From Running a Diner in the Philippines to Owning a Restaurant in Dubai: A Filipina Expat's Culinary Journey

Junah Balungcas had no idea that when she was nine years old, she would get up at four in the morning on weekends to help her mother run a diner in the Philippines. Twenty-six years later, she would own a restaurant in Dubai.

From Running a Diner in the Philippines to Owning a Restaurant in Dubai: A Filipina Expat's Culinary Journey

Dubai: Junah Balungcas had no idea that when she was nine years old, she would get up at four in the morning on weekends to help her mother run a diner in the Philippines. Twenty-six years later, she would own a restaurant in Dubai.

Gulf News spoke with the 36-year-old Filipina expatriate who recently opened her restaurant, Baofriend, which specializes in bao recipes: My dad owned a meat shop, and my mother ran a small restaurant in a market in the small town of Molave, which is in the province of Zamboanga Del Sur. Molave is in a valley. We developed as a result. My brother and I would get up at 3 or 4 a.m. on Sundays when there was no school to assist my mother before the restaurant opened to the public.

"A little eatery, it could fit pretty much 20 individuals. We would get up around 9 a.m., go to the bathroom, and then go back to the diner to help with the customers. We would go to the market with my mother on school days to assist her until the restaurant closed, after which we would assist Dad in closing the meat shop and return home together.

At the time, Balungcas was unaware that this was unintentionally preparing her for the future.

"I gained from mum and father, how to carry on with work - how to speak with individuals, how to sell your item. She stated, "I would even sometimes work as a cashier, butcher, or sell the meat at the meat shop."

She did not, however, receive any formal training in hospitality or hotel management. In point of fact, Balungcas made the decision to relocate to the United Arab Emirates at the age of 25, where she had studied nursing, to work as a nurse.

From hospitals to hospitality, "I arrived in the United Arab Emirates in 2011 as a nurse. Presently, I'm a medical caretaker supervisor for two centres - one in Al Ain and the other in Sharjah. As a result, I spend my week travelling between the two.

Opening a restaurant was always one of her aspirations, despite her busy work schedule. In any case, it was only after an unexpected hankering for some solace food on a colder time of year evening in Dubai and the resulting visit to an Asian eatery that evening that the fantasy changed into the real world.

Balungcas was about to make her first foray into the UAE food industry.

How about some buns? "I was sitting in an Asian restaurant on December 2, 2021, around 9 p.m. She recalled excitedly, "I had ordered a bao, which is similar to a steamed dish we have in the Philippines called the siopao." This dish brought back memories of home.

She started to consider opening a restaurant where people of all nationalities, in addition to Asians, could enjoy Asian cuisine. Balungcas made the decision to ask her Arab friends for ideas and suggested that they try Asian food.

When they tried the food, I noticed that the bao sandwiches seemed to be the only thing they were really enjoying. In addition, I realized that, despite the thousands of restaurants available, Dubai does not have a restaurant that truly specializes in bao buns.

They appear to only be available as one of the options on the menu at other Asian restaurants. Notwithstanding, there was something else entirely to bao buns, felt Balungcas, seeing a totally undiscovered food thought.

"It was this. My restaurant would specialize in bao buns and even serve bao dishes with Middle Eastern influences, I decided. I needed to ensure that the Asian combination things that we would serve would be cherished by Asians as well as by everybody," said Balungcas, exceptionally glad for the name she concocted for the eatery - Baofriend, a joke on the word 'sweetheart'.

Balungcas opened the restaurant of her dreams at the Dubai Digital Park in Dubai Silicon Oasis with the support of her husband, her savings, and some financial assistance from her family and friends. The restaurant now serves 19 bao dishes with a variety of fillings. She stated, "That's how extensive the menu is: you can choose from chicken, meat, vegetarian, and even desserts."

All in all, what went behind setting up an entire eatery in under a year? For other people who could fantasise about opening an eatery in Dubai, Balungcas shared her experience.

Tracking down the right area

"While looking for a decent area, we saw that Dubai Silicon Desert Spring (DSO) has around 90,000 occupants. In addition, it has a digital park with numerous offices. In this way, the region is occupied with office labourers on work days. Naturally, our location meant that we would also serve the Dubai Silicon Valley community. We discovered that it was the ideal location with tremendous potential.

She also looked into DSO's Free Zone Licence, which was less expensive. Her new restaurant was visible because there was ample parking nearby and other well-known cafes were nearby.

Balungcas found a team to assist her despite continuing to work full-time because she was not yet ready to give up her medical career. My typical workday runs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. I didn't have much to do after five. I started using that time to plan how to run the business and think about it.

"My initial step was to discover some assistance from experts. A restaurant was not created with a single click by us. There was a ton of arranging in the background," she added.

Balungcas contacted a restaurant consultant and began looking for a restaurant manager to oversee the experienced kitchen and waiting, staff. Therefore, for this restaurant to function, all teamwork is required," she stated.

Setting up costs

"The expense that you will cause in setting up an eatery relies upon the size of the café, the kitchen, and different offices," said Balungcas. " For our purposes, setting up the eatery that is around 2500 to 3000 square feet including the open air space, cost nearly Dh2.5 million. Be that as it may, this aggregate is barring the advisor's charges.

Using a consultant "This was my first business in Dubai." Additionally, there are thousands of restaurants in Dubai's Food and Beverage (F&B) sector, making the city highly competitive. Therefore, working with a consultant who is knowledgeable about the industry and who is able to advise you on the best course of action and which strategy is most effective?

The charges to recruit a specialist or counselling office are likewise very high, which somebody wanting to open a café ought to factor in, she said.

Balungcas, on the other hand, said that she was fortunate that her family was able to assist her in arranging the funds at the right time. She also believes that the way she spent money helped her accumulate some savings, which she was able to put into the business.

Tips for saving money "I do manage to save a lot by not purchasing things that I believe I do not require personally. As a result, I limit my purchases to only what I absolutely need. For instance, I don't have to spend a lot of money on a high-end bag when I can get one of the same quality for much less. The viable use is something similar. When you need shoes that are comfortable, you don't have to buy them from a high-end brand. There are many brands that sell shoes of good quality at prices that are affordable. Therefore, living a relatively simple life and avoiding extravagant spending helps me save money for the business.

Be that as it may, with regards to the café, the Filipina exile is extremely mindful to talk with the director of her eatery and the head gourmet expert in purchasing hands down the best, no matter what the expense, to guarantee there is no split the difference in the nature of the food conveyed to the client.

The next expense to take into account is the operating cost once the restaurant is up and running.
"We likewise have many staff individuals in the kitchen and as holding up staff, and we are open from 7 am to 12 PM. Because of this, we also face significant expenditures related to the place's day-to-day operation.

She stated, "I would say we spend approximately Dh150,000 to Dh200,000 monthly if I calculate the salaries of the staff and all the other expenses like electricity, gas, water, and other employee benefits."

Breakeven timetable

Something that hopeful business visionaries don't understand is the time it takes to make back the initial investment. Many people believe that revenue will soon cover the costs. There is money coming in; However, as we are new, profits have not yet materialized. The income we do make, we use to cover the working costs. Balungcas continued, "We are looking at one and a half years to two years to break even."

Obstacles and lessons She also discussed some of the lessons she picked up along the way. As someone who was just starting a business for the first time, I required assistance. That's what I discovered in the event that you can find support, it would be better not to face the challenge of doing it without anyone else. Second, you must schedule time for your business to function properly and achieve success.

“You learn something new every day, from basic topics like which brand of tissue paper to buy and which brand is more expensive or cheaper to financial or staffing issues. As time goes on, you'll get better at navigating these inevitable challenges. She stated, "If you take the help and advice of others who know the business very well, the learning process is faster."

How profitable is it to cater to a specific community when starting a food business? 

Balungcas thinks it depends on how popular the food is. However, she did not restrict Baofriend to a single dish.

She stated, Regardless of whether we are an Asian café, we likewise take special care of the Bedouin taste. We have menus that acquire flavours from different societies, so our menu is affected by worldwide preferences. Noodles from Korea, as well as dishes from China and the Philippines, were included. One of our most famous dishes is the Katsu Baorger."

The Filipina expatriate went on to say that Dubai is one of the best places to start a restaurant business due to its diverse culture and willingness to try new foods.