How Filipino restaurant in London weathers economic storms

Posted at 03/31/14 1:07 PM

The cashier’s desk at Lutong Pinoy is at a booth designed like a bahay kubo or nipa hut. The manager, Marc Malata, personally attends to his customers. Photo by Ryan Chua for ABS-CBNnews.com

LONDON -- A man welcomes customers to the restaurant with a standard Filipino greeting, spoken with a palpable British accent: "Kumusta po (How are you)?"

"Upo kayo (Take your seats),” Marc Malata, the restaurant's manager, tells customers before giving them the menu.

One group comes after another until the small restaurant is filled to capacity.

For the past 18 years, the restaurant Lutong Pinoy—which literally translates to "Filipino-cooked” — has branded itself as a home away from home for thousands of Filipinos in London. Because of this, the business has maintained a solid customer base and survived economic downturns, even the worst in recent years, unscathed.

“We were okay because we have a niche,” says Marc. “There’s not so much Filipino restaurants around, and we’re in a Filipino area.”

It has the characteristics of a typical Filipino home: a television that shows soap operas and news programmes from the Philippines, hosts who go out of their way to assist their guests, and of course, traditional Filipino household dishes. The cashier’s desk is at a booth designed like a bahay kubo or nipa hut, an indigenous Filipino stilt house.

The owners personally attend to the business, from cooking to serving food to customers. Aware that most customers are low- to middle-income workers, the management tries to keep food prices affordable. A buffet costs £8.50, for instance.

The restaurant offers a wide variety of Filipino dishes like adobo, sinigang, and kare-kare. Photo by Ryan Chua for ABS-CBNnews.com

Marc's father, Mario, started the business in 1997 while working for a telecommunications company in London. Already selling chicharon (pork crackling) and longganisa (sweet pork sausage) then, he took over the space left by a Filipino restaurant that had just closed.

Mario recalls that starting a business then was easy even for migrants like himself and his wife. Their savings, regular income, and funds from remortgaging their house enabled them to raise the £30,000 they needed to rent the space for 17 years. They did not have to borrow money from banks or the government.

In its first three years, however, the restaurant operated on losses. Keeping it going made a huge dent on the Malatas’ savings. But they pressed on, largely because Lutong Pinoy was the only Filipino restaurant in the area at that time and had a steady stream of customers.

“Awa ng Diyos, we eventually became well known and the business grew,” says Mario.

The Malatas now own the space, which is located on a side street in Earl’s Court. Filipinos in London, many of whom are nurses and domestic workers, frequent the area to send money to their loved ones back home through remittance centres no matter how economic conditions are.

“When Filipinos come here to send money, they want to grab something to eat. This is the perfect place to go to,” Marc says. “All Filipinos seem to enjoy because it reminds them of home.”

Every Wednesday, the restaurant offers meals on banana leaves for kamayan or eating using bare hands. Photo by Ryan Chua for ABS-CBNnews.com

Weekends are always packed. Wednesdays, when the restaurant offers meals that customers can eat using their bare hands, are a hit.

“Because we are such a small space … sometimes people have to queue outside,” says Marc.

As their income grows, Marc is thinking of expanding the business. He has tapped into social media, setting up Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts for the restaurant to extend its reach. Setting up new branches is also on the horizon.

Whatever changes happen, however, the Malatas intend to stick with and take care of their niche, which has helped the business stay afloat through the years.