By Ephraim Aguilar
Inquirer Southern Luzon
First Posted 19:30:00 07/10/2010
LEGAZPI CITY – Consistent with Bicol’s spicy food culture, a restaurant in the city serves spicy ice cream. How cool or hot is that?
Flavored with “siling labuyo” (chili), every scoop of the ice cream has tamed spiciness that blends well with cold creamy sweetness. And that can only be found at the 1st Colonial Grill, a homegrown restaurant that has built a name of its own.
But sili ice cream is just their dessert along with other innovative flavors like pili, coffee, “tinutong na bagas” (toasted rice), malunggay, kalamansi, and melon.
The 1st Colonial Grill also serves native dishes that remind one of his grandmother’s cooking, say restaurant owners Elmer Boy and Rowena Aspe.
The thriving restaurant, which now has a branch in a mall in this city, a newly opened one in Daraga, Albay, and a food court outlet in a mall in Naga City, was built on April 25, 2004.
Since then, for a homegrown restaurant, it has been competing well with national industry players and fast food giants.
Or it has not actually been competing at all. The 1st Colonial Grill stands securely in line with fast foods and big-named restaurants.
Elmer Boy says they never intended to compete with what had been there.
He says the 1st Colonial Grill has its own niche – people who want healthy comfort food with a twist served in a homey ambiance.
“Whenever our family had visitors from other places, we realized there were few choice restaurants we could bring them to. So we decided to put up the 1st Colonial Grill,” recalls Elmer Boy.
The 1st Colonial Grill is an offshoot of the Aspe family’s 60-branch pawnshop business in the Bicol region.
It is named such because its first branch was located in an old building built in the 1930s during the American Colonial Period.
Elmer Boy says they found it wiser not to compete but to offer something new, “If you compete with the fast food chains, the quality and the price will be sacrificed.”
With their three children as their critics, the Aspe couple know that the food they serve is of supreme quality and delectable taste.
“Before adding a new dish in the menu, we first have our children taste it. If they like it, then we offer it to our customers,” says Rowena.
The restaurant uses local ingredients from local sources, she says. They have once been offered cheaper and processed imported meat but they refused. While it could have saved them money, it would be very unhealthy.
Rowena says they also use vegetable oil to significantly reduce cholesterol levels in their dishes.
“We put health on top priority, because we and our children eat the food ourselves,” she adds.
The 1st Colonial Grill caters to all A, B, and C markets. “Everyone wants good food,” Elmer says.
The 1st Colonial Grill’s best sellers are Bicol Express (chilies cooked in gata); the Colonial Fried Chicken served in whole or half, which is an original family recipe; and the five-spice grilled chicken, which is marinated in five special spices.
Another best seller is vegetable kare-kare. The vegetables are supplied locally while the sauce and shrimp paste (bagoong) are homemade.
One can also have a taste of deep-fried vegetarian spring rolls, which are stuffed with mushroom, cabbage, carrots, vermicelli, bean sprouts, peanuts, and coriander served with a special sauce.
The restaurant also offers chop suey with a twist, that is, chop suey cooked in coconut milk with buko meat.
If there is Bikol Express, there can never be without “Tin-nu-to” (laing). This is dried gabi (taro) leaves cooked in coconut cream.
One cannot just say no to the restaurant’s Baby Back Ribs, a primal cut of pork meat cooked to be relatively tender, rubbed with spices and grilled.
All these main course dishes perfectly match with the unique “tinapa” (smoked fish) fried rice served in a “kawali.”
Service with love
Rowena says the entire family knows the ins and outs of the business, “We know how to do everything, from washing the dishes to cleaning the restroom.”
This is important if they want to pass on a culture of quality service on to their staff, she adds.
“We train the staff members ourselves. All we look for as qualifications are dedication and trainability,” says Elmer.
He claims most of their employees have been with them for a long time and they have seen how the business has grown over the years. This loyalty has bred in them a sense of ownership.
And the secret to a thriving business?
“To give real service, you must add something which cannot be bought or measured with money, and that is sincerity and integrity,” Elmer says.