taco pizza.
Even though Chowline is a takeout delivery place, their location has a common seating area where people can enjoy their meals like in a food market. Chow line also has an open kitchen, so people can watch Chef Eric and Nestlie cook and prepare meals.
Two blocks away from Chowline, there’s Tupi Barbers, a barbershop with a café. “They have really nicely done food,” offers Nestlie. Also at B Complex where Chowline is located, there’s Bam Bar, which has its own mixologist who makes great craft cocktails.
The business owners at the complex have been organizing monthly bazaars as a way to showcase their products. “It’s the owners thinking of how to sustainably continue on with their business without having a hard time,” says Nestlie. “It’s a good experience to be here at this time.”
Tourism is slowly picking up too, says the couple. There have been some domestic tourists throughout the holiday season, and they’re expecting the influx of international tourists soon.
The people of Coron have taken significant strides towards rebuilding and improving their restaurant industry. Their goal, says Nestlie, is to continue to build the food and beverage community. “We’d like everyone to realize there’s more to Coron than its beautiful islands,” says Nestlie. “That it’s not some tourist destination you’d visit only once. There are now more reasons to come back to Coron year after year.”