“They continue to come back for different celebrations. Years later, they return with their children. For some, even their grandchildren!” the restaurateur says of their clubhouse feel.
Seeing her mother Julie run the ice cream parlor turned restaurant Milky Way since the ’60s, Malu Gamboa realized she would gladly join the food business one day. Upon finishing her college and master’s education in the US, it was time to come home and take over.
In 1980, Malu’s parents together with architect Raul Locsin constructed a building on 900 Pasay Road. This housed a Milky Way outlet and the Gamboas’s Japanese restaurant Tsukiji along with a sandwich bar and a pizza spot, which were both leasees. “I was tasked to come up with a concept that would not compete with the existing restaurants in the building, yet would be a popular choice for lunch, dinner, and late-night dining,” she shares.
While Malu was in Madrid with friends, she discovered tapas. She was impressed at how the Spanish enjoyed these small plates of food ordered in the middle of the day, pairing with cocktails, appetizers before dinner, or as a nightcap snack.
“I knew immediately that was what I wanted to bring to Manila,” Malu says. “And so El Cirkulo first opened its red, round doors on August 1, 1995, as Manila’s first tapas bar.”
From inspiring new ventures to maintaining a cuisine’s authenticity, travel has always played an essential role in the general manager’s vocation. Her frequent trips to Japan, Thailand, and Spain inform the dishes found in the menus of their establishments, Tsukiji, Azuthai, and El Cirkulo, respectively.
“There’s nothing like experiencing things first hand to be able to translate the taste and feeling in our restaurants here,” Malu says. “Once the world opens up, we will be joining the world in traveling again to these places.”
In the family
Since each of its openings, the restaurant group stood through the test of time, even during the influx of foreign brands entering the Philippine F&B market in recent years. “The restaurants have thrived for so long because we focus on consistently bringing the highest caliber of food and service to all our customers in every meal. My siblings and I are involved in the day-to-day operations to make sure that no one drops the ball,” Malu shares.
Each Gamboa family member helps in maintaining the establishments. “We’ve got running restaurants pretty much covered. Our ‘sibs’ Viber group is so active with work and non-work discussions, and we remain connected despite not seeing each other as often as we used to,” the restaurateur says.
The eldest sister Popsie, an events planner and entrepreneur. The second sister, Gina, a labor lawyer, and the youngest brother, J, is the family’s chef. In quarantine, the family stays close by sharing their latest food discoveries, sending each other home-cooked meals and valuable supplies to have in the pandemic.
The essence of family and comfort throughout the Gamboa restaurants is something Malu purposely cultivated.
“Providing a ‘clubhouse’ feel in our restaurants may be my trademark, where our guests are comfortable to come by themselves for a meal or to celebrate special moments. Some met their lifelong partners there,” she shares.
“They continue to come back for different celebrations,” she continues. “Years later, they return with their children. For some, even their grandchildren!” Malu considers the milestones that her customers choose to celebrate in the restaurants a factor of success.
While temporarily closed or empty during community quarantine, Gamboa and her team used the opportunity to polish their long-standing restaurants from wear and tear.
They repainted walls, repaired leaks and cracks, buffed the marble, and shined the silver, “we will be brand spanking new when we reopen our doors again,” she shares. The Boston University graduate believes that the public will be out celebrating to make up for lost time come post-pandemic times.
The restaurants have altered their offerings in ways you can enjoy at home while you await the return of festive gatherings. “Our latest hit is the Milky Way Halo-Halo Kit which has all the ingredients (even the shaved ice!) packaged separately for a DIY experience. We’re responding to new needs as best as we can,” Malu says.
The group uses distribution channels such as mobile delivery service apps, e-commerce websites, and resellers. “Our guests have been able to enjoy the same dishes they are used to having in their family meals and celebrations such as Tsukiji’s sushis and sashimis, Azuthai’s curries, CIrkulo’s Cochinillo and Milky Way’s Filipino and cafe cuisine,” she shares.
Malu adds that the popularity of sending friends and family food while in quarantine is its positive outcome. “It’s been a tough year with many adjustments for all, but COVID-19 seems to have made us express our love and appreciation more than ever through food.”
This story originally came out in the May 2021 issue of Lifestyle Asia