Monday, August 31, 2015


by Roger Pe

Bring a good book. Sit outside. Enjoy a flavorful cup of coffee. Bite into real croissant and house-made mango brulee pie. Pretend that you are in some Paris street. Welcome to L’Amande, Beverly Hills.

When Ana Santos and her Portuguese husband Goncalo Moitinho de Almeida were operating Le Coeur de France in Manila a few years back, they would hear comments like ‘they only succeeded because they well understood Filipino lifestyle.’

That lingered on and became a nagging challenge. To be able to show the world that they could be competitive overseas, the two put up another venture, L’Amande, a French bakery and pastry shop in the uptown side of California.

For Ana, it was always something she wanted to validate, that she was skilled high enough to succeed in a world-class location and make a mark for herself.

Having been educated in one of the world’s best culinary schools (Lausanne, Switzerland), Ana learned how to speak and write French fluently (Ecole Mont Olivet), learned business management (Ecole Lemania) and graduated with honors in Hotel and Restaurant Management, majoring in Food and Beverage at the prestigious Glion Institute of Higher Education.

By launching a pet project outside of the Philippines, she thought it would be another feather on her cap. Indeed, she did, it was an overwhelming success.

Why another bakery and a French name? “It is our passion. My husband and I really specialize in bakery operations. The French are also reputed to make some of the best loaves of bread and pastries, hence, our decision to go that way,” Ana says.

Le Coeur de France catered to the Philippine AB market, L’Amande targeted a wider audience in the U.S.

Ana and her husband moved to Los Angeles in 2009, hoping to start a similar concept that had a successful run in Manila.

They've always dreamt of establishing a bakery from scratch and with L'Amande, that dream of serving only the finest French bread and pastry delights, would finally come to reality.

It took them about a year to have everything ready, from logo and store designs to menu items and food costings.

Initially, businessmen found their project interesting but most of them were already bound by exclusivity contracts to Starbucks, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, Wholefoods, and the like. They had something good, but could not find the location for it.

When they were about to give up, a friend recommended that they see a landlord looking for exactly what they had. They got the deal in no time and would sign a contract with Rolling Hills Plaza, coincidentally and conveniently located near their home.

Ana immediately contacted her former employees back in the Philippines, the ones who expressed their desire to go with them when they sold Le Coeur de France in 2008. Generous to a fault, Ana had promised that she would not abandon them and include them in her plans.

Ana and Goncalo proceeded working on their investor's visa documents, and in parallel, prepared for the employees' petitions, a backbreaking work due to the amount of requirements needed to bring them in.

She ploughed on nevertheless, despite 9 out of 10 of them did not have college diplomas. She also sent them money for medical, dental and family upkeep, all of them looking forward to a bright tomorrow.

L’Amande opened in Torrance on April 2012, and its success was unexpected. “We would run out of products from 1pm and had lines out the door, all the way to the parking lot. It was really incredible but also overwhelming,” Ana recalls.

Ana had a staff of about 25 people then but soon realized that if the business were to cope with the market, she had to train more people and perhaps, find another place for production.

As a follow through with the strong demand, L’Amande opened another store in Beverly Hills in July 2014 with ten Filipino employees. It had planned to open more stores due to inquiries about franchises and possibly, a commissary similar to what it had in Manila.

Customers loved the place, the vibe, products and innovative spirit the husband and wife nurtured. Quite a number of customers even sent unsolicited notes and letters giving them heartwarming feedback.

Over the span of three years, L’Amande offered weekend specials that were repeated only twice a year. This meant hundreds of new and exciting products customers could enjoy.

On the menu were spiced pear tart (with cinnamon, nutmeg and black pepper), salted caramel napoleon, wild cherry crispy pie (cherries from Italy), apricot cream cheese croissants, blue cheese and pear quiche, and other products that were never seen or tested before.

Management style

The husband and wife team leads by example. “We do not go to the bakery everyday or spend all hours there, but when we are there, we always make sure we work with the team,” Ana says.

Down-to-earth, hardworking and practical, Ana does some baking chores herself. You can see her roll her sleeves to prepare the dough, fold butter into each of them until they become delectable croissants. You can catch her peeling apples for her menu or doing hundreds of things in the kitchen.

“It is something that we really enjoy. We love serving customers, talking about the food we serve, and basically, to ensure that everything is according to the standards we’ve set,” she says.

Asked what is it like managing a business overseas and managing a business in the Philippines, Ana says that aside from the difference in laws concerning compliances, it is very similar. She says, the same degree of professionalism and dedication are required.

Market acceptance for L’Amande has been over and above expectations according to her. People always looked forward to the quality of food they’ve brought to the neighborhood.

Unlike Starbucks, L’Amande is a unique, quaint place with a warm and accommodating feel. It has a European coffee shop ambiance, no laptops, very few meetings, and people stayed as long as they wanted to.

Aside from fresh bread, croissants, tarts, quiches, pies, loaves, scones, L’Amande offered salads, sandwiches and breakfast items.

Ana is most proud when she would see the plates come back empty. “For me, it’s the biggest testimony that the meal was a success. I often tell the team that although we make hundreds of meals a day, a customer, he or she, gets only one. Because of this, each and every plate has to be an expression of what we do best. Every customer has to be delighted. This philosophy has worked wonders for us,” she says.

Manila girl

Ana was born and lived most of her childhood in Manila. She went to school in St. Scholasticas’ College and right after that, left for Switzerland to attend three schools where she met her husband who also graduated from the same course she took.

After graduation, they went their separate ways, Goncalo to Europe to join a consulting group, and Ana to Asia (Bangkok and Manila) to work with different hotels.

They decided to get married in 1988 after a year of trying to find employment in a place where they could be together. They then moved to Sydney and stayed for four years then lived in Singapore when a French company hired Goncalo.

They moved back to Manila in 1994 to start their own Le Coeur de France, operating it until 2008, when they sold to the Pancake House International Group.

Describing herself as strict, disciplined and determined, Ana never required anything from anyone that she herself has not done before. This includes tasks from dishwashing to baking and serving.

“I feel that it is the only way to understand job requirements and the best way to motivate staff. I try to show my staff that I do difficult jobs with pleasure and always with pride. That way, no matter how basic, every team member can feel good about his/her contribution to the enterprise,” she says.

In Manila, the two were very compliant to local Labor laws and even regularized rank-and-file employees when other restaurant operators made cost-cutting measures and employed contractual workers.

Ana would bring lunch to the office many times. She and Goncalo would often host dinners and lunches for employees, welcoming them in their home like their extended family. When an employee’s mother was confined nine years ago, Goncalo lined up at the hospital to donate blood.

What would she advise Filipinos who want to set up a similar business in the US?

“I would tell anyone to study the laws well before diving into a business. It would also invaluable to set a reasonable budget to hire the right professionals from the beginning, to make sure that the business is on solid ground. I would also encourage people to study the market extensively, not to take things for granted and if possible to test it before investing huge amounts,” she says.

Not everything is rosy for Ana and Goncalo though. Like in any successful business, they too, had to contend with the ugly side. Embroiled in a labor dispute with the very people they’ve helped and treated like members of their own family, it is disheartening to know that they want to bring them down.

Has crab mentality creeped in? Obviously. Disgruntled people want to discredit them and have even resorted to fabricating stories, manipulating truths and spawned other tales from the crypt.

But just this week, the couple received a favorable judgement from the courts - the judge/magistrate issued an order denying plaintiffs' motion for a right to attach their home despite their very aggressive efforts.

The court has also found that each of the 11 plaintiffs made "no reference to any documentary evidence corroborating their generalized estimates of their hours worked". Furthermore, the "defendants have offered rebuttal evidence".

With the couple’s entrepreneurial and undying spirit, they can weather the storm and  bake another success, one that is just as wonderful as their bread and pastry masterpieces.

Saturday, August 8, 2015


by Roger Pe
Philippine Daily Inquirer
August 9, 2015 issue

A look at “The Grand Budapest Hotel” “Chicago”, “Macbeth” “Phantom of the Opera”, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, “Pan” “Lord of the Rings” “Brooklyn”, “Titanic” and many other great Hollywood movies and Broadway plays would tell you three things. They all have good stories to tell, extraordinary production craftsmanship, and stellar costumes worn by actors and actresses.

Costume designers Edith Head, Eiko Ishioka, Sandy Powell, among others, not only helped film directors make box office hits, they also won Oscars for their talent. No wonder a Pinoy would want to go the distance and follow their footsteps.

Raven Ong, a graduate of production design from College of St. Benilde School of Design Arts, and currently finishing a master’s degree in Design at the University of Connecticut has just a wrapped up two plays in America, one directed by 5-time Emmy Award winner Francesca James (“Lend Me A Tenor”) and the other, by playwright Steve Martin (“The Underpants”).

When he was chosen to represent the Philippines in the biggest and most important theatre design festival in the world, Ong felt honored and ecstatic, relishing the thought of showing what a Pinoy can do on world stage. Though it thrilled him no end, it was not easy, however. He had to do a lot of preparation and hard work to finally come up with something worth showing to the world.

In the 13th edition of Prague Quadrennial (Tribes Event) held last June 17, Ong, together with Heather Lesieur of USA, Jelena Antanasijevic of Serbia, Tuoxi Wu of China and Pat Ubaldi of Italy presented a new design form: a patchwork of their own country’s culture.
In their presentation, not one country overshadowed the other. Each country’s design was woven together to form a new ‘tribe’ with a unifying purpose rising to life.

“Although we were a tribe, our characteristics and costumes retained the silhouette of our nations. They were constructed on the same fabric to interconnect to each other,” Ong says in an overseas interview.

In dance, Ong and his group’s movements also harmonized to reach full synchronicity. All of them stepped as one unit in a style that was made of individual movements introduced at the beginning of the performance.

Ong’s presentation, “Country of Many Nations”, was composed of international group of students, chosen to continue costume design studies at UC.

In Prague’s main show, “Section of Countries and Regions”, he also showcased his work along with other Filipinos who were also from Benilde: Gabby Fernandez, Jay Aranda and Magda De Leon.
A tradition that began in 1967, the Prague Quadrennial featured live performances of artists from a record 78 countries, offering tens of thousands of visitors an astounding labyrinth of scenographic work from all over the world.

The entire festival took place in Czech Republic’s historic capital city where interactive programs allowed visitors to participate in workshops, lectures and discussions. Leading personalities in contemporary theatre, performance design and even film, added prestige to the world-renowned event.

Early years

Ong was born in Manila and grew up in Divisoria. His parents had always been into vegetable trading, often commuting to Baguio and back to Manila. He remembers spending many summer vacations with his brother in Baguio because of their family business.
A half Chinese, Ong went to Saint Jude Catholic School where we learned to speak, read and write Mandarin. At Benilde’s School of Design and Arts, an academic complex built like a big gallery, Ong developed his skills, designing sets, costumes and props for movies, commercials, television, theater, events and advertising.

As a little boy, he loved the performing arts so much that he lived inside them. He would always join school programs and singing groups. As his thespic talent developed, he also dabbled in drawing, joined poster design contests and made costumes for class projects.
Ong refused to design only on paper. He wanted something carefully thought about. Something he envisioned and created in mind, translated and crafted into a sketch, and finally, rendered and molded into something tangible - one that is worn and something that served a purpose, be on a theater stage or something that comes right after.
As someone who loved the arts, Ong naturally gravitated to a college design course, first at UST and then at College of St. Benilde. The latter he says, gave him a sense of fulfillment that he could never find elsewhere.

“Benilde introduced me to designing. I had inspiring professors who had so much passion that I immediately fell in love with it, from theatre to costume and set designs, to mounting a production. I simply embraced it,” he proudly says.

In his years at Benilde, Ong never wasted time. He made the most out of his classes and always gave it his best shot. Trailblazing designers who have made a difference in design excited him, one of the reasons why his production designs had global perspective.

He has always been thrilled by the craftsmanship of Colleen Atwood, Sandy Powell and the late Eiko Ishioka on film. He admired William Ivey Long, Julie Taymor and Robert Jones for their theatre design work. His topmost favorite is Gregg Barnes whom he met in New York during an awards night.
“I love his design process, his costumes on Broadway always blew my mind, plus the fact that he is such a cool and down to earth guy,” he says.

The opportunity to study abroad fell on Ong’s lap as early as four years ago. Because of a previous commitment, he couldn’t just pack up and go. He was doing costumes for Philippine stage stalwarts Joy Virata, Menchu Launchengco-Yulo, Jaime del Mundo, Ana Abad Santos and other noted theatre artists.
“A war was going inside me then. I could not just disappear and renege on my commitment. I felt it was not yet the right time to go. In my mind, I kept saying: “If it’s for me, it will happen. If it’s for me, the offer will come back.”
The following year, 2012, UC’s costume design department head Laura Crow wrote him asking if he was still interested. Ong froze. The opportunity came back, and he told himself: “This was really meant for me!”

Ong consulted many of his friends, among them his designer mentor, Eric Pineda. After patiently waiting for another year (somebody was next in line for the same position) and all of his friends said “yes”, he left the Philippines in 2014 for a new beginning.

In one his classes, Ong met Broadway costume designer Ann Houldward and listened to her inspiring thoughts about being a costume designer. “She told us: Design is a gift, give it only to people who are willing to receive it, be gracious because theatre is about life,” he relates.
He remembers Fabio Tobilini talk about hardwork and designing costumes for Hartford Stage, where his idol, Tony award winner Darko Tresnjak, works as its artistic director.

Design philosophy

A good design for Ong is something produced out of a great collaboration. “What’s amazing about designing for theatre is the process that one has to go through, where the process takes you and what comes out of it,” he points out.

Ong always wanted versatility in his work. As the job requires a variety of themes, he believes that one must savor the emotional creative journey with each production he is tasked to do. “Nothing is stagnant here. Your mind just keeps on being creative and productive,” he explains.
As a production designer, he lives by his mantra: be always trustworthy and dependable. “A director can never have a scenic designer, a costume designer, a lighting designer or a choreographer that he or she does not trust. Designing for the theatre is all about trust,” he says.
“We are the backbone of the director. We translate words into visuals. We have this huge responsibility not only to provide the needs of the production but also to make sure that we attain our vision in terms of storytelling,” he stresses.
Right now, Ong feels being in “Wonderland” because his mind and eyes have been opened to a lot bigger things.

As a full time graduate student taking up design classes for plays, musicals, dance, fantasy and opera, poetic realism and post-modernism, he is also taking technical classes in millinery, tailoring, draping, make up, wig and hairstyling.
These include scenic design, lighting and concept development, working an average of 13 hours in the costume shop every week, building costumes and constructing all that is needed for the university’s season shows.

His routine also includes going to New York for fabric shopping, watching Broadway and off Broadway shows. As his department has a connection with Metropolitan Opera, he gets to watch operas as well for free.

His words of wisdom for future design students: “You can’t be a designer just because you want to. You become a designer because you love it. Theatre is all about learning, and that is the best part of it.”