13 years a restaurateur

IT HAS been 13 years since Jan Rodriguez first set up Ila Puti that back then, was simply a carenderia across a school in Talamban, serving fried chicken, bola-bola and some of the earlier versions of his meal variants still offered today, the place now called Puti’s Platos. It was a no-frills eatery, just casual and comfy enough for students to converge during lunch time, although it was not the usual type of carenderia, as Jan said, “We were air-conditioned. I painted the walls and I designed the place myself—like I still do now—to make it cool for the students.”

It’s that kind of attention to detail—and not just on aesthetics—that has made Jan’s venture in the food business grow over the years. From the designing of the interiors to the formulation of recipes; how the food is prepped, cooked and served, he has always been hands-on. Ila Puti celebrated its 13th anniversary in April, and his second venture, Irie Gastropubliko, will celebrate its third later this month. Both are now located within Cebu I.T. Park.

With no formal culinary training, Jan is a chef by experience. He said that he first tried cooking when he lived overseas for a couple of years, and got into it upon coming home, making meals for his son who at that time wasn’t used to eating rice. “I needed to do something for him to eat properly, so I did some recipes with rice and he liked them. The first recipe I did was Peking Pork. We still have that and it’s one of our bestsellers, in fact,” Jan said. “I knew how to cook. My wife knew how to cook. So we gave (Ila Puti) a try.”

Cooking, he later found, was something he truly enjoyed. “It was very therapeutic for me,” he said. “I did the cooking and I would go out and serve the food. I would talk to the guests. That was very new back then and people were weirded out by me asking them about the food. But customer service, to me, is very important. Delighting guests with the dining experience was very important. It built up from there.”

From a staff of three (him, his wife and one cook) to now around 35, his food selection has likewise grown. Each has its own concept: Ila Puti with its Asian fusion cuisine and Irie as an American gastropub, both nevertheless carrying the same commendable food and service quality that he has set and maintained.

For Ila Puti’s anniversary, Jan added five new dishes to its menu with more to come within the year, while at Irie, he said a renovation is in the pipeline. He also revealed that Irie is in the shortlist, as Cebu braces itself for the first of its kind craft beer tours. He said Irie was the first in the city to carry imported craft beers, and now has the most craft beers on tap including that of Turning Wheels and The Cebruery, that he will soon be serving with food to pair to craft beer seekers.

Apart from being a restaurateur, Jan is also into photography, graphic design and branding—and as expected, has been hands-on with the marketing of his restaurants. He also does consultancy for restaurant conceptualization and development on the side, particularly staff training on customer service. More importantly, Jan is also a father of four, and shared that his kids have also been exhibiting similar interests as he in culinary work and design. Away from his restaurants, he usually spends his free time with them, traveling.

From his more than a decade’s worth of experience, that spiraled from a simple carenderia to homegrown brands that Cebu is proud of, Jan has this to say to aspiring restaurateurs: “You have to love what you do. Believe in the business and the product.

Listen, learn and adjust. Every day is a learning process in making yourself a better person—personally and professionally.”
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