We’re way past the point of calling Poblacion in Makati a “former red-light district.” While you’ll still find some of the seedier establishments around, the neighborhood has reshaped its reputation to that of a breeding ground for creatives and connoisseurs alike. Multiple businesses cater to the different tastes of the community they serve, but bar-hopping is the name of the game in this nightlife district.
Smack dab in the middle of this cultural hub stands NoKal, a 3-storey establishment with even higher aspirations. This concept bar tries to give you a different side of New York with each floor you climb, and although I don’t have a point of comparison, I see the place as more of an embodiment of the spirit of Poblacion. It’s the intersection of all the reasons you’d visit: sights, sounds, drinks, and company. You could be absolutely sober and still have a good time.
Although it takes a village to maintain the place, the man behind the operations is just as storied as the business he runs. Marco Viray had his hands on many Poblacion mainstays before setting up NoKal, and he’s a familiar face in the bar circuit. All his experience has led to this latest venture, and while it looked to be a hit from the get-go, things have definitely changed since the start of this lockdown.
I spoke to Marco about what concept NoKal is trying out this time, as it copes with a world that’s refusing to party.
Q. First off, let’s get this out of the way. What’s your favorite drink?
A. I’m really torn! I’m in the business of craft beers, but in all honesty I’m a whiskey drinker. If you ask most people, they can easily identify me with a glass of Jameson on hand.
Q. Tell me about NoKal. How did it start?
A. It’s actually a New York inspired bar. Me and a few of my partners actually spent some time in New York. Jason Soong, Raul Fores, and I are managing partners. Lee Watson of The Spirits Library is also a managing partner with us.
NoKal actually means North of Kalayaan. It’s not Northern California like everyone thinks, but it’s the same as places like Soho or Tribeca. Our idea with the place was to bring something from New York to Manila, so the 3 floors have different concepts. The ground floor feels kind of like a casual diner. The second floor we designed to be a lounge and cocktail bar. And then the third floor we wanted to be more of a beer garden. We started… I think 2018, then we officially launched October 2018 and from then on it just kind of became what it was.
Q. Do you have a hard time working with friends?
A. Not really! Lee and Jason, we’ve worked together in the past. We were also actually the original partners of Kampai. Raul was more of a family friend who I met in New York when I was still living there. I think the chemistry between the four of us actually works quite well. We all have certain hats that we have to fulfill in the business. I’m mostly in the back office handling the operations and finances.
Q. I hear you guys have a nickname!
A. Oh yeah? Haha! What’s our nickname?
A. Haha! Poblavengers, yes. That’s the offshoot of what happened with us.
I started in Poblacion with Joe’s Brew. That’s how I got myself into bars, because I was selling the beer myself. So I was going from one bar to another, and that’s how I met Lee Watson. The opportunity came about with Kampai when a bar owner asked me to purchase a part of his bar. So I called him up, “Lee, I don’t know anything about bars, you wanna come in?” Jason naman was a friend of my brother, and he had experiences with bars, being a DJ and event producer.
So from Joe’s Brew and Kampai, we decided to open NoKal, then there’s The Spirits Library, and we also have Ebi Ten. Because of that, we started creating an office that was central to all the locations, and that headquarters was coined as the Poblavengers. We’re different guys with different powers that manage these different properties within Poblacion.
Q. It’s a very funny, appropriate name.
A. Yeah... The Poblavengers is just… we couldn’t figure out a name until one of my mentors from AIM [the Asian Institute of Management], Prof. Jay Bernardo was telling me, “You need to create an avenger team! You know, because you’re managing all these sorts of outlets and businesses already.” We were just like, “Okay, let’s call ourselves Poblavengers.”
Q. Do you regret that name now?
A. Well you know, it’s kind of… it was more of a joke. Haha!
Q. I guess it must have grown on you?
A. Yeah, it’s grown on me. But I’m sure eventually, we'll have a more proper and more serious name for the company.
Q. Tell me about Poblacion bar culture. Why Poblacion?
A. Personally, it’s ‘cause my family is from Poblacion. My grandfather and my dad have been living there since the 50s. My grand aunt was the Barangay Captain in Poblacion for almost 20 years! I think she was their longest-serving captain. I even have cousins who were kagawad and all that.
I came back from New York around 2015 when the nightlife there was just starting. It was interesting for me to see how it grew––it reminded me of a lot of the bars that you’ll see in the Lower East Side [in Manhattan] or what you’d see in Williamsburg [in Brooklyn]. There were a lot of small places that had different concepts curated based on what these business owners wanted to do, and I really wanted to get in on that scene.
It’s very anti-establishment. It’s not your typical BGC bar where people are lining up at the entrance for VIP treatment. Poblacion is the complete opposite. You don’t need to dress up. Of course, you don’t want to come in tsinelas and sandos…
Q. I've been to NoKal a couple of times. I think I’ve seen some people rock them.
A. Well, the cool thing about Poblacion is you get people from different parts of the world because it’s also an area for tourists and backpackers––you end up meeting people there that are from different walks of life. For me that was something special.
Q. How’s everybody been doing since the lockdown?
A. I think everyone is struggling. I just tell myself that it’s not just us, it happened to everyone. Although it is especially hard for Poblacion since it’s more of a nightlife culture. The market doesn’t pick up until later at night. There’s a few restaurants that are open but I still don’t think it’s enough––you don’t get many lunch people there. Right now, everyone’s just trying to be more creative while also trying to survive.
Q. What do you miss most about NoKal?
A. NoKal was… nakaka-stress. I’ll be honest. I miss working at night and getting all these sorts of problems and planning out with my team. What we wanted to do for the rest of the week, which DJ we wanna book, and the like. Around six months before the lockdown, we had been aggressively trying to get international acts to play with us. We even had Chromeo one time.
Q. I know! I missed out on that one.
A. You know, that event was free. Our culture is, we don’t charge cover. We get your e-mail, you become part of what we call the the Lokals of NoKal, which now has a big following. I miss going out at night, not just in NoKal. Every weekend, I start there and end up dropping by 10 different bars and talking to all the owners. Well, I end up at home... but the last bar I visit, it’s always random. You just follow where the party is.
Q. What’s NoKal’s plan for recovery?
A. We really took a big hit with our cash flow, so financially, it's been a struggle for us to just keep it alive, considering that we’re also still paying our rent. There’s no break on that except for that ruling now that we can amortize it up to 30 days. The expenses and overhead are difficult to manage, because we’re also helping out the staff and employees as much as we can.
Currently, we’re trying to pivot the business. We’ve focused a lot on the deliveries and the take-out. When we first started, there was always a focus on the food, but we noticed it was becoming more of a bar or club––the food aspect wasn’t really given so much attention back then. We also converted the second floor into a New York style bodega, so a lot of our inventory is being sold there. People can go up and buy all different types of alcohol they like. We even have some records there if people want to check our selection. The ground floor is still busy since we’re putting our focus on the food.
Once we get past community quarantine and we’re allowed 50% occupancy, we’re going to start labeling ourselves as a restaurant first to get people in the door. We’ll try and slowly transition back to a bar after that. But you know, we’re following the guidelines set by the DTI and the DOH. It really is going to be a step by step process for us.
So far we haven’t made any decision on either closing NoKal down or moving somewhere else. We’re hanging on to it as long as we can. Let’s just wait and see what happens in the next three months.
You may also like:
Q. I’m sure the quarantine is a huge factor in this, but this conversation has really made me miss Poblacion.
A. Yeah, it’s got its own problems, but that’s my livelihood. All of the establishments that I own are in Poblacion. I hope we can bring back the glory days, and I’m very optimistic about it! It might take some time, but if the help is passed down from the top to the bottom, I think it’s not gonna be a problem.
Q. I have absolute faith in the Poblavengers.
A. Haha! We’ll see. We’re doing the best we can.