AFTER merely a year of operations, “glorified turo-turo” restaurant concept Bench Café, is set to open more locations within the year after its second branch opened in Greenbelt 3, Makati City this month and the success it garnered at the flagship branch in Bonifacio Global City (BGC)in Taguig.
“Our first store was at the Bench flagship store in BGC. We’re on the second floor with very minimal visibility… but despite that, once you go up you’ll see people waiting for lunch and for dinner and it seems like the people that are around are returning customers and that’s a good indication for a restaurant,” Eric Dee, COO of FOODEE Global Concepts, told BusinessWorld over a lunch event on Jan. 30 at the Greenbelt 3 branch.
The reason the concept works, said Mr. Dee, was because of how strong the brand is and the following that Bench has accumulated over the years.
Bench Café is done in partnership with Suyen Corp. which operates the Bench apparel brand and restaurants including Marugame Udon, Maisen, and St. Marc Café and FOODEE Global Concepts which brought international brands such as Hawker Chan and Tim Ho Wan to the country.
“We opened our second branch to celebrate our first year and we opened without even doing any marketing — but if you see people walk outside and they see Bench Café they think, ‘this is for me’ even though it might look a bit intimidating for the Bench crowd, they will be like ‘this is Bench, I can afford this,’” Mr. Dee explained.
And this is exactly why the concept, which he called “glorified turo-turo” after the roadside eateries in the Philippines, was created — the restaurant’s menu was crafted with Bench customers in mind.
“When we were doing the first store, [we played around with] being fancy but we [realized] that this wasn’t for the Bench consumer so we really had to think about what we wanted to serve,” he said.
The Bench Café, with its well-lit, industrial-yet-tropical interiors, offers a menu that takes its cues from Japanese bento boxes and reimagines it to present Filipino combo meals which usually includes one meat entree, a vegetable dish, and rice, with prices ranging from P239 for Inasal na liempo and gising-gising (barbecued pork belly with a dish of finely chopped winged beans, ground pork, and coconut milk) to P439 for US Angus beef bistek (beef braised in a mixture of citrus, soy sauce, onions, and garlic), Inihaw na pusit (barbecued squid) and gising-gising.
All Bench/To meals come with salsa and Ifugao rice.
During the lunch, the press tried out some of the menu’s bestsellers as crafted by executive chef Carlo Miguel.
One of the standouts was the Inasal na liempo. Inasal is a typically chicken grilled over coals and marinated with a combination of annatto (achuete) seeds, calamansi (a small local citrus), pepper, and vinegar but Mr. Miguel decided to use pork belly and the result was a very tender pork dish with all the flavors that make inasal a classic: the perfect combination of acidity, salt, and umami.
Another favorite was the dilis fried rice which uses a butterflied dried anchovy variant sans the sometimes hard backbone, mixed with garlic rice which makes for a crunchy, salty, and overall good accompaniment to any dish. Bench/To plates can be upgraded include dilis rice for an additional P20.
Mr. Miguel pointed out that the Bagnet kare-kare — deep-fried pork belly stewed in peanut sauce, which is priced at P315 and includes Tortang talong, eggplant omelet — is an all-around crowd favorite and it’s easy to see why as the crunchy, fatty pork complements the peanut sauce and the mild bagoong alamang (fermented shrimp paste).
For merienda (mid-afternoon snack), Bench Café offers Mais con yelo (P89) or corn in shaved ice, White halo-halo (P119) or coconut shaved ice with macapuno, garbanzos, caramelized banana, coconut ice cream, leche flan, and nata de coco (coconut jelly), among others and this writer really enjoyed the White halo-halo because the ice used has an almost ice cream-like texture and is infused with coconut so that you don’t really need to mix (thus the name halo-halo) the dish a lot just to get flavor in your ice.
Bench Café is set to open five branches including outlets at TriNoma in Quezon City, Ermita in Manila, and the Bay Area in Pasay City.
Aside from the full-service restaurant concept, Mr. Dee is also toying with the idea of creating a smaller version of Bench Café which only offers the merienda menu, especially the halo-halo. — Zsarlene B. Chua