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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Friday, March 17, 2023

entry arrow7:00 AM | What Is It With All These Milk Tea Shops? and Other Notes on Saturation

If you’ve been in Dumaguete long enough to see trends take place and evolve, you will note that Dumaguetnons love to copy—perhaps in a very similar way it occurs in all other places, but in a small city like Dumaguete, copycatting can be quite conspicuous. That “smallness of place” may also be the trigger for this tendency: someone sees something as an aspirational goal or as a successful enterprise, copying feels like a sure bet. It’s hard to please the Dumaguetnon, so if something appeals to them, one better jump on the bandwagon.

Someone buys an Econo, for example, and then suddenly the city streets are awash with that uniquely 1990s motorcycle with white hoods [and comes in blue or red]—to the point that Dumaguete was once dubbed by national media as the “motorcycle capital of the Philippines.” Today, that Econo is now the Wigo.

Someone opens an internet café—and then suddenly, every corner has an internet café. Someone opens a yoga studio—and then suddenly we have a proliferation of yogis. Someone makes great ube pan de sal—and then suddenly ube pan de sal is everywhere.

Then there’s milk tea.

We’ve noticed that, for the longest time, there has been a lot of milk tea places popping up around the city. As far back as memory goes, Chowking was the first to jumpstart the milk tea craze in Dumaguete. The franchise introduced the concoction of black tea, evaporated milk, and chewy pearls to the Dumaguetnon public as early as the late 2000s, followed by Zagu which occupied a stall at Lee Super Plaza and at Robinsonsplace Dumaguete—and also wherever a Zagu could occupy, it did. These were our introduction to “pearls,” at an accessible price point that vibed well with the naturally kuripot Dumaguentnon.

What we eventually loved was Gong Cha, which set up a stall at the groundfloor of Robinsons, and which sold nothing else but milk tea in different kinds of flavor. Renz remembers asking himself: “Can a milk tea place earn enough to support paying rent for a mall stall?” The answer apparently is yes. Then there was Infinitea, which occupied a coveted spot at Paseo Perdices. It was a huge hit, and was always full—but it did not survive the pandemic crunch. [Now another milk tea is occupying its old location.]

Afterwards, the deluge of milk tea shops in town could be compared to mushrooms sprouting: from famous international franchises like ChaChaGo, to local franchises like Sebucha, to original enterprises donning exaggerated puns to name their business venture. Our favorite pun is QRSTea; and our least favorite is the rather tongue-in-cheek Zu Boh Ti Tea.

Someone in Twitter also made this observation: why is there a proliferation of coffee shops in Dumaguete all of a sudden? Ian remembers a time when the very idea of a coffee shop was so alien to the Dumaguetnon public. When Silliman Avenue Café [lovingly called SACs by its patrons] opened its gleaming venture along that street in the early 2000s, it was veritably the first of its kind in Dumaguete aside from Lee Cimbali at the Lee Super Plaza supermarket. Asked if the venture was sustainable in Dumaguete, one local businessman scoffed: “Ngano man ko mo-adto og coffee shop nga mahal kayo ang kape, nga puede ra man ko mag-Nescafe sa balay?”Obviously, years later, this remark is myopic.

There have been many coffee shops in Dumaguete since SACs—but over and after the pandemic, you can really sense a proliferation that is almost abnormal. The success of Coffee Collective probably paved the way, and now we have others like Oh Café along Larena Drive, Brewedways Coffee at Northpoint, 85 Degrees Artisan Café along Ipil Street, Socials Café in Claytown, Black and Copper along EJ Blanco Drive, Aromar Coffee and Kape Negrense Brew along West Rovira Road in Pulantubig, It’s the Coffee Weekend at Florentina Homes also along Rovira, and so many others. Along Aldecoa Drive, we have Alsani Café and The Cabin Blend—and the other day, Ian woke up to find the empty lot in front of his apartment along Aldecoa bearing a sign announcing a coffee shop soon to be built on the property. Coffee shops don’t always come in considerable brick and mortar space—Kapeng Lokal along East Rovira Road is just a small stall that’s easy to miss, but they have a loyal clientele who order mostly through food-delivery apps; Kohi along Hibbard Avenue is also a small stall but puts on a charming front with a Japanese-inspired ambience; and Don Macchiato’s is a pop-up along Locsin Street.

Renz recalls a friend who enrolled in a senior marketing class for his business degree, and who found himself assigned an entrepreneurial project for the entire semester. His chosen venture was selling coffee, and he said that selling coffee was a money-maker because the overhead cost was low but the selling price can be stretched considerably. Another one of his friends is a declared coffee enthusiast. She’s been interested in it since 2013, and bought filters and beans as a hobby. Then the pandemic hit, and the prices of these filters shot up significantly, and suddenly she found many people interested in how to make a great cup of coffee. A lot of these probably thought selling coffee would make great business.

Renz loves tea, but Ian swears by coffee—it helps soothe his ADHD, and regularly boosts his day. We are generally happy about the proliferation of coffee shops—and how we have famous franchises in place [Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, Starbucks, and Tom n Toms] as well a roadside pickup points and online baristas selling through food apps and the Internet.

Market saturation doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It is an indication of a customer base that has disposable income. It means that everyone can enjoy a product, no matter what price points there are. It also means that competition is stiff. The food industry may be accessible and stalwart but savvy food businesses need to occupy food niches and cater to their audience right from the get-go. Dumaguete is an interesting market because of the wide gap between the working class and the rich so there are a lot of areas that you can target—but that market has to be enraptured by your marketing and your product, or else you’ll find yourself trying to capture only the specter of a customer. Competition in the market means that you and your competitors have to innovate with what you’re selling, or at the very least come up with a novel idea that sticks to your audience.

For example, fried chicken has been a Filipino food staple since the Americans brought that idea to us. Ever since then, fried chicken has remained a favorite in many restaurant fares and family recipes. We have learned to love chicken joy from Jollibee for decades now—but we’d like to applaud the entry of Crispy King into our midst. The franchise, which originated in Ormoc City and is easily recognizable with its red paint and zany word logo, is suddenly everywhere in Dumaguete. Every corner now has a Crispy King in it. But we’re not complaining. Its fried chicken, prepared in halal fashion, is very affordable [with P50, you can get a sizable piece of chicken meat, with gravy and a cup of rice as part of that affordable package]. Ian says it tastes even better than Jollibee’s chicken joy. He swears by it.

Does the proliferation of Crispy King have anything to do with the pandemic? We suppose so. It was already there before the lockdowns happened in 2020—but its spread is a pandemic-era recession miracle.

Maybe all these is just recession proliferation, but for now, let’s just enjoy our assorted milk tea, our coffee, and our fried chicken.

Written with Renz Torres

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