MANILA — At the raging stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, al fresco dining proved to be a hit. Three years later, outdoor dining has remained popular.
But on Ugbo Street in Tondo, Manila, many food stalls are also banking on social media and vloggers to sustain their success.
Geraldine Ortillano, who came from Pasig when she visited the now-famous street in the Manila district, said that social media hype led her to visit the food crawl.
"Sa vloggers, sa TikTok," Ortillano told ABS-CBN News on Tuesday as she and her workmates ordered ice cream near the avenue's entrance.
The sentiment was shared by most visitors who ABS-CBN News interviewed during that day.
On TikTok, videos featuring Ugbo food stands are raking in thousands to millions of views. The street has also become viral on Facebook; A single video posted in April has so far been watched 10 million times.
Since 2020, micro-influencers, social media personalities, and foreigners are filming the food stops in the area for content, vendors say.
In November, YouTuber Zeinab Harake, with 13.5 million subscribers on the platform, vlogged the viral street. The video has received 2.2 million views as of posting.
Angeline Quinto also featured the food stalls on her YouTube account, with comedienne Ethel Booba being the latest personality to visit the area, according to the vendors.
Kyla Salinas, who lives in Tondo, told ABS-CBN News that Ugbo is already known as a food market even before its pandemic boom, thanks to its decades-old lechon stalls.
"Matagal na siyang nag-start. Siguro lumaki lang ‘yung fan base ng mismong lugar na ito nung marami nang food vloggers ang pumunta. Tapos 'yung ibang food vloggers din nagyayaya pa ng ibang food vloggers tapos nagpupunta rin dito," Salinas said.
"Kasi pampadagdag views. Masarap naman daw po siya," she added.
From Korean to Japanese to Filipino food, Ugbo Street has a great variety of food choices whose prices mostly start at less than P100: corn dog and rice cake such as spicy tteokbokki; crispy tempura and kani salad; sizzling sisig, bulalo, fresh lumpia, homemade siomai, and fried rice; grilled squids and scallops; and skewered pork, beef, and tuna belly.
Other stalls offer ice cream rolls, fresh fruit drinks and shakes, fluffy pancakes and crepes, pizza and pasta, as well as the famous "magic ice cream" — pop rice balls floating on smoky liquid nitrogen.
How cuisine is presented and marketed by vendors in Ugbo made it not just a food crawl but also an attraction.
In one stall, seafoods teeming with flavor are grilled over a blazing fire along the street. In another, a vendor shows off his skills using a wok, as fried rice is being tossed before customers holding up their cameras and smartphones.
Sherwin Himor, 24, credited the strong sales of his "giant" siomai to his quirkiness. He sells at least 300 to 400 pieces of siomai a day. "Nakilala na 'yung siomai dahil sa kabalasubasan ko," he said.
From time to time, he would throw jokes at prospective customers to get their attention. "Ito 'yung giant siomai, 'yung daks na siomai," he tells them, with some grinning at him.
In a nearby inasal restaurant, the staff employs a similar tact. They would convince patrons using their charm and jokes. "Ang kagandahan dito ma'am puwede kang kumain nang naka-helmet," a server jokingly tells a group as he points to the menu. "Pag na-badtrip ka puwede kang magwala."
Similar food kiosks have mushroomed around Tondo and elsewhere, trying to imitate Ugbo's success.
But bucheron seller Raquel Dionisio believes that Ugbo street foods are unmatched because of the wide selection it delivers.
"Marami nang gumaya, kaya lang hindi nila mahigitan. Ito 'yung pinakasikat na pilit nilang ginagaya," said the 44-year-old vendor.
"Hindi nila kayang higitan kasi nga andito na lahat ng klase ng pagkain halos lahat ikaw na lang talaga mamimili kung saan mo gustong kumain," she said.
Dionisio added that profit is guaranteed when one puts up a store in the area.
"Napakaimposible kasing ma-zero ka dito kahit tabi-tabi kami rito. Imposibleng ma-zero ka sa dami ng tao na 'yan," said Dionisio.
But when asked about how long they'll be allowed to do business in Ugbo, she said: "Di ba wala namang forever? Lahat naman talaga may hangganan."