Everyone has been indeed affected by the pandemic–employees, students, companies, businesses, you name it. It has forced companies to lay off employees to trim down expenses, while businesses and shops either had to close branches or close their entire store permanently.
And the latter was what the owners of Sulok Cafe decided on doing in July 2020. Sulok Cafe was a top-rated cafe-restaurant in Antipolo City before its closure last year, after four meaningful years of operations. It was surely a hard decision to make for the owners, long-time couple Andy Wong and Rodrigo Escobar. (Read: 3 Coffee Dessert Recipes to Jumpstart Your Day)
But now, they have turned to sell coffee online and even started their own podcast! My Pope Philippines got to chat with them in an email interview to talk about Sulok Cafe, closing shop in the middle of a pandemic, getting back up, and now thriving in their online coffee business (and their fun podcast).
A well-loved cafe-restaurant
Sulok Cafe is one of those local cafes that you would go to if you wanted to just chill or meet with friends (pre-pandemic of course). The physical store was located in the vicinity of one of the busiest areas in Antipolo City, which is why people from within and outside Antipolo would visit the place.
“On weekends, it was frequented by local tourists exploring the areas of Rizal,” said Rods, one of the owners, “On regular days, it was frequented by Antipolo locals who are often coming home from work in Ortigas, Makati, or Taguig.”
Because of its good coffee and food, Sulok has also been featured in various publications, newspapers, digital articles, and even appeared on TV already. It’s no surprise though since they are actually a top-rated cafe in the area!
But despite their high ratings and loyal customers, Sulok couldn’t escape the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Read: Yes, These Quality Coffee Makers Cost Less Than P1,000!)
Four meaningful years
In July 2020, after four meaningful years of operations, Sulok Cafe permanently closed its doors. “When the lockdown was first declared on March 2020, Sulok Café was forced to close down temporarily for 2 months. While the operations stopped, the expenses didn’t,” the owners said. That’s when they came to the difficult decision of ceasing operations in their physical store.
“When we reviewed the books we figured that continuing the operations of Sulok will bring us more harm than good, so we made a crucial decision to close it down,” they added.
And just like most of us, Rods and Andy still haven’t fully coped with what had happened and is happening due to the pandemic. “We consider the operational years of Sulok to be the best years of our lives so far,” they said. “You never really move on from something like this, you just learn to live with the guilt, knowledge, and experience that it gave you.”
They explained that it was an objective decision seeing as the accounting books weren’t looking too good, especially with the quarantine and pandemic. “It was a financial decision. We have to admit that Sulok was operated based on a lot of “gut feel”. Many of the business decisions that we made were based on a feeling and business foresight– less on financial decisions,” the couple shared.
But after a few months, Rods and Andy decided to sell coffee online– same product, just a different platform and manner of selling. So how did they get back up from the financial effects of the pandemic, and start their own online coffee business? Their loyal customers of course!
“The money we used to kickstart the continuation of Sulok Café online was from the restaurant assets we sold when we closed,” they said, “The people who bought the equipment from us were the same customers who supported the business and have made memories with the place. They wanted a tangible piece of memory to remember it and some didn’t care if it’s useless or not.” (Read: LIST: Student Hangout Spots that Closed During the Pandemic)
“We figured that Sulok Café didn’t belong solely to its owners, it belonged to the people who made memories to the place, our customers and supporters– so we needed to find a way to still be able to connect with them even without the physical shop,” Rods shared.
So the funds they got from the items they sold were used as capital to start selling bottled coffee since Sulok is often associated with the drink. “We also sell various equipment for making coffee and we are also one of the distributors of some espresso machines– Breville and De’longhi,” they said.
Launching a podcast
And apart from the online coffee business, Rods and Andy also launched their own podcast, “Usapan sa Sulok“. “One of the experiences in Sulok Café that made it unique was its ability to connect with customers through casual conversations. We never treated customers like customers. The moment they step into Sulok Café, they were our friends and were treated as such. No “Ma’am”, no “Sirs”–just “bro, pare, ate, sis” or even “hoy”,” they explained.
This, according to the couple, is what made Sulok Cafe the brand it is to many. (Read: 3 Must-Have Tools Before Starting Your Own Podcast)
They shared that the podcast was their attempt at making the Sulok Cafe experience available digitally– thus, they talk to different individuals from different backgrounds in every episode. “The topics we discuss there and the conversations we have with people are similar to the conversations that happened back when the store still existed.”
Learnings amid the pandemic
So what did Rods and Andy learn from all that has happened in the past 12 months? Here was what they answered.
- Build a brand, not a business.
“When you build a brand well enough, it will sell itself. That’s what happened with Sulok. The marketing wasn’t as extensive as it used to be compared to its restaurant days, but people still buy from us now online. Whenever I check the names of the people who buy from us, the names are mostly familiar as they have been Sulok’s customers from the resto days.
Maraming mas okay pa na nagtitinda ng kape, online. Pero sa amin sila bumibili. That’s not sales– that’s branding at work.”
- Connect, don’t sell.
“I don’t recall a time that we “hard-sold” Sulok Café to people. It always started with asking them how they are doing. The priority of Sulok is to build loyalty and connect with its audience, never to sell. It just so happens that they also buy after “connecting”. I think this is an important step in building any business.”
- People first, above all else.
“While we don’t have any staff now that the business is purely online, back when Sulok Café was still a restaurant, we would always do our best to put the people first. When Sulok Café closed, this was the ultimate priority. We tapped all business owners we knew in the hopes na may opening sila sa negosyo nila to hire our people.
If you take care of your people, they will take care of your business. Among the reasons why Sulok lasted for four years, I think this is an open secret. Sulok Café was cared for by the people we employ.”