Mercado Del Rio is an online lifestyle marketplace that connects Ilonggo buyers to local producers (left); young business mover Paolo Dajas Santos’s group launched the small upstart DLVR.
Food & Drink Features

How ingenuity and social media savvy allowed these Ilonggo businesses to thrive in a pandemic

“Seeking new creative solutions is essentially the secret to how a business will survive and thrive even through this pandemic."  
Rhick Lars Vladimer Albay | Nov 21 2020

“There’s a piece of sage advice from my grandfather that I find myself coming back to during tough times,” says Ilonggo entrepreneur Allan Ryan Tan. “He told us the Chinese word for crisis is made up of two characters: One standing for danger, the other for opportunity. Facing down even the hardest hurdles and toughest odds, there’s an underlying opportunity if you choose to learn from it.” 

The 34-year-old Tan is a third-generation Filipino-Chinese businessman. He took over the reins of the family-owned boutique hotel, Hotel Del Rio, over a decade ago when he was just in his early 20s. Established in 1965, Hotel del Rio is a household name among Ilonggos. The moniker (which translates from Spanish to “of the river”) was inspired by its location’s unique vantage point—it is one of the few hospitality establishments in the city that offers a stunning view of the Iloilo River. 

Interest in Mercado Del Rio quickly spread through word-of-mouth via social media, a first bulk batch quickly selling out in the matter of a day, the initiative helping marginalized farmers from Guimaras, Leon, and Alimodian to sustain their livelihood despite the pandemic. Photo from Hotel Del Rio

But even with this feature, plus a standing claim that it is one of the oldest heritage hotels in the city, Hotel Del Rio was not spared from the economic downturn brought about by COVID-19. The hotel had to shut down much of its operations early into the community quarantine, like many other businesses. With Iloilo being a top tourist spot, an emerging MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions) hub, and a gateway to the countless destinations Panay and Western Visayas has to offer, whole sectors of the local economy screeched to a halt.

“We were contemplating and truly we almost closed,” Tan tells ANCX. But despite zero occupancy in March, Hotel Del Rio forged ahead. Tan smartly moved resources and manpower to serve Del Rio Delivers – a “gourmet on the go” service that brought the hotel’s signature dishes like their classic Lechon Belly and unmatched Paella Del Prado right at their patron’s doorstep. 

The true breakthrough, however, came serendipitously in the form of Mercado Del Rio. A few weeks into the extended quarantine, it became increasingly difficult for local farmers to transport their produce to the city. Meanwhile, Ilonggos in the metro were having a hard time buying fresh fruits and vegetables from public markets and groceries without fear of getting COVID. Tan was approached by one of their regular suppliers about these problems.

Third-generation Filipino-Chinese Ilonggo businessman Allan Ryan Tan and his son share a growing passion for food. Photo from Hotel Del Rio

“We knew very well the struggles of our suppliers during that time because we were going through the same thing,” the businessman recalls. “The mayor of Alimodian [one of Iloilo Province’s rural towns] then asked if we could display their produce at our hotel.”

Through this exchange of ideas, Mercado Del Rio was hatched. It is an online lifestyle marketplace that connected Ilonggo buyers to local producers in both upland and lowland Iloilo Province. The initiative had fair trade and effective social distancing in mind. Customers would pre-order fruits and produce through the hotel’s online page, and opt to either have their order delivered directly to their homes or have the option of driving to the hotel and having their shopping cart loaded onto their car—no need to step out of their vehicle.

Interest in Mercado Del Rio quickly spread through word-of-mouth and via social media. Their first batch of produce quickly sold out in one day. To this day, the initiative helps marginalized farmers from Guimaras, Leon, and Alimodian sustain their livelihood despite the pandemic. Hotel Del Rio is now even branching out to potted plants and herbs and other home-grown products.

Despite their zero occupancy in March, Hotel Del Rio forged ahead, pivoting their resources and manpower toward Del Rio Delivers – a “gourmet on the go” service that brought the storied hotel’s beloved signature dishes like their Lechon Belly and  Paella Del Prado. Photo from Hotel Del Rio

“The Mercado saved our employees from losing their jobs,” beamed Tan. “Our housekeeping staff became baggers, our front desk and sales personnel accepted and organized orders. It helped us empower our employees and retain them  despite the difficult time.”

The adjustments have been a learning experience. “At the end of the day it's not really about how much you earn, but it's making a difference and keeping that positivity alive in you even during this difficult time,” Tan continues. 

As quarantine rules eased in Iloilo City in June, Tan decided to make the Mercado a permanent fixture in the hotel lobby. It offers fresh homegrown produce and other necessities, as well as innovative products Hotel Del Rio has come up with their Ready to Heat, Ready to Eat dishes, the hotel's first foray into pre-cooked and packaged frozen food, introducing a variety of products that includes their Lechon Sisig, Callos, and Adobo Ilonggo. There is aso their “BeTheChef” line, which are essentially ready-to-cook meals. 

The novel quality products include their Ready to Heat, Ready to Eat dishes, Hotel Del Rio’s first foray into pre-cooked and packaged frozen food, introducing a variety of products such as their talk-of-the-town Lechon Sisig, Callos, and Adobo Ilonggo, among others. Photo from Hotel Del Rio

‘Innovate or sink’

In a study by the Iloilo Economic Development Foundation, Inc. (ILEDF) in mid-June, in cooperation with the Iloilo City Government and Global Shapers Iloilo, it reports that the general sentiment of most businesses in the city remained largely optimistic.

Of the more than 200 micro, small, medium, and large business owners surveyed, 89.4 percent believed the Iloilo economy will remain strong, although the likelihood of decreased investments in the next 12 months compared to the previous year is acknowledged.

This positivity is most likely buoyed by the private sector’s confidence in the local government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis in the city. Despite the impact of the health crisis, Iloilo City was still recognized as the Most Business-Friendly Local Government Unit (LGU) outside Metro Manila by the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry during the 46th Philippine Business Conference held in October. The city was the only LGU in the Visayas that received the citation. Iloilo City was also heralded as the Most Business-Friendly Highly Urbanized City in 2019.

However, a major takeaway from the ILEDF’s study is that businesses here concede that no matter how long it takes for the economy to recover, businesses will neve go back to the way things were pre-Covid. More than 50 percent of the respondents believe that technology and digital platforms will continue to be vital in connecting with suppliers, customers, and financiers. Putting high importance on digitization and innovation will likely define business prospects in the next 12 months, determining who will sink and who will float in this new climate.

An Ilonggo favorite, the homegrown JP Burger Project is one of DLVR’s partners. Photo from DLVR

‘Connecting businesses to the Ilonggos’

This is a point that young business mover Paolo Dajas Santos’s group and startup wholeheartedly agree on. A marketing officer by profession, the 26-year-old Santos launched the small upstart DLVR in early June, a business-facing provider that gives local micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) access to door-to-door delivery services, at the fraction of the cost of their larger app-based competitors.

“Seeking new creative solutions is essentially the secret to how a business will survive and thrive even through this pandemic,” Santos told ANCX. “With the downsizing brought about by COVID-19, now most businesses are small again, back to square one, so in a way, it’s a leveled playing field. Now more than ever, everyone has an opportunity to enter the market as long as you have a newfound idea.

Aiming to empower homegrown Ilonggo MSMEs, DLVR is different in that the consumer is still directly interacting and contacting a business when ordering – as the startup acts only as a delivery service and not as middleman. It’s worth noting that partnering with DLVR does not require small businesses thousands of pesos to apply as a merchant, or acquire a prerequisite device. DLVR's delivery fees also predominantly go to the riders, Santos explains, revealing that some of their personnel were workers formerly entrenched early into the lockdowns, now finding a new means to provide for their families.

The surprise hit venture, The Sushi Box, is run by business partners Ilonggas Jenny Ramos and Myrene Piccio. Photo from The Sushi Box

“Working also as marketing manager for a mall here in Iloilo, I saw how homegrown business struggled at the beginning of the pandemic, especially when there was a lot of uncertainty,” the innovator Santos said. “Most of these small businesses could not afford the fees of mainstream delivery companies and didn’t have the funds or resources to hire in-house riders themselves. With DLVR, we sought to provide them low overhead delivery services, at the fraction of the cost, but with the same level of quality assurance.”

DLVR was founded in early June this year by Santos and four of his friends, all of them young professionals between the ages of 23 to 26 based in Iloilo City. From a group of five, the number of partners have risen to nearly 40 – ranging from local milk tea shops to home bakeries to Ilonggo favorites like JD Burger Project and Pancit Pancit. DLVR was also recently instrumental to the success of an innovative drive-thru Streetfood Night Market held at City Time Square – Iloilo.

“The challenge now is connecting businesses to their customers, by providing local entrepreneurs and small upstarts like us a means to easily reach the Ilonggos. We see it also as giving back to the community,” Santos mused. “We envision growing alongside our partners, and empowering them to their full potential.”

The Sushi Box sells assorted creative maki sushi rolls at very affordable prices. Photo from The Sushi Box

Already a success story among DLVR’s many partners is The Sushi Box, run by business partners Jenny Ramos and Myrene Piccio. The Ilongga duo has been managing their own milk tea shop Addictea since June 2019. Barely a year into their operations, however, the women hit a roadblock with the onset of the pandemic. With the lockdown barring them from operating from the store they were leasing at a community mall in Iloilo City Proper, they decided in the meantime to start running their business from their home in Molo, Iloilo. Then in April, serendipity came into play and they unwittingly stumbled upon a business that would boom overnight: The Sushi Box.

“We never expected it to grow so fast in so little time,” Piccio tells ANCX. “We always made and experimented with sushi recipes for our own enjoyment at home, and sometimes for our guests – trying out different flavors, fillings, and toppings for sushi. Our friends and family surprisingly really liked what we came up with. It came to the point that our friends were begging us to sell them, so they could enjoy it more frequently. So we did, and the overwhelming response surprised us.”

The Sushi Box sells assorted creative maki sushi rolls at very affordable prices. It helps that at the time of its launch, no other local businesses were offering sushi dishes for delivery – the now-viral sushi bake fad wasn’t even a thing then. The Sushi Box now has six branches in Iloilo alone, and ten branches around Panay. It has even branched outside the region, the farthest being a stall in Pagadian in Davao Oriental.

“Social media has truly been part of our success, it has brought us to where we are now,” admits the entrepreneur Piccio. “On the first week of the lockdown, we were worried since the Enhanced Community Quarantine required us to close our stores. What we’ve learned from this experience is to be always open to new ideas. If there’s an opportunity, grab it, take the risk, don’t second guess yourself. You can always think of creative solutions for how you can cope with any challenging situation.”

Originally just a venture run from home, The Sushi Box now has six branches in Iloilo alone, and ten branches around Panay. It has even branched outside the region, the farthest being an outlet Pagadian in Davao Oriental. Photo from The Sushi Box

“Most importantly, be sure you’re selling a quality product. Because when you’re banking on quality, it’s the customers themselves who will promote your product,” she concludes.

Piccio reveals it has also tremendously helped businesses that Iloilo City has a strong-willed local government they can trust, citing Mayor Jerry Treñas’ move to decisively allow food deliveries and the transport of essential consumer goods to go unhampered early into the lockdown. Treñas on social media recently expressed the need to balance the interest of the business sector with the need to safeguard public health, to not stifle and irreparably devastate the local economy.

“We cannot deny that there is still a number of active COVID-19 cases in our city, but we cannot afford to hamper business operations since our local economy has been greatly affected, and there is a need for us to come up with initiatives to recover,” the mayor said. “We cannot boost our local economy at the expense of the health of our people, but rather, we need to have a balance, and inspire a win-win situation where businesses can thrive without sacrificing everyone’s health,” Treñas expressed in another post.

With COVID-19 cases now again gradually sloping downwards in the city, it looks like business in Iloilo City is headed in the right direction.