Spice Jar’s co-owner Katrina Almanza didn’t really have plans of starting a business at first. A graduate of Animal Science at the University of the Philippines Los Baños, she was determined to pursue employment opportunities abroad. But things suddenly took an unexpected turn after her marriage.
Katrina, also called Chef Trin, resigned from her previous company when she got pregnant and that was when she and her husband decided to run their own business. The couple, who were only 25 years old back then, opened a small food stall near UPLB in 2011. They had no start-up money nor savings. All they had were the monetary gifts from their wedding, funds from the loans they took out, and some financial help from relatives.
“It was our first business and wala man lang kaming feasibility study na ginawa. Parang, sige, mag business tayo bukas, hanap tayong pwesto, gano’n lang siya nagsimula,” she shared.
Spice Jar started as a small take-out only counter with no dining area. As newbies in the field, the couple opted to recreate their favorite dishes first, including Sisig and their own version of Charlie Chan pasta, and served them to their customers which were mostly students.
But having no prior business experience wasn’t the only challenge for Chef Trin at the beginning. Just a few weeks after they started operating the stall, her husband needed to leave for his job in the U.S. She had no choice but to do all the work alone, with only a few assistants by her side. From opening to closing hours, she took care of all the tasks including going to the market, preparing the dishes and sauces, and even manning the cash register.
The early years were really challenging, but also very rewarding for Chef Trin. Being able to do it all back then with only minimal help from others is truly a big feat for small business owners like her.
The positive feedback from their customers became Chef Trin’s driving force to continue in her new endeavor. “Hindi ko expected na magugustuhan ng mga estudyante ang mga luto ko. Sila na mismo ang nagde-demand na lumipat kami sa malaking place para makapag dine-in din sila sa amin.”
With the continuous support and trust of their customers, Spice Jar managed to move to a bigger location with a dining area. Ten years later, it has grown into one of the most popular restaurants in Los Baños, Laguna, known for its delicious tex-mex inspired dishes.
The shift to tex-mex started with Chef Trin’s homemade salsa, a perfect pair to Spice Jar’s quesadilla and nachos. The homemade salsa was so well-loved by her friends and colleagues, and that gave her the idea that maybe, it would also do well as part of the official menu. And true enough, the said salsa remains a favorite to most customers until now.
More tex-mex products were introduced as the restaurant grew. Spice Jar started to offer dishes that use different spices such as Burrito, Cajun, and Chef Trin’s very own creation, the Spicy White Sauce.
“Iyong spicy white sauce, inimbento ko lang talaga iyon. Mixture siya ng iba’t ibang spices. Natuwa ako na nag click siya sa students kasi wala naman talagang gano’ng dish at pinagsama-sama ko lang talaga lahat ng ingredients nito,” she recalled.
The homegrown restaurant learned to innovate itself over the years and developed other products like cakes and donuts. It has also ventured into catering, offering quality food and services to its patrons.
Spice Jar is also currently developing an events place where family and friends can gather and celebrate special occasions.
“We are planning to create something for events naman, para maka accomodate tayo ng mga intimate parties. That’s our next big project so we could offer something new to our customers.”
Doing What She Loves
Even without a professional culinary background, Spice Jar’s food is chef’s kiss. All thanks to the influence of Chef Trin’s parents, cooking has become her passion growing up. She would also resort to Youtube for recipes and recreate the dishes with her own touch.
“Running a business out of a hobby? Sobrang saya! Kasi parang nakita ko na iyong purpose ko in life,” she said.
Before starting a business, Chef Trin worked as a Farm Supervisor and Technical Sales Executive. It felt like everything happened too fast, and what was once a hobby now became her career.
“Nakaka proud na nakita ko at an early age iyong purpose ko in life and ito rin siguro ang reason kung bakit ako nag pupursige na mag improve kasi ito talaga ‘yong gusto kong gawin. Nakita ko na ito pala talaga ‘yong para sa akin,” she added.
Knowing that not all people have the privilege to do what they love, Chef Trin is keen to make the most out of this opportunity and work harder to improve herself further.
For a business to succeed, it is important to be surrounded by people who share the same dreams and passion as yours. Chef Trin is lucky to have a husband who isn’t just a good partner in life, but also in this business. After retiring from his overseas job, her husband went home for good and helped in managing Spice Jar.
“There was a time na parang feeling ko kailangan ko na talaga ng katulong kasi lumalaki na ‘yong pamilya and lumalaki na rin ‘yong Spice Jar. Naging dalawa ang anak namin, sabi ko sa kanya, I think kailangan mo nang mag stay dito sa Philippines para matulungan ako mag manage.”
In 2021, Spice Jar found a new home along Lopez Avenue and this became possible because of her husband’s determination. “Sabi niya, mommy, gusto ko lumaki pa ‘yong Spice Jar. Gusto ko hindi lang second floor ‘yong restaurant natin, gusto ko may sarili tayong parking area.”
Upon seeing a lot for lease, he immediately requested a meeting with the owner. The next day, he already drafted the restaurant’s layout and started looking for contractors. Chef Trin was hesitant at first because of financial concerns but the couple eventually went on with the plan.
“Working with husband is a good thing naman. Laging nagko-correlate ‘yong path namin. And nakakatuwa kasi kapag nag be-brainstorming kami, dumadating din naman kami sa compromise,” Chef Trin said.
A Tale of Luck
But even after agreeing to her husband’s idea, money was still an issue. “Sabi ko sa kanya, saan tayo kukuha ng pera?” And before they knew it, a tale of luck has just begun.
Chef Trin’s husband told his sister about their expansion plans and his sister mentioned it to an officemate. Thinking it would be a good idea to invest on the restaurant since it has a lot of potential, the officemate then approached the couple and asked if they need an investor for their business.
With the investor’s help, Chef Trin and her husband were encouraged to dream bigger for Spice Jar. “Kasi kung mapipigil lang kami doon sa idea na hanggang dito na lang tayo kasi wala pa tayong pera, baka hindi naging ganito si Spice Jar. And iyong pagiging brave ng asawa ko, iyon talaga ang naging susi kung bakit lumaki si Spice Jar.”
Perhaps luck is really on their side, the couple even met a lessor who is kind and understanding of their situation.
“Itong place namin today, for leasing pa rin siya for ten years and napakabait ng nag hahandle nung lote kasi nagkaroon kami ng bidding that time. P60,000 ang rental doon sa place, then kami, ang nilalaban lang namin is tatapatan lang namin ‘yong value ng rental na meron kami sa dati naming place which is P25,000,” she shared.
But they were still chosen, despite having a relatively low bidding offer, because the lessor also believed in what Spice Jar could offer. “Nakita niya na there is something with Spice Jar and naniniwala rin siya sa mga produkto ng Spice Jar, na lalaki siya at magtatagal siya sa place na ‘yon.”
Determination is one thing, and luck is another thing. But for Chef Trin, both have always played a crucial part in the success of Spice Jar today.
Overcoming Pandemic Challenges
Just like any other business in the country, Spice Jar was also impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. They were forced to suspend operations for two months. Bills started to pile up, and they just moved to a new location during that time.
In order to sustain the business, the couple made personal sacrifices including selling their own house. “That’s the most sad part no’ng pandemic, na para ma sustain namin ‘yong business, talagang ibinenta namin ‘yong bahay.”
And for Spice Jar to be able to adjust to the new normal, they had to remain vigilant when it comes to restaurant trends. Spice Jar developed innovative products such as the Spice Jar Box, DIY Taco Kit, Crave Box, Burger, Wings, and Fries Box, and Hot Box. Because of mobility restrictions, these products became popular among customers and they were able to enjoy them at home via delivery.
They also took advantage of digitalization by creating their own website and becoming more active in social media to reach more customers and continue communicating with them.
“No’ng time ng pandemic, ‘yon na ang naging driving force para magkaroon ng maingay na Facebook, na magkaroon ng sariling website. Doon na namin nabuo lahat ‘yon, pati ‘yong online ordering at makipag partner sa mga third party deliveries,” Chef Trin added.
The pandemic prompted Spice Jar to welcome changes and enforce digital improvements to better serve their customers. Aside from product development and digitalization efforts, Chef Trin continues to guide their employees to provide quality services and deliver customer satisfaction.
“Kailangan naming gumawa ng paraan para lumaban kasi we are not only fighting for ourselves, we’re fighting for our employees din. Kasi kung wala kaming empleyado, paano magwowork si Spice Jar? Paano kami makaka earn ng para sa operating expenses namin kung wala kaming tao? So, ayun na lang ‘yong naging mission namin no’n, na maka survive lang kami, okay na ako.”
Advice to Aspiring Entrepreneurs
Chef Trin wouldn’t recommend starting a business in debt. According to her, it would be better if you have spare money to use and avoid depending on other people’s money.
If you want to start a restaurant business, make sure to create a good product. “The uniqueness of the product, dapat ‘yon ang lagi niyong iisipin,” she said. “Kasi ‘di pweding laging copy cat lang tayo, na ay trending ‘to ngayon, kasi baka fad lang ‘yon eh. So you have to create something na babalik-balikan sa restaurant mo.”
And of course, you can spice up your business by not giving up easily. Struggles are part of every business and everything will be difficult and challenging at first.
“Noong nagsimula kami, everyday, parang masaya na kami na maka P1,000 kami na income or sales. Pero noong magkaroon na kami ng dining area, sobrang saya namin on our first day kasi naka reach kami ng P4,700. So we celebrate small winnings ‘di ba.”
Things will start to get better once you find the right products to serve and know your target audience. If you continue to improve your products and services, everything else will follow.