Proving critics wrong, one awesome dish at a time

YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR. When everyone said his food was too expensive for Cebuanos, Jason Hyatt soldiered on and continues to do so with the Abaca Group’s seven food brands. (SunStar photo / Arni Aclao)

RUNNING a restaurant is pretty much like running a show.

Before a customer comes in, the chef has to make sure all is well, from the table napkins to the tiny details in the kitchen.

He has to make sure all is set; the staff wearing their best smiles before he declares the restaurant open for business.

When chef Jason Hyatt, the founder of the Abaca Group, opened his Condé Nast award-winning Abacá Boutique Resort and Restaurant in Mactan in 2006, he knew he was going to change the culinary landscape in Cebu.

Critics said the business would not last long, as the menu came with a hefty price tag. He was a new player in Cebu and that Cebu is a market that is hard to please.

But he went against the current and raised the bar, defining what premium dining in Cebu really is.

He made sure that every time he switches the open sign, customers can expect a delightful culinary experience.

Hyatt said Cebu’s food and beverage market has changed in the last 15 years.

“For us, we had a stigma that we were expensive. I don’t know if we have changed that, but it is working to our advantage now. We broke that (price) ceiling... and our competitors can now price accordingly,” said Hyatt, explaining he doesn’t do shortcuts and that all he wants is to give every customer the real value of what he pays for.

Hyatt proved the critics wrong. From the first Abaca brand in Mactan, the group now has seven food brands: Abaca Baking Company with nine existing branches and one more to open soon at the Ayala Center Cebu, where the old NBA store was located; Abaca Boutique Resort in Mactan; Luncheonette American Short Order with one existing branch at Robinsons Cybergate and soon to open branches at SM City Cebu and Ayala Center Cebu; Maya Mexican Restaurant at Crossroads, Banilad; 10 Phat Pho Vietnamese Restaurant branches, with one branch in Manila; three branches of Red Lizard Taqueria and soon in multiple locations in Manila; and two branches of Tavolata Italian Restaurant at Ayala Center Cebu and Design Center of Cebu along A.S. Fortuna St.

Hyatt also announced they are going to open three restaurants at The Reef Mactan Hotel and Residences, including a Filipino restaurant. They are also going to handle the food and beverage management of Citadines.

“We believe that the market is ready for what we do,” said Hyatt, adding that the presence of hotels, resorts and other high-end restaurants developed by foreign and local players has helped Cebuanos embrace the premium dining lifestyle.

By end of 2019, the group will have a total of 29 restaurant branches in the cities of Mandaue, Cebu and Lapu-Lapu.

Hyatt said the group’s rapid expansion isn’t solely because of his own effort. He takes pride and is grateful to be working alongside his close to 600 employees who helped him grow the Abaca brand.

“If we want to grow, we should work well with other people,” he said.

What was your first job?

My first real paycheck job was as a fry cook at McDonald’s in 1983. This is where I learned systems and communication, plus the elements of teamwork and planning. I also learned you can’t do much with $3.35 an hour.

Who inspired you to get into business?

I have always been business-minded and liked the idea of business in general. Birthing Abaca in 2006 kind of just happened. The opportunity here in Cebu was through my uncle, who still lives in Cebu, and my partner who was, and still is, very patient.

What really made it happen was convincing my wife to live in a dilapidated old property for two years while we built it.

When did you realize this was what you were meant to do?

I was very lucky, as I feel like I figured out I wanted to cook at 19. Although the older I get, I am figuring out that I have a long way to go before I figure it out.

Why did you pick this type of business or industry?

What I enjoy about this business is it’s certainly not boring and it’s an ever-changing animal. The other thing is, I didn’t pick this. It picked me.

Where did you get the training you needed to succeed?

I have been lucky to have worked for many different operators and chefs over the years and have mentors that guide me.

For cooking it’s, without a doubt, a chef named Jordan Smith, who taught me to learn the classics and stop playing until you get a good grasp of real cooking.

My dad, definitely, for work ethic and for not calling in sick— ever.

My partner, Marc Compagnon, who keeps me grounded and explains why some decisions don’t make sense, and how to plan.

Last, but certainly not least, Anna Hyatt, who tells me when I’m being a jerk and should just calm down.

I would have to say this and these people were part of my training and part of not only my DNA but the company as well.

How many times did you fail before you succeeded?

I haven’t failed in the business-failure sense very much, but I do think I failed some of our former staff, some friends and definitely some of my family by not being more self-aware and not taking the time that was necessary to make it all work on a personal level.

I pretty much put my head down for the last 10 to 12 years, went as hard as I could, and am just starting to look up and look around and pay attention. You lose people because of that and sometimes don’t get it back. There is no doubt that on some level, you need to do that to succeed.


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