MANILA – It was a concept born out of an ever-growing demand for a unique food experience.
The past two years saw the rise of food parks, those open-air spaces normally in the form of container vans converted into kitchens, each promising to offer a different take on familiar flavors. It reached a point when there was a food park in every corner of the metro, from Quezon City to Marikina.
Lately, however, the food park is showing signs that it is dying out. Save for a few pioneers, many of them have closed down – or on the verge of closing – mainly because of lack of customers.
So, what went wrong?
ABS-CBN News asked industry experts to weigh in on why many food parks in Metro Manila have failed.
Here’s what they think:
1. BAD LOCATION
Perhaps one of the best persons to ask is RJ Ledesma, co-founder of the successful Mercato Centrale food market, which has several branches in Manila.
While he considers the food park an interesting concept that has a lot of potential, Ledesma stressed that its success depends largely on its location.
“Some of these food parks were not in the greatest areas. It was often a case of, what would I do with this idle property?” he said.
“Save maybe for the millennial market, many were not willing to go out of their way to [go to a food park]… And even the millennials, they most likely won’t come back after their first visit,” he continued. “There’s some sort of mystique for a hard-to-get location, but that mystique fades on your first visit, right? Unless the food is really something na babalik-balikan niyo.”
2. LACK OF PARKING SPACE
Accessibility is not just about having a good location, but also having enough parking spaces, said Ledesma, who noted that this can easily discourage customers.
This opinion was shared by GMB Franchise Developers president and founder Armando Bartolome, who is also a columnist at ABS-CBN News.
“A food park may only have the whole space for the food stalls and the dining area. Not anticipating the number of customers who come in their own vehicles, some people become discouraged because they do not have a place to park their cars,” he said.
3. POOR CURATION
What was initially an independent movement eventually felt “diluted” as the same lineup – sometimes even the same vendors – show up in multiple food parks, noted a former lifestyle writer who refused to be named.
“There came a point when it got pretty specific,” she said. “There’s always a stall that serves Japanese or Mexican or a combination of both, there’s a burger place, there are milkshakes and waffles, and also one that has fried or grilled seafood.”
“It didn’t feel new anymore, like there was already a formula in place,” she added. “There was no compelling reason to go from one food park to another.”
Ledesma, for his part, said: “The selection of the food is key. Sometimes, it looks good on Instagram but there’s nothing that really excels, nothing stands out… You’re just filling in the gap. For many of the food parks, the curation was not quite there.”
4. LACK OF ‘SPIRIT’
Many food parks in Metro Manila should turn to the hawker centers of Singapore for inspiration. They’re not exactly “Instagram-worthy,” but they offer authentic food at affordable prices.
“They don’t care if the presentation of the food is not as fancy,” said the ex-lifestyle writer. “The hawkers are hot and sometimes dirty, but you know that every dish there tells some sort of story. It has spirit, it has character.”
Ledesma spoke of this same “spirit,” saying that it is something that customers keep coming back for.
“Those who are really successful are entrepreneurs or cooks who are really into the food. It’s not just [about making money or following trends]… There’s a spirit behind it,” he said.
“Without that sort of vibe, it would be difficult for you to capture the market.”
5. LIMITED FACILITIES
Often overlooked by business owners, facilities like proper ventilation and shelter, security, and ample space for cooking and preparation can cause food parks to fail.
“Since there is just a small space provided for each merchant, the ability to provide more unique types of food becomes a problem. A food business may just be limited to use a stove, microwave, and a refrigerator,” Bartolome said.
“[If there’s no shelter during the rain], imagine how cramped the place can be for diners. Being trapped in a crowded place during the rain can be uncomfortable for them,” he added.
Ledesma, however, believes that a well-planned food park – or any outdoor establishment for that matter – will not be easily affected by weather changes.
“The Salcedo Market has been around for quite a long time. I don’t think it’s about that,” he said.