Boxing legend and former presidential candidate Manny Pacquiao has teamed up with a 38-year-old restaurateur to bring the best of Filipino dishes to the world stage.
Senator Pacquiao believes in our vision and mission. “We would like to improve people’s lives and at the same time bring Filipino cuisine to the international market,” says Jefferson Caetano Katembang, founder and CEO of Maharlika Pilipinas, in an interview.
Katembang and his team are searching for the best location for their first overseas MP restaurant in Los Angeles, which will be followed by stores in Dubai and Singapore.
The restaurant will not only showcase modern Filipino cuisine but also the country’s culture and talents as evidenced by Pacquiao’s exploits in the boxing ring. Pacquiao agreed to become a partner and lend his tools to market and promote the restaurant.
“Senator Pacquiao allowed us to use his tools. So we also aim to become a kind of tourist destination,” says Katembang, who runs the Maharlika Pilipinas hotel, restaurant, spa and events in Alfonso, Cavite.
“Maharlika,” says Katembang, a word describing Filipino nobility, aptly sums up their mission to showcase the best of Filipino dishes, culture, and talent.
The idea is for it to be the world’s first semi-luxury Filipino restaurant, said Rad Pelayo, who is handling the local expansion of Maharlika Pilipinas.
“We like to be known as a place to go in the cities we are in,” he says.
Pelayo says the Philippines’ second Maharlika Pilipinas restaurant will rise in Quezon City. “It’s very modern and not the typical original restaurant that other Filipino-themed restaurants are known for,” he says.
Katembang says they are in talks with three famous Filipino chefs to lead the first international branch of MP in Los Angeles and with a cooking school to prepare the menu.
“Before we launch globally, we make sure we have the best team, we have the best kitchen. We will bring the best dishes from the Philippines. We aim to get our foreign customers to say ‘awesome’ once they taste our food.”
He says the plan is to create an all-inclusive restaurant, café and bar that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as wine and whiskey. It will also have a meeting room for events and gatherings.
Katembang, who is also the main franchisee of Babaylan Spa and co-founder of Tribu Babaylan Restaurant in Quezon City, says they will hire Filipino talent, including dancers and musicians as actors and beauty attendants as receptionists at the first Los Angeles restaurant.
Katembang, who studied marketing at Far Eastern University, worked as a medical representative at United Laboratories Inc. before getting into work. “There, I definitely learned and met a lot of people. Through all these undertakings, I slowly saw aspects of my personality taking shape,” he says.
“During my first year in the corporate world, I suddenly fell in love, got married right away, and started a family of my own. In all my endeavors, my parents and family were very supportive. My family became my ultimate inspiration, and I decided to focus more on business,” he says.
“I set up a bar, café and food carts in the university belt area. This was replaced by a laundry shop that thrived. When I was assigned to Palawan, I realized how beautiful the Philippines really is. I admire the beautifully made products by many artisans,” says Katembang.
“Working in sales, starting a new family and starting a company is very stressful. That’s why my wife and I decided to start a spa business. This is where Babaylan Spa was born. Katembang says it’s a Filipino-themed spa that promotes the authentic Hilot massage.”
With the success of the first branch in Sambaloc, he opened another branch in Quezon City. The spa concept has grown and expanded to include Cebu, Palawan, Cavite and Davao. It was rebranded to B Spa and later as Tribu Babaylan – a spa, bar and restaurant concept in one.
The pandemic then disrupted the service sector, including resort, hotel and restaurant businesses in Katembang.
The first Maharlika Pilipinas restaurant is located in a hotel of the same name in Alfonso, Cavite. The property of 1 hectare has great views of Taal Lake.
Among the dishes served at the restaurant are Biangjang Chicken from Tusug Tribe, Ilocos Bokoi Bokoi Pie, Ilocos Bacon, Sizzling Sisig, Polalo and Bangus alla Popre. Katembang says they will be adding more dishes from different provinces to provide a full representation of Filipino cuisine for the international market.
Katembang says they have had to be creative to maintain hotel and restaurant operations despite the pandemic.
“So instead of wasting our stock of luxuries, we cooked meals for the front lines. In turn, this gave us an opportunity to get patronage from frontline goers who loved our food. So food delivery became possible. This is one of the scenarios where adversity presents the opportunity.”
“Our employees are staying for a long time. They have been with us even at the height of the pandemic. It is difficult to find loyal employees to work for you. During this difficult time, I had to talk to our loyal partners to hold on and wait for the sunrise after the rain,” says Katembang.
“Fortunately, I met with Senator Manny Pacquiao. We are able to convince him to come and join our company. But the process of formalizing the agreement took a year to make the legal rounds.
Katembang says he first met Pacquiao during a pool match. When he invited the senator to play pool in General Santos City, he did not think twice and traveled to Mindanao. This is where he touched on his business proposal, which Pacquiao delivered to his team of legal and business advisors.
The business proposal had to wait due to the pandemic and Pacquiao’s presidential campaign. The proposal was revived only after the election period.
Katembang says patriotism and business knowledge in Pacquiao helped develop the Maharlika Pilipinas concept.
“At the suggestion of the Senator and People’s Champion, who replaced Tribu Babaylan as a new brand and new concept for the company, Maharlika Pilipinas or MP includes everything good about the Philippines and its people,” Katembang says.
“The Maharlika Pilipinas Project is an overarching concept that epitomizes Filipino acumen by showcasing the best of its natural and man-made wonders thus elevating Pinoy identity to higher heights,” he says.