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All Eyes On Margarita Fores

All Eyes On Margarita Fores

Special Features | March 17, 2021
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Margarita “Gaita” Fores on the state of the F&B industry and food trends for 2021.

Almost a year ago to date, renowned restaurateur and Asia Best Female Chef (in 2016) Margarita “Gaita” Fores returned to Manila after a four-hands collaboration with Chef Lennox Hastie of Firedoor in Sydney. Only days prior, news broke out that cities around the world were going on lockdown. When actor Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson also announced that they, too, had contracted the virus while in Australia, the reality of a pandemic became real. It told many of us that the virus was not just a static or news item. It reminded us that celebrity or otherwise, everyone was and continues to be susceptible.

For Gaita who was travelling from Australia, it hit even closer to home. As she disembarked the aircraft in Manila, she set foot on ghost town. She recalled, “The government announced lockdowns on March 15 and my flight back was a few days after.” Since that day, the F&B industry and life as we know it, has never been the same.

The series of unprecedented events led to inspired pivots, new passions, and life long lessons that would forever change the way we dine and partake in a meal. What Margarita Fores describes as the “ball from left field,” also shaped the new dining movements and trends leading us in 2021.

Serving homes instead of tables

When lockdowns were first imposed, it was uncertain how long it would last. Similarly, the impact it would create on businesses were unknown. Margarita Fores had to think and act on her feet. She had 16 CIBO outlets, CIBO di Marghi Signature Caterer, The Commissary, A Mano, Lusso and Grace Park to keep afloat. “We were caught off guard.  Our primary concern was the safety of our people. We did not want to comprise on that and had to figure out a way to get them to work especially with public transport being suspended.”

It took two weeks for Gaita and her team to set up an efficient and reliable delivery and pick up system. She explained, “We opened two branches to service the north and south. The Gateway Branch serviced homes in the north then we opened SM Aura for those living in the south.” While most food outlets and restaurants crowded third-party delivery apps, Gaita built her own delivery crew and logistics. “We wanted to give work to our employees who were working in branches that were still closed. The delivery team would give them this opportunity to work. By foregoing third party apps that took commission from our sales, we also improved our bottom lines.” 

They also set up their own digital portal and delivery phone line, allowing clients to call in for their favorite dishes with ease. Gaita remembers, “We got five seats from the call center of Pizza Hut to service CIBO clients. We also worked double time to get the website up and running. I’m a dinosaur when it comes to tech, but my son, nephews and nieces gave us ideas to help develop digital.” Margarita Fores is a little less intimidated these days when it comes to technology. After a year of Zoom meetings and running several businesses via satellite, she now appreciates the benefits of living in the digital world—minor camera glitches and connectivity issues included.

From catering to curating intimate dinners

Gaita also developed a take out menu for Cibo di Marghi Signature Caterer. With events, parties and other get-togethers on indefinite hold, Gaita decided to bring favorites from her catering business to homes of patrons. They created a takeout menu to enhance smaller and more intimate celebrations at home. Charcuterie platters as well as the brand’s signature Caramelized Camembert with cashews, figs, almonds, walnuts and mango were popular choices for wine night while in quarantine. 

Birthdays, anniversaries, milestones and Sunday lunches were made more special with specialties like Savory Crepe Cake with Mushroom Truffle, Asparagus and Prosciutto as a well as the sinfully delicious Braised Bone Marrow Crusted US Angus Dinosaur Short Rib. Options that can be enjoyed on any day of the week included Organic Roast Chicken stuffed with Orzo rice and Pinoli paired with signature Penne ala Telefono al forno or Classic Beef Ragu Lasagna. 

Margarita Fores added, “I also realized that people were looking to improve their homes and spaces. This inspired us to create floral arrangements that clients could use as a centerpiece or gifts to let loved ones know they are special.” The entrepreneur and chef herself confessed that time in lockdown gave her the chance to work on re-organizing and improving her own private space. She confided, “Prior to COVID, I was travelling and moving non stop. The past year allowed me to appreciate staying at home, fixing it up and more importantly, connecting with loved ones.”

Margarita fores

Going into retail and exploring ramen kits

Apart from delivery and take out options, Gaita has also entered into retail and food kits. While food deliveries are great alternatives to dining out, certain dishes are still best served fresh and hot. Take for instance CIBO’s famous Pizza Romana—a bready rectangular focaccia topped with four cheeses or salami picante. 

Just recently, Margarita Fores and her team rolled out frozen versions of the dish in Shopwise outlets and Robinsons Supermarkets. “It’s so easy to prepare, plus you get the same fresh flavors that you usually enjoy in our outlets. Just pop in the oven for a few minutes and serve.” She also revealed that the best-selling Iced Tea from CIBO will soon hit the retail shelves. “So now, you can grab your favorite iced tea on-the-go when you do a pit stop in your nearest convenience store. We will also be available in stores located along the highways so when you head out of town, you can grab our beverages.”

She and her son, Amado, also teamed up with Ramen Ron to offer ready-to-eat dishes and food kits by legendary Chef Tamura. Before the influx of ramen hubs around the metro, there was Ukokkei Ramen Ron. “He was the first one, way before all the other ramen concepts started popping up. I also remember that he was so strict about take outs and left overs,” remembered Gaita. The mother-and-son thought to collaborate with the beloved ramen house to offer patrons fresh, umami flavors within the comforts of their homes. “We’re so happy to be working with him because he really is the best. We are also currently working on opening a new restaurant for the brand. We’ve also rehired his old staff and it’s been an additional to our income stream.”

Sustainable options inspired by the deep sea

Time for reboot also allowed Margarita Fores to focus on new hobbies, passions and health. During her cover shoot, Gaita stunned in a Bea Valdez top and pencil skirt that were several sizes down. “I’ve lost 23 lbs in the past year,” she beamed. While working out with a trainer has always been a part of her daily agenda, travel and a packed calendar pre-2020 kept her from sticking to a strict regimen. “Since I now work with my trainer digitally, I don’t really have a reason to miss out on a work out, let alone run late. My workouts are also now more consistent. I’ve also decided to do intermittent fasting. I start eating at 3PM then stop by 11PM cause I’m a late-night muncher.” 

She has also recently gotten into diving, which is something that she never imagined she would thoroughly enjoy. “I have a fear of the ocean. It was during my first out of town trip after lockdown when I finally decided to give diving a try. It’s a completely different world down there and it’s also inspired my craft in countless ways. The colors of the ocean are definitely going to inspire how I plate my dishes” she elaborated and added, “I certainly have a deeper appreciation for underwater life now. There is a new found respect for life that is rare and precious. This is something that I’ll be taking with me as I create new dishes.” Margarita Fores is currently working to get certified so she can get to know the deep sea better.

Opening opportunities outdoors

Margarita Fores confided that food outlets located inside malls struggle in comparison to those with options for dining outdoors. “Diners feel more safe when they dine in places with open spaces. Our best performing branches that were located inside malls no longer do as well as those with outdoor areas,” she confirmed. 

This inspired the opening of her new food concept at restored pre-war mansion Palacio de Memoria called The Loggia. The idea was to create a new dining experience amidst a sprawling garden and stunning heritage architecture nearby Intramuros. Gaite explained, “With more people looking to do activities outdoors like visiting Intramuros and the Metropolitan Museum, we want to be the culinary destination or pit stop for that area. We also love that it has a beautiful garden so we’ve set up patios like the ones you see in Italy.” Gaita and her team has also signed on to be the exclusive caterer for intimate events held at the venue. 

The Loggia’s menu is decidedly simple but bursting with flavors. Dinner under the stars on the estate’s storied grounds feature specialties like Artichoke and Sundried Tomato Dip, Squash Passato, Beetroot Ravioli, Slow Roasted US Beef Belly, Panna Cotta with poached strawberries and fine wine. “Of course we have our selection of burrata salads. Soon, we will also be adding Spanish dishes.”

Gaita has also started creating dishes for special dinners at Cogons of the Manila Polo Club. “For three nights each month, we create special dinners by the Cogons where diners can enjoy the beautiful view of the polo field within a safe, socially distanced setting outdoor.” She admits that her catering business was one of the most severely hit by the pandemic, which is why she’s had to find new platforms such as these to keep the enterprise alive. “With events and parties cancelled in 2020, we needed to find other venues to keep working and these are some of the efforts that we’ve put into effect to achieve that.”

When the team becomes family

The sense of joy and pride in Gaita’s voice was palpable even over Zoom and intermittent Internet signal. “We’ve had to keep moving and innovating. And the reward is that our people have managed to stay employed and keep their tenure,” declared Gaita. Sacrifices had to be made, among them adjustments in working hours and scope. 

“Right now, we are just eager to get everyone vaccinated,” she said. “We are looking to get vaccines not just for our family and friends but also to ensure that our staff protected. The challenge will lie in convincing them that it is the best option.”

Getting through with grace, kindness, and compassion

The past year has been challenging to say the least, but it has also opened new doors, opportunities and lessons. “There is always something good that comes out of this newness and change in perspective,” said Gaita. 

Closures and lockdowns saw an entire Food and Beverage industry holding each other’s hands and lifting one another. “We’ve also seen the kindness of our landlords who’ve extended their support so we can keep our businesses running.” Even the entry of new players, more specifically the home cooks, have inspired Gaita and contemporaries to constantly create and innovate. “The new players do take a part of the market share but they also keep the industry vibrant and exciting. My only hope is that all stakeholders in the industry—the established and new ones—follow the same regulations especially with regards to paying taxes” she opined. 

How Metrobank Credit Card can complement her multiple roles

As a mom who manages a household and an entrepreneur running multiple restaurants, Gaita can enjoy the newest product Metrobank Credit Card is about to launch. The good news — you will all get to take advantage of this really soon, so you too can enjoy the perks and keep track of your spending much easier! Aside from seamless ways to manage online purchases and cashless transactions, this product offers more than just a line of credit. Everytime the card is used for your essential needs — for your home or your business, you will also get something in return! So stay tuned.

Forging ahead and staying open to all possibilities has helped Margarita Fores and her team navigate the pandemic. It was, by all accounts, an upward hill with every step paved with breakthrough and discovery. Gaita ends, “One thing that will keep everyone alive is support. For all of us in the F&B industry, we look forward to when kids and elders are finally allowed to step out so that families can once again start to dine out together.”

Photography by FLOYD JHOCSON
Art Direction by FERDI SALVADOR
Hairstyling by JOSEPH FANTONE of The Colorbar PH
Makeup by TAMARA PINEDA of NARS Cosmetics
Styling by BANG PINEDA
Shot on location at OKADA MANILA

In partnership with Metrobank Credit Card

Bianca Salonga is a lifestyle journalist who has been in publishing for the last two decades. She took up her MBA in Luxury Goods and Fashion in Paris, France. Both experience and higher education continue to inform her work as a brand story teller and advocate for purposeful living.
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