Google “best dining places in Boracay” and there’s no doubt you will find The Sunny Side Group’s restaurants on the list—The Sunny Side Café, which serves all-day breakfast, baked goods and specialty coffee; Supermagic Burgers, which is known for its tasty, juicy burgers; Coco Mama, famous for its vegan-friendly coconut ice cream served in a coconut shell; and Spicebird, which is simply transportive with its succulent meats and seafoods boldly spiced in piri-piri sauce.
ANCX met the man behind these brands, founder Emmanuel “Nowie” Potenciano, when Philippine Airlines and the Tourism Board of the Philippines invited us to rediscover this island paradise now on the road to recovery after long periods of lockdowns. After establishing reputable food brands over the last 17 years—both in Boracay and in different places in the country—Nowie and his wife Odette have decided to take the next logical step, open their own boutique hotel at Station 1. April 2022 marks The Sunny Side Group’s official entry to being hoteliers via Seaworthy Boracay.
We found Nowie with his shiba inu, Mari, who’s looking mighty cool greeting diners at Spicebird in Station 2’s D’Mall. Both human and his dog have observably assimilated to the island culture. Nowie tells us Mari usually goes with him to do routine checks of their restaurants. “We’ve had him for three years. He’s lived a lot of his life during the pandemic at home, so we were happy to bring him to Boracay so he can experience new things,” the restaurateur tells us.
Over mouth-watering Piri-Piri Scallops, Piri-Piri Grilled Pork Belly, and a refreshing Mango and Mint shake, Nowie tells us about his and Odette’s exciting journey into the world of food and why they decided to stay put in Boracay despite the challenges.
What made you decide to do business in Boracay 17 years ago?
My wife and I like coming here. It’s a beautiful place. So we thought we’d set up a business here so we have an excuse to come to Boracay. We started out with FIC (Fruits in Ice Cream) 17 years ago. We had up to four ice cream shops around the island. Then we branched out to Tagaytay and Alabang. In 2010, we created Mochiko, a mochi ice cream brand, which became a huge hit. We opened 14 shops all over the country.
But there were too many people who copied us. That’s why in 2014, we decided to go back to Boracay and open Sunny Side Café—an all-day breakfast and specialty coffee place with a bakery. A lot of opportune things happened after that. We opened Spicebird the following year, then Supermagic Burgers after that. In 2016, we opened Coco Mama, our coconut ice cream shop.
You like doing business here in Boracay than in Manila?
Yes. In Manila, it’s just so competitive and there are so many things to think about. It’s hard to compete with the big guys. Also, I think we got tired of opening ice cream shops all over the country. We thought it would be better to just concentrate in one location. It made more sense operationally. Now, we’re happier that everything is in one place. Of course it’s a little risky [to have all our businesses in one place]. Like, in 2018, when Boracay was closed down, it was really hurtful for us.
What’s your background in food?
We’re not chefs. I took up Business in UP. My wife [Odette] took up History also in UP, then earned her MBA later. We just know what we like and we love to travel. We get inspiration from things that we’ve tried. For instance, we got the idea for Mochiko when we traveled to Japan. Spicebird was inspired by a Piri-Piri place we saw in London and Australia. Sunny Side Café was inspired by a trip to Luang Prabang in Laos. There was a bakery there that everyone seemed to visit. Percy, the new restaurant we’ll be opening will have a seafood stew dish that we’ve encountered in California, plus chipotle and lime oysters that we tried in New Orleans. We have an executive chef who develops the recipes for us. We’ve been running restaurants for eight years now.
What you’d like to do is offer new food experiences to Filipinos.
Exactly. We don’t want to do the same thing that everyone else is doing. We also feel like that’s the way to stand out. So we try very hard to put a twist to our food offerings. For instance, at Sunny Side Café, we have the Ube and Cereal Milk Pancakes; Champorado made with Malagos Chocolate and topped with candied bacon, fresh mango, and caramel ice cream; Chorizo Baked Mac & Cheese, which is made with house-made chorizo; and Bacon and Mango Grilled Cheese Sandwich in brioche bread, which has house-made bacon, cheese, and mango jam.
What was it like when Boracay closed down for six months in 2018?
We’re lucky to have friends in Manila who were very supportive. We were able to do pop-ups in Manila. We actually didn’t make any money in those pop-ups. But we were able to provide employment for some of our staff for at least four months. But our own finances dwindled down to dangerously low levels. We were able to recover a little over a year after we had reopened, but unfortunately, the pandemic happened. Now, recovery has started but some of our businesses are still not at the same level they used to be.
You and your wife seem like a good tandem. What are your roles in running your businesses?
I take care of the marketing side. I work with our chef to develop the menus. Visuals, ako rin. My wife, generally, she makes things happen. She’s more in charge of the operations. We split up the financials.
We heard you’re opening up a boutique hotel soon. Tell us about it.
It’s called Seaworthy Boracay. It overlooks Boracay’s iconic rock formation at Station 1. We’re busy putting final touches to the rooms now so we hope to open in April 2022. We’ve enlisted the help of hotel and hospitality expert, Maica La'o for Seaworthy so you know this is going to be amazing.
It will have 7 rooms. Very cozy and intimate. The style is, I would say, a little boho chic. It won't be super luxurious, but it will be comfortably appointed. We’re making sure it has all the little comforts. And we’re trying to use local materials to decorate it.
Seaworthy will have its own restaurant, Percy Seafood, where we’re going to feature local seafood executed at its finest. We’re also opening Hello, Sailor, a new tiki bar featuring tropical drinks inspired by fruits and botanicals from our neighboring islands. David Ong is putting together the menu and bar program for Hello Sailor. To round it all up, we’re also opening Coco Mama’s third branch there. Now you won’t have to walk too far from anywhere on the island to have some of our delish, vegan-friendly coconut ice cream.
You’ve been through ups and downs—the Boracay closure, the pandemic, and now Spicebird is being hit by trolls after you identified yourselves as Kakampink. What have you learned in these challenging times?
The source of our strength has been our team. Our pinaka-manager has been with us for 17 years, since the beginning. Other managers have been with us for 15 years. Some of our staff are running 8 years, 10 years. So we feel very responsible for them. That is why during Boracay’s closure and during the pandemic (2020 to 2021), we had pop-ups in Manila. All of these experiences have made us tougher, for sure. And we learned to be a little more cautious as we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.
How did Boracay change you all these 17 years?
There’s no one thing, I guess. But over the years, I think we’ve felt more and more responsible as business owners. From making sure that we do our best in taking care of our team during difficult times, like the closure and pandemic, to little changes in how we do business such as being the first on the island to adopt rice and metal straws for better sustainability, and making sure most of our ingredients are locally sourced. Business can have a significant impact on Boracay beyond the financial aspect and we’ve become more conscious about this as the years went by.
Do you have any message to those trolling Spicebird?
Haha none really. I’m just trying to ignore them and hopefully they disappear soon 🙂
Photos courtesy of Nowie Potenciano