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Neal P. Corpus

Posted on December 16, 2020

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As Mercato Centrale celebrates its 10th year, founder RJ Ledesma shares the secret to enduring amidst a global pandemic.

The number of food businesses claimed by the pandemic is almost countless. But even in the midst of crisis, some are able to persist. One such business is Mercato Centrale, the iconic night food market that’s served as the backdrop to many, many late-night cravings, post-night-out recoveries, and just plain midnight sustenance.

This year marks Mercato’s 10th year. Despite having to cease operations early in the lockdown, it proved why it has remained a mainstay for a decade — by adapting and nurturing young food businesses. They have since reopened its market, making pivots big and small to remodel itself to fit current times.

Since ceasing operations at the start of the lockdown, Mercato Centrale has reopened in BGC. Photo courtesy of Mercato Centrale

Mercato is the brainchild of entrepreneur RJ Ledesma. When he was a journalist and writer, RJ traveled on assignment to the likes of Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, and noticed that they all had something in common: a vibrant night food market scene.

They fascinated him: not only did these rows of stalls sell delicious (and cheap!) food, they offered a place where both locals and foreigners could converge and get to try a wide variety of food types.

“And when you eat the food, it’s not just eating the food — it’s the experience,” says RJ. “You get to meet and try different cuisines, you get to meet the owner, you get to try heritage food.”

When he would return to the Philippines, he noticed that the same concept did not exist. “There’s no equivalent here in Metro Manila for the same thing,” RJ says, despite Filipinos having what he calls “black holes for stomachs.” “We eat any time of the day, we eat five times a day,” he adds.

Mercato Centrale founder RJ Ledesma. Photo courtesy of Mercato Centrale

RJ was further inspired when he and his wife honeymooned in Florence, Italy, where they paid a visit to the food market in Firenze, also called Mercato Centrale.

This sparked the idea to port over the concept back home. “How can we take home the experience, what we felt when we were there, and bring it back to the Philippines?”

And the rest, as they say, is history. Mercato Centrale in Manila quickly became a stalwart in the local food scene, gaining a reputation for delivering not only good food, but also fresh ideas.

It became a stage for budding food entrepreneurs: “We were able to become a really nice launch platform for new brands that want to succeed,” says RJ.

Throughout their decade in the game, Mercato has weathered many a food trend, including the food trucks and parks that have come and gone. And in such a volatile industry as food, having this kind of staying power is the stuff of legends.

In a tricky industry like food, being able to celebrate 10 years is a feat. Photo courtesy of Mercato Centrale

Their secret sauce? It’s a mix of two things, says RJ: incubation and strategy.

Incubation is a big reason why food businesses want to set up shop at Mercato, explains RJ. While other spots like food parks simply give vendors a space to fill, Mercato goes an extra mile with a mentorship program.

“We train them, teach them how to make the food concept stand out, and how to make sure the food is unique,” shares RJ, “Then we mentor them; we help them with how to do finance, operations, marketing, sales.”

Strategy, on the other hand, comes in both curation and location. For years, Mercato has partnered with Ayala Malls to mount its famous food markets in strategic locations such as BGC, Glorietta, Alabang Town Center, and Trinoma.

“The partnership with Ayala has been really fantastic because they realy helped us access great locations for the market,” says RJ.

This partnership has since expanded: currently, Mercato is part of the Ayala Enterprise Circle, a program of the Ayala Group that launched earlier this year to support small and medium enterprises.

Being part of this, in turn, helps Mercato empower their own food vendors to scale their businesses.

“Being part of that system, it’s a fantastic way of scaling the vendors from the mall, and eventually we can have Ayala Malls Club kitchen, and eventually they [will be] able to graduate and become entrepreneurs on their own,” says RJ.

Customers line up patiently and observe physical distancing to get their favorite Mercato dishes. Photo courtesy of Mercato Centrale

This is a concept that’s currently in the works, “which is a great way [for small food businesses] to pivot during the new normal,” shares RJ. These growing brands, many of which are home-based, will need their own locations to be able to expand.

“They are good cooks, but they don’t [yet] have the operational or delivery capacity or market,” he adds.

At the same time, as we navigate this new normal, RJ wants to provide a safe dining experience while incorporating the best of both Mercato and Ayala Malls restaurants. As Mercato gets back in the swing of things, RJ and his team are stringent about following safety guidelines set by the IATF.

Another way that Mercato has adapted was going online. They recently launched an online portal, and are working with Ayala Malls’ Zing app to allow their vendors to reach their customers at home.

And Mercato isn’t helping just small food vendors — food businesses of every size are affected by the pandemic, and this online counterpart also helps out struggling restaurants.

Like all businesses that operate within Ayala Malls, Mercato Centrale follows a stringent safety protocol set by the IATF.

Despite all the challenges brought about by the pandemic, Mercato endures — thrives, even. RJ mentions that beyond delivering delicious food to customers and providing a platform for its vendors, having a bigger purpose helps.

His advice? Be meaningful and relevant: “When I say meaningful and relevant, what I mean is now [that] we’re going through this crisis together, try to find a way that when you sell a product, it’s [also] trying to help people,” says RJ.

RJ and Mercato walk the talk, of course: a part of the proceeds made from Mercato is donated to Save The Children Philippines, an NGO that provides alternative learning platforms for children of low-income families. They are also helping victims of recent typhoons.

Even in this time when a lot of us feel helpless, “there’s always an opportunity to give back and help other people,” says RJ. He adds: “It’s also natural for us [to have an] advocacy, kasi in the end, we really have an advocacy to mentor people, to become better food vendors.”

A big part of why Mercato Centrale has endured for so long is its mentorship of small food businesses, says RJ. Photo courtesy of Mercato Centrale

When asked about what fulfills him the most about running Mercato, he goes right back to helping people. “I’m really enthused to see that [we’re] able to help small food vendors grow,” RJ shares, driving home Mercato’s core value: “We’re a business that helps other businesses grow.”

And in times like these, it’s what keeps Mercato going.

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