FORBES – THIS FAMILY IS PUTTING FILIPINO FOOD ON THE MAP IN LONDON
Growing up between the UK and US, I found it extremely interesting to watch how different cuisines were appreciated and accessed across the Atlantic.
Filipino food, in particular. While it felt readily available in the US, it was nowhere to be found in the UK.
In Indiana, Pinoy friends’ parents would whip up Adobo, Pansit and Lumpia with ease—even spit-roasted Lechon for special occasions!—while the parents of my London pals had never so much as heard of them.
That is, until accomplished senior banker Rowena Romulo decided to open up London’s very first Filipino restaurant.
“The whole idea and feasibility of opening a restauarant in London began at a dinner, where people found out I was a Romulo and said ‘why don’t you open a Romulo Café in London!’,” says Romulo.
Attached to four critically-acclaimed restaurants in Manila, the family name did come with a legacy, but she wasn’t sure a legacy would be enough.
“We knew that London was a city of ‘foodies’ and there was an openness to new tastes, textures, and flavours—the question was whether Londoners were ready for Filipino cuisine.”
Her partner, Chris Joseph, assured her they were. With over 35 years experience in the food industry, Joseph worked his way up from delivering pizzas for Domino’s to becoming a senior director for both the pizza brand and Krispy Kreme, managing over 200 units in 11 countries.
All of which he gave up to launch Romulo Café.
But first, they needed her family’s approval.
“It was important for it to be a family business—fully funded by personal investments,” says Romulo.
After hiring a UK consultant to help them put a business plan together (and much “prodding”), her family gave their blessing… albeit subject to finding a suitable location, which took another six months.
“The first location we made a bid for turned us down as the landlord was unfamiliar with Filipino cuisine and wasn’t sure whether it would be a success or not,” says Romulo.
Thankfully, a gorgeous site in Kensington came to market a few days later, and the rest was history…
…literally, family history.
“It was the first location of the Philippine Embassy where my maternal grandfather, Jose E. Romero, became the first Ambassador to the Court of St. James,” she says. “And my mother lived in this area in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s so, for me, it was the perfect fit.”
Benefitting from being close to major Filipino hubs, like Earls Court, and many key London landmarks, her family approved.
But the challenges didn’t stop there. She needed to find a Filipino head chef to execute her family’s recipes authentically but, as there were no Filipino restaurants in London, she didn’t know where to begin.
“Thankfully a good friend, Charlene Ching, introduced us to a potential head chef called Lorenzo Maderas,” says Romulo. “We called him for an interview and he mentioned that his dream was to open a Filipino restaurant in the name of his father, Romulo!”
As luck would have it, the restaurant was already going to be called Romulo Café.
Seizing the opportunity, Maderas flew to the Philippines for two months to train in the kitchen of Rowena’s sister and perfect their family recipes.
“Six years ago, Filipino food was relatively unknown here and people didn’t really know what to expect. One of our major challenges in the early years was working to familiarise food lovers and restaurant goers with it.”
While keeping true to its tantalizing blend of culinary traditions (Spanish, American, Malay and Chinese), Romulo’s take on Filipino food was as rich and varied as its legacy.
Londoners fell in love. And they wanted more.
“Since we opened we have offered a complimentary serving of our freshly baked traditional bread called a pandesal. Our guests started to ask us to bake some extra for them to purchase either for their own use or to give away to friends and family,” she says.
It got her thinking about new revenue streams, knowing growth would be key to surviving an increasingly competitive business, but wasn’t sure when or how to do it best.
“At the beginning of 2020 the thinking was that, after five years, it was the right time to look at site two,” she says.
Yet instead of carbon-copying the Cafe’s success, she explored a new concept: a diffusion brand offering contemporary Filipino flavours in a fast-casual setting, transforming from a bakery and low-key lunch stop in the day to a cocktail bar and robata grill in the evening.
Which would be hard enough if there wasn’t also a global pandemic going on at the same time.
“Opening Kasa & Kin during the pandemic was challenging,” she admits. “Everything from finding a contractor, hiring staff, supplies and then finally managing to open in November only to have a knock back from Omicron in December.”
Thanks to a helpful rent-free pandemic period from her brokers, Romulo’s Kasa & Kin is now not only surviving but thriving in Soho.
Particularly its store-in-store Filipino bakery and patisserie.
“Currently, sales from our bakery counter provides additional revenue to our restaurant business model since guests provide us with takeaway sales for their own consumption or as a gift to their friends and family after a memorable visit with us.
“We’ve been able to create two distinct revenue streams from one guest visit.”
Thinking ahead, Romulo also created subtle differences in the branding of the bakery and restaurant, knowing they could offer one or both components in future markets, dependant on demographics.
“Our aim is to achieve annual revenues of about two-times the cost of initial investment,” she says, despite currently focusing on running the restaurant at average industry gross margins.
It’s not about the money. Romulo just really wants to keep this cultural celebration alive.
“Opening Romulo Café was never about getting recognition but rather, the creation of a family restaurant and dining experience that could hold its own and compete in London,” she says.
“It was meant to showcase the Philippines: its food, culture and people.”
And that, as well as an Ube-packed ‘tsunami cheesecake’, has been done to perfection.