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On the streets, a culinary revolution

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Photo: Facebook/@mercatocentrale

By Bjorn Biel M. Beltran
Special Features Writer

It’s surprising to think that a few years ago, the most foodies can expect for a unique and affordable meal would come from the restaurant franchises that populated the Philippines’ many malls. Food parks, as they are known now, weren’t a thing.

It was only with the rise of places like Banchetto in Ortigas and Mercato Centrale in Bonifacio Global City (BGC) did the food park craze began to dominate Filipino cuisine. It was nothing short of a culinary revolution; food parks started appearing all over the metro, from the northern fringes of Quezon City to as far south as Parañaque, finding success in offering innovative fare from a re-imagination of turo-turo to hybrid cuisine.

Suddenly, Filipinos’ craving for new and exciting food weren’t limited to the rote offerings of the local carinderia, nor do they have to shell out for fancy dinners at starred restaurants. The food park’s cheap, community-building nature allows it to attract crowds that food establishments like restaurants and shopping mall franchises wouldn’t.

The history of the food park began in the late 2000s. In 2007, Banchetto opened to cater to the growing number of workers in the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry in the Ortigas central business district. Claiming to be the first “overnight street food fiesta”, the park opened late at night every Friday and lasted until Saturday morning.

Mercato Centrale in BGC launched not long afterward in 2010. Inspired by the outdoor markets of Florence and the Boroughs Market in London, Mercato promised to bring an innovative weekend night markets with unique, great tasting food in a clean, open-air setting.

The concept only became more popular from then on. Establishments along the streets of Malingap and Maginhawa in Diliman, Quezon City garnered almost viral attention from students of the University of the Philippines nearby. Meanwhile, the country’s shopping malls were trying their hand at upscale food halls like the SM Mega Food Hall in SM Megamall. When 2016 rolled around, the food park craze was in full swing.

“Food parks surged in popularity in 2016,” global market research firm Euromonitor International wrote in a 2017 report on “Street Stalls/Kiosks in the Philippines”.

“The format replaced food trucks, as it offered a fun dining space for consumers to try new food concepts and bond with their friends and family. Similar to food courts, food parks feature a collection of food kiosks within an outdoor compound. They normally follow a central theme such as international street food in the case of Mercato, Instagram-able dining in regard to Crave Park and subway-inspired booths in the case of The Vibe,” the report said.

“Unlike food courts though, food parks are comprised wholly of independent consumer foodservice operators, normally start-up entrepreneurs, and serve as an ideal incubator for new businesses and novel concepts because of the low capital requirements and a targeted consumer base. Furthermore, food parks are located within neighborhoods and primarily target students, families and young professionals,” the report added.

One positive effect of the rise of food parks in the Philippines is the stepping stone it gives to enterprising Filipinos. Anton Diaz of Our Awesome Planet (www.ourawesomeplanet.com), the popular food and lifestyle blog that played a significant role in the birth of the modern food park, said that the more business-minded individuals from the new generation are leading the trend.

“I think the millennial generation wants to be more enterprising than the previous generation,” he said in an interview with BusinessWorld. “They want more freedom with their time and they’re trying out businesses. These are the people who want to open a restaurant, but don’t have the capital or the confidence [to start their own]. They start small. [Food parks are] an entry point.”

Many millennials are traveling the world in search for new cuisines to sample, he noted. Some of these traveling foodies are bringing these new cuisines back home to offer them to those who don’t have the luxury of traveling.

“They are the equivalent of hawker centers,” Mr. Diaz said, likening them to the open-air complexes popular in Southeast Asian countries like Singapore and Hong Kong, where a variety of inexpensive, quality food is offered in stalls. “The only issue is that some food places offer food without any heritage to them; hybrid cuisines that only work for fads.”

Mr. Diaz explained that the highly-experimental nature of food park cuisine makes it susceptible to businesses looking to survive solely on the uniqueness and “virality” of their offerings. To survive, he noted, food parks need authenticity.

“If let’s say you have a family recipe for pandit or bulalo, and you’re putting it out there, selling it to people and people can appreciate it, that can work better. It would be good to see a food park that offer that kind of food,” he said.

Not that there aren’t any establishments offering that kind of food. Uncle Mario’s Bulaluhan, a family-run food stall at the Funland Food Park on Regalado Avenue in Quezon City, caters mostly to students at the university nearby, offering authentic Ilocano and other provincial dishes based from family recipes.

“It’s funny because these students have never seen or even know about food like this,” Christian Uy Bungubung, who manages the stall, told BusinessWorld. “For example, they don’t even know that Goto Batangas is mostly liver, not rice. We try to bring these kinds of food to a new market. We get all our ingredients from the provinces.”

Mr. Bungubung said that they hope to bring their food through a restaurant of their own someday, and food parks offer them the opportunity to test the waters if their brand of Filipino cuisine has any demand from a city market.

“Of course it’s been challenging. But we’re hopeful that we can reach our dream. If not this year, then the next,” he said.