“What we’ve built is a love song to coffee and cocktails,” says co-founder of The Curator Coffee & Cocktails in Manila, Jericson Co, “we just wanted a place of our own to do the service and execution that we wanted.”
With business partner David Ong, Jericson has helped ensconce their bar in the annual Asia’s 50 Best Bars list, released each May by William Reed Business Media in Singapore. This year it sits at number 25, and they’ve come to Rabbit Hole to share their experiences with a presentation, a later on, their expertise during a guest shift.
Last year The Curator came in at number 23 and in 2016, the list’s inaugural year, it snagged 16th, an outstanding achievement given the bar is just five years old and has its origins in the back of a small coffee shop. Coincidently, it opened on the anniversary of the end of Prohibition in the US, December 5.
“That was purely by chance,” Jericson is quick to point out.
Not long after The Curator was established, the partners founded EDSA Beverage Design Group, eventually buying out the coffee shop that patrons had once walked through to reach their bar. Now, The Curator does specialty coffee from 7am, before craft cocktails take over from 6pm and are served until 2am.
“We roast coffee and distribute machines, so we do everything end-to-end for coffee,” explains David, who became friends with Jericson after they randomly struck up a conversation about the exorbitant price of soda in Manila and traded stories about their individual attempts at making their own.
“I’m still banned from a cafe in Manila after one of my soda bottles exploded inside one day,” Jericson recalls with a laugh.
Their conversation ultimately lead to their becoming business partners. “We just thought that the price for soda was far too expensive, so we decided to experiment together. These days we bottle all the beverages we make, like sodas, ginger beer and now distillates.”
When David and Jericson aren’t at The Curator, it means they are probably on the road, either conducting research and learning new things for their own bar, or holding workshops and presentations like this one at Rabbit Hole in Saigon. During their presentation, they stress that bar owners need to have a vision and stick to it. Maintaining one identity is another key pillar they say gives businesses a better chance of success.
“We wanted to make the best coffee and cocktails in Manila,” explains Jericson, “but that was going to entail a number of things to achieve that. We needed to be consistent in executing our vision, which meant being precise, timely and focused on being hospitable. We also needed to know each other’s roles in the team and work together.”
That means thinking beyond what just goes on behind the bar. Successful bartenders need to be comfortable dealing with the people sitting on the other side of it, the guests. At The Curator, training plays an important role in meeting that end. Their training encourages staff to communicate authentically with guests, a maxim that permeates throughout both companies.
“Don’t try to be someone or something you’re not,” explains Jericson, who encourages his staff to hone their senses so they develop confidence in their choices and selections when catering to a customer. “At random, typically with a new staff member, we’ll ask them to leave the room while we put some ingredients into a glass and then blindfolded they have to taste it and come up with extra ingredients to finish the drink off.”
For David and Jericson, learning is the key to staying relevant, or as Jericson puts it, “staying cool”.
“We’re still learning from our peers and colleagues,” says David, “for example, at Native in Singapore, what they’re doing is trying to put a local influence into everything they do, like all the best restaurants around the world at the moment. Foraging is a thing now, using local and regional ingredients. Our new menu at The Curator, for example, is influenced by Filipino ingredients, but at the same time still pays homage to the classics.”
Jericson agrees that the trend at the moment in F&B is what he describes as hyper-local. “But it still has to be authentic though,” he says. “There are a lot of people who want to push into foraging for their ingredients, but at the end of the day, while that’s cool, the underlying idea is you want to be rooted somewhere, then when you go to a place, like the chocolate store Marou in Vietnam for example, you want it to be rooted of a place and authentic to what it is. Marou is like, “We are about these six provinces that produce cacao, here taste it!”
The night before their presentation at Rabbit Hole, David and Jericson flew in from Manila to sample some of Saigon’s nightlife. They were impressed with what they experienced, especially the level of bartending.
“We had dinner at Octo and the first thing I noticed was that the F&B scene here is really buzzing,” says David. “There looks to be a booming economy with more expats coming in increasing the demand for things like bars and restaurants, so with that the industry rises as well. I think that’s what we saw last night. If you go around Manila now, you’ll see it’s very similar to Saigon, there are quite a few good bars. Things are on the way up.”
Both David and Jericson were impressed with Below for its cocktails. “Below blew me away with the creativity they have there – I love that place,” says Jericson.
At Rabbit Hole they admire it for its execution of its drinks. Says Jericson: “It’s very refined with lots of complexity, which is very cool for a place in a scene that’s on the verge of big things. The people here are a little more sophisticated.”
One place they were especially surprised by was Qui. “Qui is exactly what they want to be,” says Jericson before David jumps in: “It’s a good party bar, with high energy, the cocktails are GOOD with flair bartending, loud music. It’s kind of like a club as well, which was quite interesting for us to see.”
“You wouldn’t expect a cocktail at that level, at that place,” says Jericson of Qui. “You’d expect a gin and tonic, highballs, beer, shots. I can see a lot of people bashing a place like that, but you know what, it’s executed well and you can’t fault it! We love bars like that. Bars that very, very clearly state, ‘This is what I am!’”
Rabbit Hole is at 138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street, District 1, HCMC, Vietnam