During my two-week workation in Angeles City, Pampanga last month, I discovered about the many new coffee shops around. My best friend, who lives there, confirmed to me that most of these are just new, having opened just last year, if not this year.
Driving around Angeles City, it would not be so hard to notice. It reminded me a lot when I was in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam some years back, where nearly every street has a neighborhood café. Angeles City, too, now has a lot of coffee shops everywhere that I started feeling high just thinking about it. Surely it is not a coincidence that many locals just decided simultaneously that they would like to open a café, right? I have been to other parts of the Philippines recently, too, but they do not have the same rising trend that Angeles City has.
What is up?
Maybe it would help to look at three factors to this growing café sprawl: history, design, and the actual coffee itself.
A look at Filipinos’ love affair with coffee
First, Filipinos have always had a creamy history and affinity with coffee. Accounts of how coffee arrived in the Philippines vary from literature to literature. Some accounts say that it was introduced by the Spaniards in the 1700s in Lipa, Batangas (which, of course, is known for their strong kapeng barako). Some say that it may have come via the backdoor from Malaysia and Indonesia through Sulu.
Regardless, coffee had the same purpose for every Filipino across the country. “It was a nice hot drink to warm the stomach of common people like fisherfolk, while it was a social drink – introduced along with the concept of merienda or afternoon snacks by the Spanish – for most of the others,” explained Pacita Juan, president of the Philippine Coffee Board, Inc. “It was consumed as brewed coffee cooked in big pots of water, boiled then served.”
The actual coffee that Filipinos consumed has evolved through the years. Juan said, “We have gone from brewed to instant that was brought by the Americans in the 1950s, and then to roast, and then to ground again as they were re-introduced by coffee chains in the 1990s. Now, it has evolved to specialty coffee, too.” Until later, in more recent history, international coffee chains like Starbucks (which opened its first branch in the Philippines in 1997, at 6750 Ayala Building in Makati) joined the increasing local coffee chains like Bo’s and Figaro, making Filipinos even more aware of coffee-drinking.
That seems to be similar to the current trend in Angeles City; the introduction of a new coffee shop would spark more interest from the people in the community, eventually calling for higher demand for more coffee.
“Most local cafés have their signature drinks and Instagram-worthy spaces, which paved the way for a growing market of homegrown coffee shops,” observed Cham Hipolito, the sole proprietor of Amand Coffee Bar, which opened just last December 2020 in a private resort inside a quiet village in Angeles City.
“There is a great demand for coffee here because people are starting to appreciate coffee and cafés,” said the owner of Moon Café, which also started brewing coffee in December 2020. “Also, it helps people to connect after a long period of strict quarantine and lockdowns while observing safety precautions like social distancing, of course.”
For Reynan Intal, general manager of Sky Garden Café & Resto, which was officially established last year but opened its doors to customers in July 2021, they joined the coffee shop boom in Angeles City to take advantage of the increasing popularity of Clark, too, which is touted in the business industry as the next Bonifacio Global City.
"Many of our customers are from Manila because, geographically, Clark is in a strategic location – being near Manila and other neighboring provinces in the north," he explained. "It is not as crowded as Manila but is also not as quiet or as laid-back as the other provinces. There is that kind of mix that is very distinct to Clark."
Design matters, too
Second, with the sudden shift of many work from on-site to online or remote, many digital nomads have suddenly looked for places aside from their home where they can work. This sudden demand for more workplaces may have contributed to this instant café boom.
When I café-hopped during my two-week stay in Angeles City, one thing that I noticed in these new coffee shops is that their interiors and physical spaces are all well-maintained, like a neatly curated Instagram feed. I am not an architect nor am I a designer, but I could tell that the interiors wanted me – the customer – to feel things.
Urban Garden Café & Bistro, which first opened in November 2020, was packed with customers when I first came there with my friends. It was a Sunday. Yet, it did not feel crowded to me at all; I still found my time there relaxing – which ultimately served the purpose of why I came there in the first place. I could tell that the space was smartly designed to accommodate more people without them literally rubbing elbows with the others.
"The building in which the café is housed is a renovated 1988 building. The challenge that came with designing such was that the architects had to make sure to strike the delicate balance between aesthetics, functionality, and form while building in a pre-existing structure. Given that the café and the firm are as one meant that the architects had carte blanche with the design," explained a representative from Urban Garden. "Every part, even big or small, are details that were strategically crafted by its designers to bring an effective architectural experience within the café."
Amand, being located inside a private resort in a quiet village, has its own look, too, which is "experimental but curated, mature yet young-at-heart, a modern mind with a global taste," said Hipolito. With the help of interior designer JC Manalo; branding, digital marketing, and social media head Eugene David; her husband Carl Hipolito who handles the café's IT support; and their team of baristas, "we wanted to create a well-thought space focused on the guest experience – a warm space that is elevated yet casual."
The space is filled with materials such as wood, concrete, metal, and rattan to create warmth through natural textures. The coffee shop is also enveloped by natural light and lush greenery, so Hipolito's team decided to put glass doors and big windows to create an indoor-outdoor feel.
Both Moon Café and Sky Garden, meanwhile, are inspired by the coffee shops in South Korea – elegant, calming, cool, and minimalist.
“We opened Moon Café to add a different vibe to the city. Since it’s pandemic we want to make our customers feel like they’re traveling into a different place,” said the owner of Moon Café.
Unlike Moon Café, however, which is purposely designed to be smaller and more intimate, Sky Garden is more spacious by design, occupying the top three floors of a six-story building.
"We have got plenty of space for the customer’s liking — we have quiet nooks for those who would like to just read, study, or work in quiet while enjoying their coffee; big tables for family or barkada gatherings; al-fresco dining for those who would like some fresh air; and private rooms for meetings or intimate events," said Intal. “Now with the pandemic, people want to be in a café that is spacious where they can feel safe and properly observe social distancing, and that is what our space really tries to achieve.”
Seeing how these cafés subtly contribute to art and architectural appreciation among our visitors is already an esteem we highly value. It means that there would be more spaces that could be conducive to enriching art, conversation, and connections between people.Urban Garden Cafe & Bistro
Not only is the space purposeful and accommodating, but it is also highly inspired and curated, too. According to Intal, "We worked with a lot of people in the architecture industry to come up with a design that is almost similar to the coffee shops in South Korea; we want to give our customers a piece of South Korea when they are here."
For Urban Garden, being part of Angeles City’s growing café sprawl offers more excitement than discouragement. “Seeing how these cafés subtly contribute to art and architectural appreciation among our visitors is already an esteem we highly value," they said. “It means that there would be more spaces that could be conducive to enriching art, conversation, and connections between people."
More importantly, it is about the coffee
And, third, of course, is really just the availability of the customer’s coffee of choice. One thing that new coffee shop owners observed from their patrons is that customers’ coffee preferences highly differ, if not entirely evolved from previous or common choices. So, it has become even more important to continuously experiment and play with new aromas.
"Here at Amand, we always aim to continuously evolve and to keep offering our community new taste and experience. For instance, our beverage menu ranges from the classic Madagascar Cafe Latte to something experimental such as the Amand Signature Coffee," said Hipolito. "So, in curating a drink, we always try to maximize the taste profile of its ingredients. This is why at Amand, some of our staples are seasonal, depending on the best produce available in the market."
Today, Amand's bestsellers include the Madagascar Cafe Latte (whose vanilla pods are imported from East Africa), Double Caramel Macchiato, Popcorn Cafe Latte, Einspänner, and Amand Signature Coffee (three-spice blend, doppio and macadamia milk).
Moon Café also has a wide variety of offerings for customers' different palates. Among their bestsellers, they have got the Macadamia Latte for those who are not big fans of sweet coffee and the French Vanilla for those who like their coffee sweet. They are also playing with their food, too; some of their customer favorites include the Salted Egg Pasta and their signature dessert Moon Wallows (marshmallows with walnut cookie fillings and chocolate ganache).
For Urban Garden, it is also important to source their coffee beans locally "as an effort to try to work closely with the community and help in developing their products.” Local coffee beans are used in some, if not most, of their crowd favorites such as the Caramel Macchiato, White Chocolate Mocha, Hazelnut, Irish Cream Cold Brew, and Iced Americano, as well as in their signature drinks such as Affogato, Tomato Basil Ade, Irish Cream Cold Brews, and the rest of their Cold Brew Series.
Currently, they are at a constant development with their recipes by playing with different flavors in which they can accentuate coffee, especially as they are brewing plans to expand and open Urban Garden Floor 202 in the coming months.
For Juan of the Philippine Coffee Board, Inc., new coffee shops can certainly make use of the local coffee beans to support local farmers and producers. “We grow coffee in 22 regions where elevations and climate are perfect for coffee to thrive and grow. So, yes, we have enough coffee,” she said. “What we need more now is more awareness about the quality of coffee produced and the way it is harvested and processed so that people will learn to drink good and better coffee.”
For a very long time, Pinoys are always into coffee. Pinoys are really coffee people, even with humid weather – we can drink coffee, whether hot or cold, any time and any day.Reynan Intal, Sky Garden Cafe & Resto
These new coffee shops, despite being situated in the same city and targeting the same customers, do not see one another as a competition. It is worth noting that most of them categorize themselves as “community cafés” or “neighborhood cafés” which, in essence, means that they provide a space where people from all walks of life can convene, talk, exchange ideas, or simply relax with their coffee — all while straddling the lines between comfort, taste, and value.
“In the area that we are in, there are like four to six community cafés already,” said Intal of Sky Garden. “That’s good to fill the demand. After all, for a very long time, Pinoys are always into coffee. Pinoys are really coffee people, even with humid weather – we can drink coffee, whether hot or cold, any time and any day.”
That being said, we can never have too many cafés here in the Philippines.
Juju Z. Baluyot is a Manila-based writer who has written in-depth special reports, news features, and opinion-editorial pieces for a wide range of publications in the Philippines. He covers societies, cultures, and gender.