How this bar that opened just a month before lockdown is surviving the pandemic

Anna Gabrielle Cerezo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 02 2020 05:12 PM

19P founders Marco Limcaoco and Mari Ascaño preparing operations before opening. Ced Roxas

MANILA -- “What if we put up a ‘homey’ bar with good food, drinks, service and ambience,” college roommates, Marco Limcaoco and Mari Ascaño mused in between sips of beer a few years ago.

While Ascaño confessed they never had anything “remotely concrete” planned at the time, the “drunken idea” the the pair tossed around every time they would have a couple of drinks as students eventually materialized into 19P, a neighborhood dive bar located at the bustling mecca for youngbloods, Katipunan Avenue, Quezon City.

“19P was actually named after me and Marco’s condo unit in college. Back then, our friends would often just drop by at any time to hangout. We planned the bar to be similar to that experience, wherein anyone can come and make themselves feel at home,” Ascaño recalled.

The duo sought to re-create the "Makati bar experience" in the north with a more affordable price point. From being associated as a red light district, Barangay Poblacion became one of the liveliest nightlife destinations, with its young crowd spilling in the streets until the crack of dawn (at least before the pandemic).

“As much as a lot of people enjoy traveling to Makati, other people sometimes prefer an alternative hangout spot that’s closer to his/her area. With the vision of the Makati-like bar experience, 19P sure hits the spot – good food, drinks, service, ambience. Best part is that it takes a softer blow on the wallet,” Mark Cribe, one of the investors of 19P said.

While the bar was the brainchild of the college roommates, they needed more people to fund their venture. They turned to their other friends: Cribe along with Aldo Garcia, Geb Herbosa, Charlie Martin, Claudia Nicola, Jopi Esquivias, Marielle Litton, Raymond Cheng, Vincent Recto, and Nielsen Dy, who all pitched in to help their come into fruition.

“Despite it being a random idea, we as investors saw it as a great concept and an opportunity to come together, collaborate and fulfill this vision. Aside from that, we also believe in Mari and Marco leading the execution,” Cheng reasoned.

The group opened their doors in February were off to a “good start” with most nights packed with customers.

19P stripped of guests. Ced Roxas

Unfortunately, however, not long after the group saw their friends’ vision come to life, and long before they could celebrate their success— a Luzon-wide lockdown was imposed in mid-March to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The government-mandated coronavirus lockdown without a doubt devastated the industry. Bars were among the first ventures to suffer from the fallout of the pandemic, and as it seems, the sector that will suffer from the blow the longest as well.

The entrepreneurs said they were forced to shut down their operations just as the dive bar was beginning to pick up steam.

“We were severely affected,” Ascaño said.
“It was a huge hit to our bar’s momentum because we were just gaining traction and recognition around the Katipunan area,” Limcaoco added.

Unable to churn any revenue, the friends spent the next months scrambling for the bar’s survival.

“The fact that we were only in operation for about a month before the lockdown meant that we didn’t have a well-established cash flow yet to comfortably cover most of the expenses that would be needed to be paid in the duration of the lockdown,” Ascaño expounded.

RETOOLING THE BUSINESS

To keep their financial wheels turning, 19P had to adapt to the “new normal” and pivot to bringing their prized cocktails to the safety of their customers' homes.

Empty tables and chairs of 19P. Ced Roxas

“The first challenge we had when we decided to reopen during GCQ was on how we were going to reach our customers. Which is why we decided to do delivery and takeout for our cocktails,” Ascaño said.

“Honestly, before COVID-19, we never really had any intention of offering takeout/delivery, but now we believe that it's a necessity in the new normal,” Limcaoco added.

Unwilling to jeopardize their current operating funds, Cribe mentioned they decided to start with just three variants.

“We’re actually very cautious in running the business as we try to find a balance between operating and shelling out too much for expenses vs operating at a smaller-scale while slowly yet surely reeling in revenue,” Limcaoco said.

19P debuted their to-go menu with their best selling alcoholic drinks: weng-weng 2.0, midori sour, and bramble.

According to the businessmen, they tailored the selection for young professionals, the crowd they regularly had before the lockdown.

“Think of it as an introduction to well-made cocktails. The direction that we were going for was leaning towards a more young-adult oriented menu wherein some of these people haven’t tried a proper cocktail before or are generally more of a beer-drinker,” Ascano explained.

The proprietors said they put a lot of effort into their bottled blends, “from the packaging, social media presence, delivery, and the drink itself, so customers may still feel the full 19P experience in every bottle they purchase.”

19P’s best selling cocktails in a bottle -- Midori Sour, Bramble, and Weng-Weng

“I wouldn't say COVID-19 changed our vision for 19P; we just had to momentarily change how we execute it,” Ascaño clarified.

“It’s our way of keeping our brand alive and providing the best products we can to our customers,” Cheng added.

BAR IN A BOTTLE

The handcrafted drinks were concocted by one of the bartenders behind the Población’s thriving bar scene before the COVID-19 outbreak and are made with premium-quality liquor, and fresh ingredients such as all-natural juices.

For those looking for “a beginner cocktail” with a moderate kick, the bar boasts their midori sour, a mix of midori liqueur, lemon juice, and garnished with a maraschino cherry — giving it a very fruity and vibrant taste.

On the other hand, drinkers who want an extra strong kick on can try the Weng-Weng 2.0, 19P’s “take on the young adult friendly drink.” They described it as a “more refined version” wherein they use rum, together with pineapple juice, Campari and grenadine.

Meanwhile, their classic gin-based cocktail, bramble, is flavored with fresh lemon and high-quality Creme de Mure (blackberry liquor).

ZERO MARKETING EXPENDITURE

Since 19P was forced to close its doors before they could make a sizable profit, the group was unable to allocate a single peso for advertising. Thus, the budding entrepreneurs had to heavily rely on social media and their present network to market their new products.

“The next challenge was on how we were going to market our bottled cocktails to inform our existing clientele and at the same time gain new clientele given that we didn't want to spend on advertising since we were trying to minimize costs,” Ascaño reasoned.

The founder said they started selling within their circle and depended on gaining traction by “word of mouth.”

“They posted about it on social media and with each passing week the circle grew larger up to the point that a lot of our orders now come from newly acquired customers,” he shared.

SURVIVAL NOT PROFIT

While their reinvention was not an overnight success, the proprietors said their current sales are stable enough to sustain their brand until they can physically resume operations.

Like most businesses, 19P was not immune to tough decisions imposed by the worldwide health crisis. According to the young entrepreneurs, they had to shift their mentality from “trying to earn a profit” to “focusing on survival” instead. Ascaño stated they “significantly lowered” their profit margin and settled with earnings just enough for rent, their employees' salaries, and other critical expenses.

“After almost nearing a month into doing this, honestly, I would have to say that it's barely keeping us afloat. Of course, during these times we're happy with results since it buys us more time to survive until the situation gets better,” Ascaño said.

Despite the disrupted operations and the bar grappling to stay afloat, Cribe enthused they did not lay off any of their employees and they continue to provide them with cash assistance.

“We value them and the respective skills they bring to the team. As much as possible, we want to keep them on payroll as well cause we understand the impact on them if we remove them from their job,” he said.

He added: ”When things resume, we still hope to work with the same set of people.”

Although admitting the situation is “new and difficult,” the investor said he is confident they will pull through.

“The usual or expected earnings definitely changed, but right now it’s really a challenge of survival. Try to hold on and survive long enough until the vaccine is readily available. From there, it would be safer to go out, businesses can operate normally again and that’s the time businesses would recover,” Cribe mused.

SAFETY FIRST

While the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases still prohibits bars from operating in areas under general community quarantine (GCQ), they may serve food and accommodate dine-in customers at limited capacity.

To help business owners break even and recuperate from the lockdown that started mid-March, Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez, announced food establishments under GCQ may now accommodate up to 50 percent of their original capacity, higher than the 30 percent limit placed last June 21.

Although 19P originally served a variety of small plates, burgers, and sandwiches during their launch, the owners decided it was too soon to bring guests to their tables. According to Ascaño, although their resolve was a “disadvantage business-wise,” they wanted to play their role in limiting the spread of COVID-19.

“We take the threat of COVID19 very seriously… We're focused on constantly thinking of ways to generate profit to help cover our overhead costs without compromising the safety of their staff and customers,” Ascaño said.

At present, the National Capital Region holds the most number of active cases in the country, the Department of Health reported. Quezon City in particular was identified as an emerging hotspot. The QC Epidemiology and Disease Surveillance Unit, meanwhile, said that as of July 25, the total number of confirmed cases in the vicinity is has reached 5,878.

Although there are precautions that can help minimize exposure to the coronavirus in establishments such as using disposable menus and utensils, utilizing cashless and digital payment options, distancing tables, etc., the threat remains as indoor spaces have less ventilation.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drive-through, delivery, take-out, and curb-side pick up are still the safest options for those craving a fix from their favorite restaurants.

Instead, the friends plan to increment their revenue by adding their best-selling food dishes -- classic cheeseburger, katsu sando (pork cutlet sandwich), and crispy chicken sandwich -- to their take-away service.

“From there, we will see how things go… Remember, any progress is still progress, nonetheless,” Cribe said.

Limcaoco, meanwhile, assured their patrons they employ strict safety protocols in every transaction. According to the founder, even before the outbreak, cleanliness and safety had already been their “top priority.”

“As we enter a 'new normal,' that remains unchanged. Even though we don't allow dine-in, we are still very strict with proper hygiene, cleanliness and sanitation,” he stressed.

FRIENDLY BUSINESS

While setting up shop always comes with uncertainty, doing it with friends is an even riskier business.

Aware that it is not uncommon for relationships to get “ruined due. toi conflict with businesses and money,” Cheng confessed their dynamic has been beneficial so far.

The big group coming from a diverse background found strength in their number and was able to play off of each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

“[Being] friends definitely played a big role in the beginning of the pandemic. There were definitely big decisions that had to be made when the lockdown happened and with each passing week the whole situation would often change. New guidelines, restrictions, quarantine protocols, etc. All of which had to be discussed among ourselves, through informal and formal means,” Ascaño said.

Although being the lone decision-maker may have its own perks, a partnership also has its advantages such as “accountability, wider range of ideas, broader voice of reason, and a strong support system.”

To ensure impartiality in making business calls, Cribe shared they made decisions collectively by casting votes.

“To cite a specific scenario this whole idea of selling bottled cocktails was voted on. We're glad almost everyone agreed and we're doing okay so far… We met as a group, discussed and came up with a collective decision to do the bottled cocktail idea of Marco,” he recalled.

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