Congressional Avenue Extension in Quezon City used to be a dim, underdeveloped, and unremarkable highway that was only good for a shortcut on the way further up north from C5 or, with an abundance of carwash joints, to get your car sorted out. But in late 2015 the strip became an unlikely hotspot for the food park craze. From early trendsetters Boxpark to the extravagantly racing themed Pitstop, Congressional became food park central, the majority of its stretch jam-packed with parked cars and loitering customers.
Today, several former food park husks dot the road, which is also now pretty much clear of traffic at night. Boxpark, one of the first in 2015, transformed into a carwash and joined the rest of Congressional's original attractions. The highway now has a more sobering reputation as "that place na maraming nagsarang food park." They're not all gone, though: Open Kitchen—a relative latecomer that opened in September last year—still keeps the neon-lit foodie dream alive.
Is it too soon to call the food park totally dead—or is it only a matter of time?
"I would argue that it's not dying down because although yes, there are a lot that have closed down, but there also many that are doing really well—sa may Maginhawa Street [UP Village], and also us here at Congressional still. So it's just a bunch of different issues for food parks," says Felise Aurelio, property manager and co-owner of Open Kitchen, which also has a slightly younger but much bigger branch along P. Tuazon, Cubao.
"What happened kasi here in Congressional, was many closed down for a variety of reasons. One closed down because of the government permits, another closed down because it turned into an inuman place and food stalls didn't really earn much. Others didn't have parking," Aurelio says.
Speaking of parking, an infamous example of one seriously lacking was The Yard at Xavierville. It opened in July 2016 to much hype due to its novel-at-the-time container van construction and IG-friendly aesthetic. What followed was a lot of food posts and neon-drenched selfies—but also a lot of angry reactions about the traffic its visitors caused by taking up parking along Xavierville Avenue. Despite that, the place was constantly packed. It now stands as an empty lot. If Congressional was a tale of too many parks, The Yard was a park that seemed like it was too big to fail.
"Nagsara siya [because of problems] sa permits. Di rin siya na-renew because residential area nga. Because of heavy traffic, ganun. Tapos yung dinadalang noise ng mga guests, so medyo nagkaroon lang ng problema," says Lyan Jose, assistant food park manager at The Yard's Timog branch, which opened in November 2017. "Hindi naman [nalugi]," Jose says.
Parking is an obvious no-brainer. "It's so easy to get turned off from going to a food park if there is no ample parking," Aurelio says. That is why in our P. Tuazon branch, we have 200 parking spaces and then here [in Congressional] we have additional parking two lots down."
Jose also says that getting permits has now become harder to acquire.
"This year madaming new rules na nilatag ang [Quezon City] local government for food parks. Example, yung water analysis—dati water analysis parang every sem lang, ngayon every month kailangan magpa-water analysis lahat or else wala. Mas mahigpit sila ngayon sa food park kasi talagang kino-consider na nila."
Is the appetite still there?
Both Aurelio of Open Kitchen and Jose of The Yard agree that the craze has passed, reaching its peak around two years ago, but there is potential yet. There are already parks in less "mainstream" cities like Antipolo and Marikina but we can go even farther.
"It's becoming a big thing in the provinces now kasi it was mainly a Metro Manila thing, right? But now, so many food parks are opening in provinces. I've been to Palawan and Cebu, and they have food parks there," Aurelio says.
Jose has also observed the same.
"Actually, mayroon akong nakausap na tenant, sabi niya nagulat din siya kasi ang laki ng kita niya sa province—mas malaki kaysa rito sa metro. And madami pa ring [hindi nakaka-experience ng food park]. Kahit papaano nakakagulat din kasi nga 2016 pa—2018 na ngayon pero madami pa ring first-timer. Ang maganda kasi sa food park, hindi siya nae-enclose sa ganitong [specific] market, or sa ganitong age bracket, usually dito, iba-iba. During weekends—Friday, Saturday, iba yung crowd. Sunday, halos puro family."
However, there is still that hard-to-shake feeling that "linalangaw na ang mga food parks" whenever you pass by one that looks more half-empty than half-full—but it could also be an effect of parks just being big places in general. "Syempre may mga influx, may mga peak days, ganun, like any other business naman. Yung ibang park naman dati kaya parang puno kasi maliit lang, hindi siya ganon kalaki. But this one is really big so kahit madaming tao, parang 'uy, walang tao' pero madaming tao, alam mo yun?" Jose says. When FHM visited to shoot at The Yard in Timog and Open Kitchen in Congressional sometime past 9 p.m. on a weekday, both parks were filled with several dozen people.
An additional draw some food parks now offer are events and entertainment to go with the food. The Yard has free nightly screenings drive-in movie style, while Open Kitchen has monthly events with Comedy Manila and acoustic nights.
"Yes, [I think having events is something food parks need to do], because surprisingly–and we didn't even think that it would drive people here–we've had more people coming over when they expect a certain singer to be performing on that particular night," Open Kitchen’s Aurelio says. "And there are really more people on comedy nights—that's a huge success for us because we’re really packed during those nights." Aurelio adds.
Viable business or fading fad?
"Siguro for some people pwede siyang accurate [that food parks are dying]," The Yard's Jose says. "It depends talaga. Pero kahit sabihin na patay na yung fad, kung tumagal naman ng ganun yung fad, tingin ko hindi na siya fad. Parang kasama na siya sa industry ng food and beverage. Kumbaga, hindi na siya mawawala."
But what about Return of Investment (ROI), the all-important metric of how good money is made? The sad sight of closed food parks may be enough reason for budding entrepreneurs to give up on the idea of becoming a tenant at a food park, or running a food park altogether.
But to Aurelio and Jose, who are out in the frontlines running food parks that are still alive and well, the numbers continue to be promising.
"The average ROI—I wouldn’t even say average because it's just from talks with some people so I don’t know the whole pie—but it's usually six months." As for the food park owners themselves, "That maybe will take more than a year or two. Maybe two years," Aurelio says.
"Siguro pag titingnan ko siya as a businessman, kahit papaano mas mabilis [the ROI] kasi yung investment hindi kasing laki—like when you open a full-blown restaurant. You only rent stalls tapos yung mga gamit mo kaunti lang. Yung initial investment mo is definitely small, so definitely, yung ROI mas mabilis," Jose says.
We approached some experienced tenants to see if these expectations matched their reality.
"I think it's semi-accurate. The Yard at Xavierville was one of a kind before—one of the first Instagrammable food parks. Almost all tenants nag-ROI in four months. I would think after that, [hitting it in] six months would be ideal...yun yung naririnig ko sa mga food park na usually first to open sa isang area—like my friends at Carnival Food Park in Marikina," shares Elise*, a stall owner who joined the craze early on.
But Elise also personally experienced the downside of a food park scene that had reached a saturation point, "Marami rin lugi like this food park in Pasig. Unfortunately, opening our branch there was the worst decision—that time super duper daming nagbukas, so it was a matter of carefully choosing the best. Dun ko lang nalaman that good location and malinis na set up will never match up to a 'millenial' feel and aggressive marketing."
Louie*, a co-owner of a stall with branches in several parks, also agrees with the estimate.
"Yes, kaya [six months], pero depende sa food park and concept mo and also—for me—number one talaga is landlord mo, dapat okay sila. Yung owner ng isang park where we opened medyo may ugali lang, another recent one naman okay sila—pero walang experience [sa management].”
"Kumita kami, pero with the long-term in mind, pinullout namin kaagad kasi tingin namin short term business lang sa food park," Louie adds.
With the scene now matured, Aurelio advises that entrepreneurs keep it real. "We want to be fertile ground for new entrepreneurs—low barriers to entry, right? But at the same time some of them get disheartened when they don't get the money back in one month or two months, so that's why some of them are closed [right now]. Like, no matter how we try to help them, some of them are disheartened if they don't get [their money] back in that time period. So that's the con of having these first-timers—because they are not as patient, I guess."
"I really hope [food parks live on] kasi maganda yung ino-offer ng food park itself, hindi lang sa consumers, pero sa entrepreneurs din kasi," Jose says. "Like I said, in relation dun sa ROI, entrepreneurs also have a chance for a fair market. Na hindi porket bago ka, [kailangan mo gumawa ng standalone]. Medyo mahirap kasi kapag standalone. At least ito, kahit papaano, you have the name of The Yard. Kahit papaano may katulong ka sa marketing, sa mga events. So I really hope talaga na food parks will continue, na hindi lang talaga siya maituturing na fad. Kasi parang kawawa rin, nakakalungkot kapag nawala yung food park, paano na yung mga entrepreneurs na pwedeng mag-upscale?"
One such success story would be Above Sea Level, a seafood stall known for its giant butterfly squid. What started as a single stall in The Yard's Pasig branch now has close to 30 branches and counting. And, yes, almost all of those are in other food parks.
This story originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of FHM Philippines.
Minor edits were made by the FHM.com.ph editors.
Photography Mark Jesalva