In my previous post I mentioned that Filipino food has recently been making waves in London foodie scene — thanks to Rowena Romulo and many others who are raising awareness for Filipino cuisine in the UK. Romulo Café London opened only over a year ago and has already garnered an award — the ‘Most Loved Restaurant in Kensington’ at the 2016 Time Out Love London Awards, and has continually received commendations from food critics and customers, and it now appears in some of London’s restaurant guide books. I decided to interview Rowena for two reasons: first, she has a fascinating story to tell; and second, other women will certainly gain some insight and inspiration from her experience.
Elna Smith: In terms of your background, you were a banker before you got into the food business; what prompted you to say, “I want to go into the food service industry?”
Rowena Romulo: I discovered that I had another passion in life as an entrepreneur, which dates back to about 30 years ago when together with my uncle and aunt, we opened the first Thai Restaurant in Manila. The whole idea and feasibility of opening a Romulo Café in London dated back Oct. 2014. We hired a UK consultant to help us put a feasibility study together so that I could present the business plan to my family. It was already at that time that I felt it was time to make a change and build something of my own. After 32 years in banking and having made MD (Managing Director) at 40, I knew I was never going to become CEO of an American bank but I could certainly become CEO of my own company! The business plan looked promising and my family was supportive and the next step was really to look for a place. It took us about 6 months to find a site. The first one we set our eyes on and made a bid for actually turned us down because the landlord didn’t know what Filipino food was all about and he wanted something more known and chose an Italian restaurant. Then the Kensington site became available and after some tough negotiations, we signed the lease! My gut feel told me it was now or never! So now that it was really becoming a reality, I couldn’t get this done working on it only on the weekends.
ES: Has your background as a banker been valuable in helping you operate Romulo Café?
RR: Yes it has definitely been valuable. The training, skill set and disciplines I acquired during my banking career has really helped me manage the day-to-day operations of the company. Firstly, having a financial background has allowed me to manage the bookkeeping, accounts, P&L of the company with ease. Having run a global business at JPMorgan, I gained experience in operations, start-up projects, business management, people management, product development etc. to name a few – all skills which I have been able to apply in the restaurant.
ES: What has been the biggest challenge in this industry and how did you overcome it?
RR: The restaurant business is quite challenging and competitive and requires long, long hours of sacrifice and personal time. “As much as people would like to think the restaurant industry is glamorous, it is more than anything a hardworking business. Beyond providing great food, wine, and service, your job is to make someone you don’t even know happy. “
To meet this challenge, we have tried to:
– design and create a physical environment, atmosphere and ambience that is universally appealing, resembling a ‘comfortable Filipino home’ as the enjoyment of our cuisine is indelibly linked with this experience.
– preparing good quality, Filipino comfort food and drink, beautifully presented – Produce is carefully selected and both Filipino ingredients and local British sources used wherever possible. The dishes need to be carefully plated, using the standards of the best London restaurants as a benchmark. Moreover, by not shying away from the claim that this is the ‘Romulo family version’ of Filipino favourites, guests are enlightened to the fact that there are differences and twists to dishes such as ‘adobo’, ‘relleno’ and ‘kare-kare’ wherever one goes.
– The final secret – “No slacking!” My team and I work extremely hard, seven days a week to offer a service that showcases the best of Filipino hospitality. The Filipino and international staff are trained to serve people from all walks of life and cultural backgrounds with an equal sense of pride, dignity and respect. Training is on-going, as customer expectations — of both food and service — are now extremely high.
ES: Before Romulo Café opened in London; what were some of the goals you established for the restaurant, and do you feel you have achieved what you wanted to accomplish on the first year?
RR: From the outset, the vision was to create a family restaurant and dining experience that could hold its own and compete in London, one of the gastronomic capitals of the world. It was also meant to be, in its own small way, a showcase for the Philippines, its food, culture and people.
Until recently, it’s fair to say that Filipino cuisine was not on the map in Britain but instead still firmly rooted in the Pearl of the Orient.
In a year since opening in March 2016, I believe we have put Filipino cuisine firmly on London’s foodie map – winning the Time Out Love London award for most loved restaurant in Kensington, a four-star out of five review from Timeout critics, 3 X Opentable Diner’s Choice Award and inclusion in Harden’s Best UK Restaurants 2017.
Furthermore Filipino food and service is now being covered relatively widely in the communications space (e.g. Time Out, Square Meal, The Caterer, The Kensington, Good Things, The Resident, London Visitors, Sainsbury’s Magazine, The Independent) catching the attention of trend-spotters and trend setters.
ES: Do you feel the need to keep up with food trends?
RR: Yes, it is important to keep abreast of the latest trends to continue to remain relevant in this industry. For example, the original cocktails we serve using Filipino mixes and liquors, have been immensely popular (e.g. ‘Batangas Bad Boy’, ‘Imelda’s High heels’). It is equally important not to be afraid to try new things; never standing still!!
ES: Do you keep up on social media as a means to promote your business?
RR: Yes social media is key for us and we are active on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
ES: What is the most popular dish on the menu, do you know why that is?
RR: It changes every month but I would say that the all-time favourites are Crispy Pata, Kare-Kare and Pancit Bihon Guisado simply because it brings comfort and a taste of home.
ES: For a first-timer or anyone who wants to get a sense of what Romulo Café is all about, what would you recommend? And why?
RR: I would recommend our signature dishes (I.e. The dishes with a name beside it) because these are the family heirloom recipes that we are proud of and dishes that I enjoyed growing up with in our family compound in Manila
ES: For the years to come, what do you want Romulo Café London to be known for?
RR: I want Romulo London to be the Filipinos “home away from home” where people feel cosy and relaxed as if dining in the comfort of their own homes, a place to celebrate all occasions (weddings, birthdays, anniversaries) and if you love Filipino food, this is the place to get your fix!
ES: If you could create your own motto in life, what would it be?
RR: “We are never too old, nor is it ever too late to start from scratch. All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them. Nothing is impossible. The impossible only takes time.”
Rowena, thank you so much for sharing with us your story.
• Photographs: courtesy of Rowena Romulo.
• Here’s the link to Romulo Café. They have deals for ‘London Food Month’, and I’d highly recommend you try the ‘Philippine Islands Cocktails and Tapas.’