Kaladkarin Diaries

Ramblings about food, cooking, recipes, travels, history and walking around Manila.

Mr. Ube’s Cafe Mezzanine

This is a very late post. I just came back from hiatus, been busy the past few weeks and wasn’t really in the best of health. Anyway, I’m back and I’m sharing one of the casual meet ups for the Binondo Heritage Group (BHG)

What would you do if you inherited a near bankrupt business? When news about your financial woes spread like wildfire in the community? Would you lose hope when suppliers, friends or family turn back on you?

What would you do if you inherited a near bankrupt business? When news about your financial woes spread like wildfire in the community? Would you lose hope when suppliers, friends or family turn back on you?

I’ve heard of the name Gerry Chua from one of my uncles before but wasn’t sure who he was until someone pointed out the red pack of hopia on the table. I was gobbling its contents one afternoon (I was eating a mongo hopia- my personal favorite) while writing.

Fast forward- The Binondo Heritage Group organized a casual meeting in Binondo, breakfast at Cafe Mezzanine… owned by Gerry Chua. The name rang a bell in my cluttered mind… I knew that name, I’ve heard it! Then, I saw a purple plastic bag- I remember now… Eng Bee Tin.

Our “long table” (well, we were a big group that day) everyone was talking about books brought by fellow members, of course the introduction was there too! We got to see the faces of serial BHG participants (active ones… I think… well not all).

upon entering Cafe Mezzanine

upon entering Cafe Mezzanine

the early birdies

the early birdies… no they aren’t planning to kill anyone… just chatting…

perks of the early bird

perks of the early bird… book given by Joaquin Sy.

We had breakfast while waiting and chatting with each other. Congee and coffee for starters while stories were told. Ester Choa brought books with her in the meeting (Lao Fu Tzi she bought from Hong Kong and other books). I wasn’t in a very dandy mood since I haven’t had my caffeine fix (it was 8am… I received Mike’s text at 7:45am when the meeting was supposed to start at 8:30am)

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meatball congee

coffee... im not a day person... (yawn...)

coffee… im not a day person… (yawn…)

As we finish our congee and coffee, one by one the other BHG members arrived with smiles on their faces. Greetings and handshakes were exchanged. As the group continued to chat with each other, a man in purple came in. (No, it wasn’t Grimace as I was hoping when I saw the purple colored shirt) I was initially clueless, until i remembered a photo posted by Nathan Co prior to the BHG casual meeting. The man was Gerry Chua or Mr. Ube. A friendly gentleman who immediately shook everyone’s hand with a big smile on his face. I’m not a suck up when it comes to people, I don’t believe in social climbing and being chummy with people because of their name or success. But as far as I’m concerned, I saw him as a humble man- that was my first impression, and I continued to observe from my seat.

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left side front to back: Michael Chan Gotaco, Ester Choa, Sarah Ang-Sy, Angela Arriola Yu, Tommy Tan. Right side front to back: Mike Lu, Ronald Kong, Gerry Chua, Joaquin Sy and Alvin Gale Tan.

Everyone was introduced to him before he asked us to try Cafe Mezzanine’s best sellers. He even made sure to introduce Val to us, something you don’t see everyday. What do I mean? It’s not often that I see an employee be treated like family. Now, let me show you what we feasted on during the meeting despite the congee and coffee we initially had.

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Kiam Pong by Cafe Mezzanine

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Gokong or Soup No. 5 by Cafe Mezzanine

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Xiao Long Bao by Cafe Mezzanine

As we all ate (yes… again…), Gerry started to narrate Eng Bee Tin’s history. I’ve read about almost all his interviews before… blogs, newspaper and TV features etc. I was actually expecting the same thing and didn’t bother writing down details. Until he said he was called different names. That got my attention. He smiled as he told us about the time when people called him a lunatic and a shoplifter. Yes, I did say a lunatic and a shoplifter. I was as surprised as you are when he said that. Without taking my eyes off him as he narrates that part, I fished inside my bag for my notebook and pen and started jotting details.

I think most of us have a hard time accepting things out of the norm. When someone presents something new or unusual, we immediately called that person “crazy”. We’re all guilty of that. As Gerry took over the family business, he was looking for ways to come up with something new to make their hopia stand out… finding ways to make it better and get rid of the hard mongo hopia. Have you tried making hopia with your bare hands, no help and no machinery? Then pack it after and sell them? Some of you might suggest hiring help to take care of production and concentrate on selling, that would work- if you HAVE the money. Bank loan? It was hard enough to stop one cheque from bouncing, let alone several cheques. Gerry recalled an incident about the time he tried to stop a check from bouncing and the bank refused assistance. I’m not going to mention names here, but that’s how it is if you’re not rich. To make it short, he wasn’t able to make the deposit & the cheque bounced… just because someone from the bank refused to assist him for the amount of 1,800 pesos (the amount was not that small that time) and made him wait too. Eng Bee Tin needed a push to get back in the market, and that happened after Gerry was called a shoplifter. No, he didn’t really shoplift anything (hehe), he would often go in a supermarket in Binondo to cool off, spending time roaming around inside just to take advantage of the air conditioning. If you have worked in a kitchen whether you’re cooking or doing prep work, you’ll understand how air conditioning feels like. Now, how did heat and air conditioning helped him? The heat made him crave for ice cream one day and asked which flavor was their best seller, and the answer- Ube.

The idea prompted Gerry to buy  6 jars of ube and used it to make hopia. To the extent of learning to make halayang ube in Pampanga. It wasn’t received right away, not because it wasn’t good… It wasn’t the classic flavor everyone was used to.

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photos while Mr. Ube tells us about Eng Bee Tin and Cafe Mezzanine… late members: Richmond Chi, Eric Tan, Jerry Teng goofs for the camera! and Janet Lim.

I observed him as he spoke about his family’s sinking business, about his certainty that he had a very good product- and he just needed everyone to give it a chance,  on how he waited for a Chinese exporter in a corner of Binondo to sell his product in the US. Serial rejection didn’t stop didn’t stop him until he was able to persuade the exporter to give his product a chance. The day came when someone came in the store with a Ube hopia wrapper on hand asking. Gerry found out the wrapper came from the US, someone based in the US asked a relative to buy some Ube hopia to be brought abroad. In short, Gerry’s “crazy” idea was a hit in the US- and yes, it wasn’t popular here.  Sometimes financial woes can either make you or break you. This cheerful man was happy to sell 50 packs of hopia before, he tried to get the business afloat even if it means doing the hard work by himself. When you’re not on top, you don’t have many friends or relatives- you’re pretty much on your own. So how did Gerry turn things around for Eng Bee Tin? He gives credit to Ms. Cory Quirino for featuring their Ube hopia when he assisted the TV host when she did a feature in Ongpin. After the TV exposure, the demand for hopia ube grew exponentially.

“Do good deeds and good will come to you”

Gerry was a fire volunteer braving the dangers of fire-fighting since he was a young man, he felt good in helping people. Other than risking his own life, he has also thought of a way to better help his community.

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The Ube Tanker- Binondo-Paco fire volunteer. TXTFIRE Philippines photo credits: Nathan Co

Aside from buying two firetrucks which he painted purple to remind him of the ube halaya which brought him enormous luck, he also put up Café Mezzanine. The cafe’s profits go to fire volunteers… 100% of the profits, not just a fraction. That means, you get to eat & help fire volunteers too! Another is Mr. Ube Rice and Noodle House, aiming to acquire ambulances for public use.

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Mr. Ube Rice & Noodle House Photo credit: Nathan Co

photos of actual fire fighters in action

photos of actual fire fighters in action

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A framed photo of Gerry was given by Nathan Co from his mother’s memorabilia.

Gerik posing with the photo Nath

Gerik (Mr. Ube Jr.) posing with the photo Nathan gave his dad.

At present, Gerry introduced his son, Royce Gerik Chua to all of us, Mr. Ube Junior. The latter took over the business and is making his dad a very proud one.

That day was the same day a new line of hopia was introduced, the new pork floss hopia. All the BHG members present were given a box to try.

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The new Pork Floss Hopia… Yummy!

The group was set to visit the Txtfire command center but something happened. Elevators and me do not go along. –end of story—

A few days after the meet, I went back to Cafe Mezzanine and had a one on one with Mr. Ube. It wasn’t really planned. I just went there for winter-melon tea and beef noodles (comfort food) and he coincidentally dropped by.

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winter-melon tea

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Beef Brisket Noodles and Winter-melon tea… definitely hits the spot!

Oh, I forgot to mention… CNN Travel featured Cafe Mezzanine!

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That’s CNN Travel ladies & gentlemen! Photo credit: Nathan Co

He gave me good and useful advice, a few gossips (I promise not to tell, I have to respect that… hehehe) and most of all… my utmost respect for this humble man and his family.

Mr. Ube and Cafe Mezzanine

Mr. Ube- Gerry Chua

Four generations and a humble hopia factory since 1912.

ENG BEE TIN CHINESE DELI BRANCHES
628 Ongpin St. Binondo St.
Binondo Manila
288-8888 ; 241-9999

650 Ongpin cor. E.T. Yunchengco St.
Binondo Manila
288-8888 ; 232-1223  Loc. 219

518 Quintin Paredes St.
Binondo Manila
Tel: 522-2289

Ongpin Commercial Center
Ongpin cor. G. Puyat St.
Sta. Cruz Manila
Tel:  735-4658

Unit  G-84 Odeon Terminal Mall
C.M. Recto cor. Rizal Ave.
Manila
Tel:  735-0755

GL 8 Welcome Plaza Taft Ave.
Pasay City
8836-2670

Level -2 Waltermart Center
Chino Roces cor. Arnaiz
Makati
Tel: 843-7256

G-41 Victory Central Mall
Monumento Caloocan City
Tel: 332-1579

B-16 LG Victory Park & Shop Mall
Antipolo Rizal
Tel:  661-7615

Ground Floor Cash and Carry Mall
South Super Hi-way
Makati
Tel:  401-6229

Level  1 Padre Faura Wing
Robinson’s Place
Ermita Manila
Tel:  401-3063

Cafe Mezzanine Branch
Mezzanine Floor
650 Ongpin  cor. E.T. Yunchengco
Binondo Manila
Tel  288-8888  /  241-9999 Loc  230

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