Red telephone booths remain a familiar site all over the UK despite the fact that people no longer go inside them to make calls. In the capital city of London, you’ll see a few of them repurposed into cafés, and one of them is Filipino-owned—as one might readily guess by its name: The Manila Brew.
The Manila Brew is run by Joel Carlos, a hospitality professional who’s been based in London since 2003. He thought of opening the café this February as the hotel industry continues to be weighed down by the lingering effects of the Covid pandemic. Last December, Joel and other employees were offered a zero-hour contract job in the catering company they were working for. It’s practically on-call work with no job security.
Fortunately, Joel was able to save a big chunk of his earnings when he was working as a culinary instructor in Switzerland for five months. He had a monthly salary of 6,200 Swiss Francs (almost 350,000 in Philippine pesos). So he thought, why not open a telephone booth café in London?
The HRM graduate at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines remembers asking God to give him something new to do. That was back on his birthday last January 6. The same day, he got a message that he could already lease the telephone box along Sicilan Avenue in Bloomsbury, London and turn it into a café.
“It’s a one-man show,” the new café proprietor tells ANCX, happy and proud of his latest venture. “I bake the pastries, I set up the store, I serve the customers.”
At the moment, Joel only offers espresso, latte, flat white, and hot chocolate on his beverage menu. But if the weather gets warmer, he will surely be serving cold drinks as well. Customers enjoy his home-baked cookies and ensaymada. The booth is popular with the office workers and students, since he’s near a couple of universities and the British National Museum.
Joel is quite the cheerful guy. Our interview is punctuated with so much laughter even as he shares his frustrations as an OFW, and when he talks about the times it gets terribly lonely living alone in a foreign country. It’s an unmistakably Filipino trait—finding humor in even the direst situation.
“Wala pang masyadong nag-oorder ng kape. Mas madami ang nagpapa-picture [sa photo booth] at nag-iinterview sa akin, kasi mukha daw akong Chinese, Vietnamese,” he says laughing. He tells me his sales averages 100 pounds a day. “Okey na din kasi ako ang may-ari. So if the café is open six days a week, that’s already 600 pounds. Okey na yun. Entertained pa ako kasi madaming taong dumadaan. Aliw na aliw ako kahit na ang lamig-lamig.”
Was it a dream of his to work in London? “Not at all. I was so happy back home,” says Joel, the youngest of six children. But there were incidents in his life that made him decide to pursue a career abroad.
In the early 2000s, both his parents were diagnosed with cancer—leukemia and breast cancer. Joel and his siblings had to sell most of their properties to finance their parents’ treatment. “Naghirap talaga kami,” he recalls. But despite all the medical interventions, both his mother and father lost their individual battles with the disease. His father died in January 2000, his mother in September 2001.
At that time, Joel was also supporting his sister, a single parent, in raising her twins—one of which had a congenital heart ailment. Joel’s earnings as a college instructor were too meager to support his niece’s open heart surgery. So when he heard that the United Kingdom was hiring chefs, he decided to try his luck. “From then on, there was no turning back,” he says.
In London, he worked long hours in kitchens. It was tough, admits the 46-year-old. But he knew his efforts have paid off because he was able to help send a sibling and a niece to school, and he was able to help finance his sick niece’s surgery.
Joel, who now owns a house and a car in the Philippines, says he plans to retire before he turns 50. “Two years ago I told myself, I really have to enjoy every moment of my life,” he says, thinking about his mother and father who died at 57 and 60 respectively. “You have to do something that you really love to do. Everyday [dapat] laging happy and positive ka lang.”
The pandemic may have pushed back his retirement plans, but he’s happy the Carloses are now doing well. “Ang saya-saya ko ngayon kasi I’m working for myself. Hindi yung nagtatrabaho ka para sa kompanya mo. Lately, ang mga companies sobrang harsh na nila. Wala nang pag-ibig. Parang number ka na lang sa kanila. Hindi na yung ‘we will keep you, we will train you.’”
His current state of mind is all about living in the moment, and making the best of what he has. “Ngayon, mag-eenjoy na lang ako sa ginagawa ko at mga balak ko pang gawin,” he says. “Kung makauwi ako ng Pilipinas soon, I will go home. Pero kung may mga plot twists pang mangyayari, laban lang.”