Illo's Party Trays Is Taking Over the Ghost Kitchen Business - Lifestyle Asia

What seemed to be an impossible venture has become a brand that has culminated in redemption from years of failures and disappointment.

Anne and Chef N Rovillos are no strangers to tasting the bitterness of rejection and disappointment. After what the past year has done to us, and after what the couple has gone through in their previous endeavours, all it took was a leap of faith for them to regain their confidence and give the food industry another shot.  After having several culinary businesses in the past, their biggest break has finally arrived. Straying from the usual restaurants, kiosks, and pop-up booths that we often see, the pair have chosen a niche business that’s apt to our current living situation with lockdown: a ghost kitchen. As its name suggests, a ghost kitchen is a restaurant that only caters to delivery services. And with all of us stuck at home, it’s the perfect solution to enjoying chef-curated meals in the comfort of our house. The Rovilloses established Illo’s Party Trays as their latest food venture, a long-awaited, sweet victory which has elevated the breadth of competition in a plethora of flavor and aroma, delighting patrons’ palates and taking them into a complete gastronomic journey. 

Creamy baked salmon with a side of vegetables

From humble beginnings to a grand first step

Illo’s Party Trays was born from the couple’s home kitchen in Paranaque in December 2019. Anne’s husband, Chef N, has always been requested by their friends to cook for them. From this, their own recipes came into fruition. “We tried making a party menu based on my family’s and friends’ favorites and posted on Facebook. A client ordered a package worth PHP 13,000 and everything started from there,” says Anne. 

At that time, Illo’s only had 29 followers on Instagram. A certain host and social media influencer was one of the first few people who ordered from their business, and their followers soared to 1,500 overnight. To the team’s delight, other socialites have followed and begun contacting Illo’s for their party needs. “I am very particular with the presentation,” Anne explained. “We want to make sure that the presentation from the picture to the actual is maintained for each and every dish.”

Saucy baked spaghetti topped with melted cheese

Their bestsellers include Chicken Galantine, Lasagna, Mozzarella Meatballs Pasta, Chef N’s Beef Salpicao, Kare Kare ni Lola Remy, Crispy Pork Binagoongan, Ribs Bicol Express, 40 Cloves of Garlic Chicken, Chicken Biryani, Singaporean Prawn, Baked Salmon Fromage, Seafood Paella, Paella Negra, and Bagnet Paella. For desserts, the crowd favorites are Dark Chocolate Mousse, Strawberry Shortcake, Eggnog Flan Cake, Halaya Cream Rolls, and Alcapone Cinnamon Rolls. 

As long-time entrepreneurs, Anne and Chef N understand that any scalable business should be anchored in a unique value proposition. In February 2020, two months after their initial operations, they launched their “Dine At Home” concept where clients get to enjoy freshly cooked, gourmet cuisine in international flavors with no preservatives, all served at home.  Anne says it was a very ambitious move given that it is a business coming from scratch with a limited capital, and with only two staff members helping them with the preparations. “We had sleepless nights, times where Chef N is cooking, and I was the one taking orders and wrapping them for delivery. It was hard. We had to start small, but dream bigger,” says Anne. 

Valentine’s Day came and orders blew up. By infusing more capital, hiring additional manpower, and creating variety in their recipes and packages, Anne and Chef N were prepared to take their business to the next level. But the pandemic happened.

Savory beef salpicao on a bed of fragrant garlic rice

The bittersweet bite of uncertainty

Like all businesses last year, Illo’s has had to deal with the disrupting force of COVID-19. However, instead of seeing what happened as a crisis, the couple turned this into an opportunity through passion, innovation, and persistence. “During the pandemic, we did not stop even for a day. People were ordering online since they cannot go out to eat and we were the first who introduced the ‘Dine at Home’ concept,” shared Anne. The concept has become a signature element of their business model and has complemented one of the most obvious repercussions of the pandemic, which is mobility. They built further on these ideas and innovated to address sectors that will allow the brand to increase its relevance. “We introduced Gourmet Party Boxes for virtual parties, which serve hotel quality food in a box delivered to our clients who are working from home.  We also have corporate clients from pharmaceutical companies who have been sending hundreds of these boxes to our frontliners,” she elaborated. 

Celebration over food is an important Filipino tradition, and the extensive lockdown in Metro Manila and nearby provinces has prevented families from celebrating important occasions and milestones in their life since most dine-in restaurants have suspended their operations.  Through their ‘Celebrate at Home’ packages, Illo’s brings the celebration right into their homes with their signature gourmet dishes, complete with balloons and banners. 

Baked penne with thick sauce, garnished with parmesan cheese and parsley

Anne and Chef N believe that some crises are masked into blessings if we come to realize where our true intentions lie. To the Rovillos couple, it is really about helping people. “It has always been our goal in life to help people. Several times, we have even given too much to undeserving ones. But this time, we are sure we are helping the right ones,” Anne reflected. She shares that her whole kitchen team came from a very well-known restaurant chain, and all of them were abandoned by their previous employer when the pandemic hit. “Little by little, we made an effort to hire them all, down to our stewards. We have also hired undergraduates and other people who lost their jobs during the lockdown.”

With all the attention and success being received by Illo’s at present, it comes to them as a moral obligation to reciprocate this by giving back to the community and allocating a part of their sales to medical frontliners. “We have donated food to approximately 80% of the hospitals in Metro Manila since the pandemic started, in partnership with our other clients who have now become our friends,” Anne explained.

Tender, oven-baked porchetta served with fresh vegetables

Reaping the sweet flavor of success

Illo’s Party Trays recently celebrated their first year anniversary last January 2021. And yet, they have been enjoying the attention of a household brand already. The leap of faith that the Rovillos couple took for this ghost kitchen business has eventually afforded them from their own kitchen to three existing commissaries, and one more under construction. “This is just the beginning,” says Anne. “Our goal is to put additional ghost kitchens in Cebu, Davao, Bacolod, and eventually abroad.”

With the demand of essential items like food and the popularity of on-demand service amidst the pandemic, Illo’s has also established their own fleet that will deliver their products from Paranaque to anywhere in Metro Manila, Bulacan, Rizal Antipolo, Cavite, Tagaytay and Batangas.

An umami-filled bowl of salmon teriyaki and vegetables

Illo’s growing reputation as a lifestyle party trays business, coupled with its resounding buzz all over social media, has also allowed them to penetrate the showbiz niche. Celebrities and other online personalities have given their seal of approval for the brand, elevating Illo’s to become, undisputedly, the Party Trays of the Stars. Admittedly, this comes off as a big surprise to them, and has resulted in a more expansive social media presence. From 29 followers a year back, Illo’s has now amassed more than 65,000 organic followers on their official Instagram account, as of writing.

“Looking back, we had failed attempts at business,” the couple recalls. “We had to close our catering business and delve into real estate, but all that was eventually shelved. By God’s grace, He answered our earnest prayers. We do not have any regret because this is the best we ever had.” Currently, the Illo’s team has grown from 4 people in 2019 to a family of 31 in 2021. They house them all to ensure the team’s protection and safety, complete with their own health cards. 

Some of the members who bring the magic behind the ghost kitchen of Illo’s Party Trays

Starting with 23 recipes at the onset of their operations, clients may now choose from a menu of 100 gourmet dishes, including their Dine at Home and Celebrate at Home packages. “We continue to think about ways on how to preserve the quality of our food and maintain its freshness by not using pre-mixed ingredients as we deliver them straight to your homes. We want to stick to our signature gourmet and freshly cooked dishes without any added preservatives,” explained Anne. 

When asked about the lessons  she learned so far in their journey as a striving business in these uncertain times,  Anne pondered, “God’s perfect timing, kindness, and gratitude are the most important things in life. Stick to your passion. Be humble. Be kind. Be thankful. And God will bless you.” These lessons are very evident as they ended the year serving 5,000 families in the past year alone. “2020 might be a rough year for most businesses, but for Illo’s, it’s a year of exploring uncharted waters, a year to come up with solutions, and a year to provide more value to customers. That is what Illo’s brand is all about. We will try to be better as we hope to serve more families this 2021.”

To learn more about Illo’s Party Trays and see their full menu, visit their website or follow them on Facebook and Instagram. For inquiries and orders, you may contact them at +639565087588, +639475944147, or +63285229268.

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