The Lady behind the Via Mare

The Grace Hotel in Sydney recently promoted a Philippine Food Festival featuring chefs from Via Mare. Get to know the lady behind one of Manila’s famous restaurant.


‘Have innovative product people won’t mind paying for’


Saturday, August 25th, 2012

THE BUSINESS major has 500 employees. Photo by Nelson Matawaran

With plastic gloved hands, restaurateur Glenda Barretto carefully arranges the crispy smoked fish for the camera and asks for cilantro.


The president of Via Mare Corporation no longer styles in photo shoots or grants interviews.  Several managers and her chefs run the company, which has some 500 employees, while she visits the offices occasionally.


During the monsoon rains, business at Via Mare Café and Oyster Bar was good despite the lean staff. “People were ordering the comfort foods—monggo, guisado, tuyo,” she says.


Barretto and Via Mare have been synonymous with Filipino cuisine and big catering events.  Yet, she never thought that she would carve a niche in the food business.


She was a business major at the University of the Philippines in the early ‘60s when she was exposed to the restaurant industry. An aunt, who worked at the then D&E Restaurant on Quezon Boulevard, offered her work.


“My first job was to write their press releases for the debuts and weddings,” she recalls. “I was also in the kitchen, conversing with the cooks. I talked them into sharing their secrets and I would try the recipes at home.”


After a year, Barretto was transferred to its catering department. She realized that food business was her calling. “I was already exposed to my mother’s cooking. At nine years old, I could cook callos  (tripe with chickpeas).” She would prepare the ingredients and I would finish the job.”


Trinidad Enriquez, owner of D&E and Sulo Hotel, assigned Barretto to run a Filipino fine dining restaurant at the Manila International Airport. Later, she became the catering manager of Sulo Makati that targeted the upscale clientele in the neighboring villages.


In September 1975, she opened Via Mare (meaning by way of sea) at the old Greenbelt area. The repertoire revolved around her mother’s famous continental recipes. The piece de resistance was the Bisque Mediterranean, a creamy seafood soup with a golden crust. Even tourists from Japan and Hong Kong noted it down on a piece of paper and showed it when they came to the restaurant.  The place became popular that people queued to get a table.


“The concept and the food were unique then,” says Barretto.  She ventured into catering after giving in to a relentless patron, Vicente Lim.


Despite lacking in equipment, Barretto pulled off a great food and service for Lim’s event. She used her own linens, stemware and tableware.


A special guest, First Lady Imelda Marcos, was impressed that she asked Barretto to cater the state dinner for President Gerald Ford. Barretto apologized for not having the resources, but the first lady wouldn’t take no for an answer. Barretto again succeeded in catering the state dinner for 500 at the Malacañang. When Ford was cruising on the RPS Pangulo, Via Mare provided the meals on board.


Rising to prominence


Barretto rose to prominence when she catered the silver wedding anniversary of President Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos and their official functions.


“Ms Marcos encouraged me to develop our Filipino cuisine. Whenever she came home from a state visit, she would share her experiences about how they served their native foods abroad. Our foods are dumped on the plate and are quite messy to eat. I got the message to serve Filipino food with style and make them easy to eat. We deboned the chicken for the tinola (chicken with green papaya soup) so that people wouldn’t be struggling with them.  We started using French techniques for the Filipino cuisine.”


Barretto’s reputation for Filipino cookery spread and Via Mare continued to serve during the terms of Presidents Fidel V. Ramos and Joseph E. Estrada.  Via Mare served during the visits of the late Pope John Paul II, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain and President Bill Clinton.


During Estrada’s state visit to Argentina, Via Mare did the catering for the official dinner for 300 people; replete with sampaguita garlands and carved squash bowls.


“I was doing a book on those big catering events. I kept the menus and the photos but my house got burned,” she says.


Meanwhile, at the Via Mare restaurants, customers were clamoring for Filipino food that they had eaten in one of the catering affairs. Although puto bumbong and bibingka were not on the menu, the restaurant obliged.


Frozen foods


The daily grind of a fine dining started wearing her down. Barretto looked for an alternative business. She ventured into frozen foods, eyeing both the local and export market. The offerings were 24 kinds of Filipino fare such as ginataang sugpo, pinakbet, kaldereta and lumpia (prawns in coconut milk, vegetables with fish paste, goat stew  and spring rolls).


“If you had a surprise guest, you just pull it out of the freezer and heat it,” she says.


But the frozen food business had its pitfalls. The packaging was a sealed container and a box that identified the food.  Dishonest customers would switch the box of the cheaper product to cover the expensive item so they would pay less.  Other customers would end up with the wrong content.


Further, the supermarkets would unplug the frozen foods at night then refreeze them in the morning thus causing the food to rot easily. Weary of complaints about pilferage and spoilage, Barretto closed down the frozen foods business.


Shift to cafes, oyster bar


She realized that she was blessed with a well-equipped commissary, which had a blast freezer (it keeps food fresh and prevents bacteria) and  a flourishing catering business. Barretto decided to change Via Mare’s format into a café and, in some outlets, an oyster bar, which was inspired by New York’s oyster bars in the late ’80s.


The foods are prepared at the main commissary in Guadalupe and fielded to its 15 branches.  The presentation is done at the outlets. Landmark Makati, Rockwell and Shangri-Plaza Malls are the busiest outlets because their locations are close to the mall entrance.


Reviewing the records from the point-of-sales machines, Barretto cites pancit luglug (noodles with egg) as the No.1 seller, followed by bibingka, fresh lumpia, puto bumbong and dinuguan (pork blood stew), in that order The restaurant business has become tougher as rentals continue to climb. Barretto has been turning  down offers to open in other malls.  With the high cost of food, fuel and labor, she still has to keep the prices affordable to the hard-nosed Filipino consumer.


“It was fun at the start but in the last 10 years, business became more challenging,” she says.


Catering is seasonal, peaking from October to February.  Cancellations are frequent when there are heavy rains.  Via Mare is a mainstay at the events at the Philippine International Convention Center. During the recent Asian Development Bank meeting, it was the caterer of choice, serving 3,000 guests as well as the private dinner parties.  On certain days, it can get busy with 10 bookings for parties with 200 guests.


During New Year’s Eve, Via Mare gets 30 bookings.  Her staffers don’t mind working during Christmas and New Year because they get double pay.  “It’s more expensive if they stay at home because their godchildren will look for them,” she says.


During big caterings, the company takes the risk of  hiring casuals. The waiters, who have been trained by the company, guarantee good service. “You can’t get the same results from contractuals. Sometimes they could be an embarrassment. That’s why you have to closely supervise them.”


With the new restaurants cropping up, is it still feasible to get rich in this business? Barretto replies:  Whether targeting the high-end or low-end markets, have an innovative product that people wouldn’t mind paying for.

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