MANILA -- Renowned chef Margarita Forés has undeniably established her Cibo, her successful Italian restaurant through the years, despite the cutthroat competition in the dining business. Before, Italian dishes were available only in high-end restaurants, if not in five-star hotels. Bringing authentic and modern Italian dishes affordable to the average Filipino is a feat that Forés is proud of any time of the day.
When the Luzon-wide lockdown was enforced in mid-March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, most businesses in Manila came to a halt. An employer like Forés, who manages 450 people in her staff, working in 16 restaurants around the metro, had all the reasons to worry, if not panic.
“We were caught off-guard, just like getting the rug pulled from under you,” admitted Forés in an email interview. “This crisis that came so unexpectedly and impacted us in a great way. It turned our world upside down.
“But as always, what has been the culture of all my businesses, we care about our entire team. We rolled with the punches and have done what we can do to still do business without letting any members of our staff go.”
Forés was faced with a different challenge this time around. While the busy noise inside her restaurants brought her a wave of calm daily for its normal sound, the silence in the initial days of the lockdown turned out to be deafening for her.
She was readily worried about her 450 plus employees at Cibo, plus nearly 250 other staff from her catering arm, Cibo di Marghi Signature Caterer and other concept restaurants like Grace Park, Lusso, Las Casas Manila by Margarita Forés, Islas Pinas and M Table and Mtro Food Hall at GT Tower in Makati.
“Of course, the staff was my first concern,” Forés disclosed. “Their welfare was my biggest concern.”
Cibo has 16 branches all over Metro Manila – Glorietta, Shangri-La Plaza Mall, Alabang Town Center, Greenhills Promenade, Powerplant Rockwell, Eastwood, Gateway, Greenbelt 5, Robinsons Magnolia, SM Megamall, SM Aura, UP Town Center, Evia Mall, UP Town Center, Ayala The 30th, Ayala Manila Bay.
“Our busiest stores are those in common area, open spaces in malls like EDSA Shangri-La, Powerplant Rockwell, Robinsons Magnolia, Greenbelt 5,” Forés said.
She runs and manages all the branches all under one company, without any franchise for nearly 23 years now. “Cibo is family-owned, with me as majority owner, and my mother and siblings as co-owners,” Forés noted. “All my other businesses are solely owned by me. Franchising is still a new, challenging prospect for us that we have not embarked on.”
Forés takes equal pride in her other dining places and brands – Grace Park in One Rockwell, Lusso at Greenbelt 5 and her catering commissary at Whitespace. “My newest businesses include the Filipino heritage food hall, Islas Pinas at the Double Dragon Plaza, Las Casas Manila in Quezon City and corporate dining concepts M Table and Mtro Food Hall at the GT Tower on Ayala Avenue.
“My flower business Fiori di Marghi, Food and Floralscapes and packaged food business, Gastroteca di Marghi, plus M Healthline, the health and wellness diet supply business are also part of the group. Of course, my son’s a mano at the Powerplant in Rockwell. I would consider the newest gem in our group,” she said, referring to her son Amado.
With the lockdown, however, Cibo, as well as Forés’ other restaurants and businesses, were undoubtedly affected by the worldwide contagion. “This new pandemic reality will force us to re-invent ourselves, but we are confident we will weather this crisis and continue to grow and flourish,” Forés said.
She initially started opening only three branches of Cibo for delivery even while on lockdown. “We are now happy that we have nine branches open out of 16 and we are still busy trying to get the others open as soon as possible,” Forés said.
“Ultimately, however, we operate in the future, projecting based on a worst case scenario. We will probably operate with barely enough efficiency to cover for basic expenses, most especially our labor cost, thus barely operating just to keep our staff intact.”
The lady boss has managed to utilize other profitable streams of revenue even during the lockdown. Cibo has resorted to takeaway and delivery to use as many of its front-of-house staff to be part of the restaurant’s delivery service.
Admirably, Forés continues to pay the salary of all her staff even when the restaurants are not operating. “We never stopped paying their salaries,” she said. “We have also tried to make as many of them come back to work as possible.”
Understandably, they also adopted cost-cutting measures to cushion the impact of the pandemic. “We operate our stores without air-conditioning, since there are no dining operations anyway and try to use the hours of our staff as efficiently as possible,” Forés said.
Her catering business, Cibo di Marghi, was supposed to work on 11 weddings, all scheduled in March, but were all cancelled.
“Our other prospective wedding clients for the future months are still in limbo, depending on how the situation unfolds in the coming months,” Forés said. “We have some weddings scheduled for the second half of the year, so we hope the rules in the next few months will allow us to service these events.”
Granted that this pandemic is unprecedented, Forés is aware there are indeed hard lessons learned during this time. She and her team have braced themselves for any possible outcome.
“Of course, part of the hard lessons are how to deal with this huge blow to our industry,” Forés said. “The recovery from this crisis will not come in a long time. We have to be ready to deal with a near future with nearly no earnings, so we need to work harder to reverse this situation.”
Forés started as a caterer in 1987 with Cibo di M, before branching out into the restaurant business with Cibo. “I did catering informally,” she recalled. “But I did grow it until Cibo di Marghi Signature Caterer became a legitimate corporation in the mid-'90s. From starting with just small dinners in people’s homes, I eventually started doing bigger events [both corporate and private], weddings, debuts and more.”
It took her a decade to open a restaurant. “The first Cibo opened in August of 1997 in an open-space at Glorietta 3,” Forés said. “After a year, that branch moved to the current space of our Glorietta store, our pioneer store still in existence. We now have 16 branches. We have survived and grown in nearly 23 years, learning much from both our failures and successes, looking forward with much positivity to more growth.”
The daughter of noted surgeon Dr. Raul Forés and Maria Lourdes “Baby” Araneta, she managed to protect the names of her establishments, maintaining its standards that have not changed a bit for more than two decades now.
“We are already stronger, even just after a few months of this pandemic,” maintained Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2016. “We have made efforts to go into e-commerce, re-invent our home meal replacement infrastructure, creating new ways of packaging and re-packaging our product line and more.”
Forés and her team are presently trying to fix their websites to allow for e-commerce logistics. “We are also working on a more advanced setup for ordering from our Instagram and Facebook pages. This is inevitably the new normal and we need to catch up.”
Cibo has weathered the tough food industry where the life span of a restaurant is merely a good two years. In August, Cibo will mark its 23rd year and its silver anniversary in 2022.
As Forés presides over Cibo and her business empire with her well-decorated toque, she is aware she is facing a different challenge in her culinary career in this new normal.
Yet, Forés opts to look at the brighter side as she continues to bring fresh and innovative dining concepts to the Filipino table. Not just accessible to a high-brow clientele, but to everybody.