“We never thought of it as a family business. It was just a place we go to every Sunday,” says Rem Zamora, noted Philippine theater figure, the man behind one of the coolest bars in Malate in the 90s (Insomnia), and grandson of Leticia Basa Zamora, one of the three women who founded Pancake House in 1974.
The restaurant chain, now one of the biggest with over 100 stores nationwide, just celebrated its 47th anniversary last week. A photo of its first branch, the one in Magallanes Theater, was posted on its Facebook account and immediately sparked nostalgia among those who frequented it, inspiring memories of what the store looked like and what their favorite treats were in the menu.
Which is why we rang Rem, to tell us what he recalls of that first branch. After all, the guy grew up in Magallanes and would practically just walk to the commercial complex and hang out in the restaurant with the rest of the fam. Rem remembers it to be a family destination—not just for the Zamoras, of course, but to many who live around the area.
The first Pancake House, says Rem, was very much attached to the idea of the cinema. It was to serve the movie patrons waiting for their screening, or those who wanted a meal after catching a film. It proved to be a successful idea that it would be an SOP for the next stores to be located near movie theaters. (The family also used to own Sa Kabila, a resto that served Filipino food and alcohol, and which was literally across Pancake House, hence the name.)
Pancake House was also famous for its movie posters. Rem recalls a large wall in the first branch that held a collage of different movie posters, from “Star Wars” to “Rocky” to “Bad News Bears” and “Kramer vs Kramer.” “You could walk in there and notice something new in the collage each time,” says Rem. No wonder some people kept coming back.
Rem’s personal favorites in the menu then were the open-faced roast beef or roast chicken sandwiches, which paired well with an orange float.
But then of course Pancake House has always been about the pancakes. It was the dish that started it all for this business put up by three women: Rem’s grandma, her sister Milagros “Ning” Basa, and their friend Carmen Zaragosa. You could say they were risk-takers—wanting to sell pancakes as an alternative to a populace devoted to rice.
Dada Zamora, daughter of Leticia, told the magazine F&B World in 2004, “The success story of Pancake House began in 1969 when an enterprising housewife experimented with her first batter recipe. This experimentation continued until she had assured herself that the batter recipe for the best of all pancakes had been perfected.”
Dada also recalled how the first branch was “veritably around the corner from our home in Magallanes Village,” and how her mother would leisurely walk to the theater. “Back then, traffic was just a word in the dictionary, and you can simply assume breathing in fresh air as you stepped out of your home.”
Sprucing up that first branch, said Dada, was comparable to the task of dressing up one’s daughter for the prom. The combination of white and orange were already there, as can be gleaned from the photo above. “That signature orange and the drop lights,” recalls Rem. What was tops for the women who started it all, however, was that “ambience of brightness and freshness, and a strong feeling of cleanliness,” Dada told the columnist Nanette Franco-Diyco.
“All we wanted was a small, clean, clear place where not a single plate was greasy and the service was excellent,” Dada, who would eventually play a major role in the operations, recalled her aunt Ning reminding her over and over.
The rest of the menu evolved with the contributions of Leticia’s sisters from California, both housewives and both obsessed with making the best pancakes and waffles. Back then, there were no plans of expansions, or even opening a second branch. “A small kitchen and a small menu were sufficient,” Dada told F&B World.
Then, of course, a second store, this time in Ayala Arcade, would open a few years later. And then the first franchise store would launch in Greenhills, San Juan. The business would just keep getting bigger until the Lorenzos would buy the chain sometime in the early 2000s.
But despite the years and change of ownership, Pancake House has retained that image of a family destination. To its newer fans, it’s a place where one can find comfort in a simple order of waffles, a pair of tacos, or a plate of steaming hot pancakes. To the older ones, it sparks memories of simpler times. “Pag may konting cash ka, Pancake House with the girls! Wala pang problema sa parking, and loved the driveway action!” said a friend of Rem’s referring to Magallanes Theater’s huge long driveway drop off.
For its pioneers, of course, and their families, they will always remember it as the spot for their Sunday get-togethers, a leisurely stroll away from where they lived.