Bryan Lim, vice president of business development of Suyen Corporation, the group behind the Bench Group, chooses new brands and concepts based on products he and his family really enjoy and believe in. St. Marc Café recently opened at the SM Mega Fashion Hall.
It’s perhaps because I did not succeed with my own restaurant business that I can truly appreciate the workings behind the birth of new concepts and establishments in our country.
Today, more than ever, the food scene is growing and changing and there is one thing that seems truly crucial to success. It’s a word we often throw around without giving much thought to it but brands are more significant now than ever especially in this day and age where choices are abundant and overwhelming. The power of a strong brand identity by way of consumer confidence can truly influence our lifestyles and eventually society. A brand is described by the American Marketing Association Dictionary as being a “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s product distinct from those of other sellers.” It takes years to build a brand that people can trust, one that is unique and appealing backed by quality and consistency. In our country people are drawn to the comfort of branding and it’s a phenomenon that crosses over to the food and beverage industry where franchises and chains are often the key to success. That being said how does one pierce an already saturated market and hope to come out on top?
In comes Bench whose humble beginnings of selling T-shirts in 1987 has come a long way, spanning different sectors of the retail market and firming up their presence in the F&B sector; first with the opening of French pastry and bakeshop Paul and now with the arrival of St. Marc Café, a self service bakery and coffee shop that has over 300 stores in Japan plus branches in Shanghai, Singapore and now Manila. “When we started negotiations for St. Marc Café, Paul had not opened yet, so we were dealing with a group that had no previous experience in food. Despite other companies from the Philippines contacting us, we chose to go with the Bench Group,” explains Taka Miyake, managing director of SaintMarc Southeast Asia.
“ You see, in Japan the most important part is the first impressions, and the vision on the direction of the company and we knew that’s who we should trust.”
It’s on this very personal note that the marriage of these two strong brands begins, which in fact is how the Bench Group usually works. “Whenever we travel we are always trying new things” shares Bryan Lim, vice president of business development of the Suyen Corporation behind Bench. “When we find something we really like, we approach them and see what we could do.” St. Marc Café was no different, while on a family trip to Osaka, there was one next to their hotel that his mother, Nene Lim, had tried and loved. “My mom had tried their chocolate croissants and liked it a lot. In fact if you look at the logo, the name St. Marc is so small… We thought it was called ChocoCro!”
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The ChocoCro is a small, extra flaky croissant filled with a rich chocolate made from special beans sourced in Ghana and Ecuador. “We developed a recipe where the dough has no need for fermentation, resulting in a unique texture” shares Miyake. “There is more crispness, with just a bit of chewiness in the center.” Typical of the Japanese a cute catchy name, with a little mascot and their flair for remixing a classic to their tastes. It’s far from your regular croissant or pain au chocolat, but a really nice, crisp dessert that perfect with a cup of their brewed coffee.
There are tons of cafes and coffee shops out there but what is unique to St. Marc are its freshly baked Franco-Japanese pastries and desserts. “Since Japan is known for using quality ingredients, my mother said why not bring a Japanese café concept where the whole family can enjoy at an affordable price.” explains Lim about their decision to bring in yet another coffee concept to the country. “I think what will appeal most to the local market is the quality not only of the croissants and pastries but the coffee and ice cream desserts as well.”
With creations like the Little Fuji combining a flaky hot butter Danish pastry with soft serve ice cream and caramel sauce and variations on this using red beans and matcha; large tumbling colorful sundaes using Japanese flavors; savory brunch like pastries with eggs and cheese… it’s easy to be confused but in typical kawaii Japanese fashion each café has an appealing display outside to clearly illustrate the choices. “I really think it’s the highlight and attracts people to the café” shares Lim. “They really stop to look and come in to try!” Personally I feel it’s their lovely self service line where rows and rows of warmly lit pastries and breasts invitingly call out to each customer, seductively saying “Eat me.”
Proof in the proverbial pudding, the café was barely open for a few days that it was already full of people enjoying the cozy interiors, sharing stories over sundaes and relishing a cup of… frothy green liquid?! “That’s our bestseller in Singapore that I think people will enjoy here — the matcha latte,” says Miyake. “The funny thing is it doesn’t do well in Japan because their matcha and latte are two words that do not go together! But it’s really wonderful.”
And I have to agree, the earthy taste of the matcha green tea married so well with the velvety frothed milk it reminded me that sometimes the uncanny pairing is the successful one. Green Tea and Milk. French pastries with Japanese sensibilities. A Filipino fashion retailer and a Japanese food corporation. The business and the personal.
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Visit the first branch of St. Marc Café at the upper ground floor of SM Mega Fashion Hall.