We’re Still Here
Guarded optimism cuts through daily anxieties as a bakery does its best to survive the pandemic.
From the kitchen of her residence in Marikina City, Metro Manila, a baker does her best to keep her business afloat. Alongside her works a crack team of seven bakers and a company driver, taking orders and minding their posts as they ship orders to customers through courier systems. This remote work is new for them. Their physical café is gone. The blows have been dealt — but they continue on.
Rosemarie Lantin is a baker of national renown. The owner of a bakery in Marikina City, she is both manager and hands-on baker, filling in whatever gaps need filling as she shuffles from phone to oven to baking equipment. She specializes in macarons, though many specialty cakes come by her hands as well.
Together with her stands a team of eight.
Grace, right hand woman to Rosemarie, was the first of the staff back when the bakery first began operations over a decade ago.
Eugene, a baker stationed at the commissary along Katipunan, worked a farm and handled construction jobs in his home province of Iloilo before moving to Manila to work alongside his sister, Grace.
Dame, Eugene’s wife and a baker based in Rosemarie’s household, was sought out by Rosemarie so that Eugene wouldn’t have to live separated from his family.
Clades, who handles the odd baking job while taking and managing orders, is a young single mother who provides for her newborn son.
Ian, who wipes down the machines when he isn’t helping with orders, is the son of a fisherman, recently deceased.
JR supports his family while working with Rosemarie, upon the recommendation of a friend who left the bakery at the start of the pandemic.
Dwight, who handles the company van and other odd jobs. The breadwinner of his family who moonlights as a delivery boy at night, he works to pay for his father’s medications.
Glen, company driver, acts as liaison between the store and Rosemarie’s household, while delivering orders across Manila. His family recently moved to Manila from their home city of Dumaguete.
All are skilled bakers, trained personally by Rosemarie herself. Together, the eight of them keep the bakery running.
A baker trained both in Bangkok and in Europe, Rosemarie has loved to bake since she was young. Though she carries a degree in Economics from the University of the Philippines, opening a bakery was almost a natural decision for her. Starting at first from the confines of her own kitchen, she quickly found herself in need of more floor space. This she found tucked away in a shadowy corner of Katipunan Avenue.
It was a small store, made up of two side-by-side lots by the Ateneo Grade School. The Aurora-C5 overpass runs directly past the front of the shop, the rumbling of passing trucks felt in the store’s glass panes. Where other big-name stores occupy prime real estate along the avenue, Rosemarie’s bakery was all but missable, hidden next to a parking lot and a transformer station.
The rightmost lot was a kitschy café with blue walls and Parisian fixings, while the leftmost lot was both a display area for cakes, and the bakery commissary, hidden behind a wooden door and a bit of wall. A smaller kiosk was located on the second floor of SM Megamall.
The store was a dream come true.
Painted sky blue and decked out with metal fixings and wooden furniture, the store had been built in accordance with Rosemarie’s own designs to be a second home to parents waiting on their children at school. College students would trickle into the store in search of air conditioning and gentle café music.
What started as a hobby quickly grew into a small, yet staple part of the Katipunan community. The store was soon sponsoring school events, corporate engagements, intimate gatherings and personal cravings, while the café was host to regulars and the occasional open-mic gig nights. Rosemarie’s staff, themselves a family, found pride in their cozy shop at the edge of Katipunan.
Both the kiosk in Megamall and the café along Katipunan are now gone, closed to cut costs as earnings dried up and customers stopped coming by. The bakery is all that remains.
“I’m really sad, because I was really happy there in the café,” shared Eugene. Part of the team in charge of running the café, he served customers on a daily basis as they ducked in to pass the time.
“I made coffee,” shared Eugene. “It really uplifted my heart. I miss how our work was before the pandemic.”
Rosemarie and her staff are a few among millions of Filipinos whose livelihoods have been threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nationwide, unemployment rates hit a staggering 45.5% of all adult Filipinos during the second quarter of 2020, as cases continued to soar, reaching a peak of 6,216 in a single day around mid-August. The Philippines slid into recession that same month, following a 16.5% decline in Gross Domestic Product.
Feelings of fear and uncertainty also continue to persist well towards the end of the year. In August the Social Weather Station (SWS) reported record-high levels of pessimism among the Filipino people, with 36% of those surveyed feeling unsure of the future.
These same pressures took their toll on Rosemarie and her team. “If I had my way, I would have closed the store. I would have continued just as a hobby,” she admitted. “I stay open because there are people here who need their jobs.”
“I wasn’t there when they tore down the shop,” said Rosemarie, reminiscing on the final days of her café. “It was too difficult.”
With sales drying up and the nationwide lockdown erasing all foot traffic, Rosemarie’s physical stores became logical but unfortunate victims of the pandemic. For the business to stay afloat, the decision was made to roll back on unnecessary expenses. It was towards the start of April, two weeks into what would become a seemingly endless lockdown, that Rosemarie and her team said their last goodbyes to their precious café.
“It was difficult, very difficult. I put love into everything I do,” she added.
The loss of the shop wasn’t the only major change to hit the bakery. Many of the shop’s counter staff had to leave their jobs as well. Public transportation bans made it impossible for many staff to come to work, and left without livelihood support from the government, the shop lost the means to keep them all paid. Cashiers, guards, the three who ran the kiosk in SM Megamall — many could no longer make it to work.
Now, Rosemarie’s bakery is a home-based operation. Cakes and confections are made at the commissary and touched up at the Lantin family residence. Like many small businesses, they were forced to adapt — but amid the “New Normal,” their small store has found fresh life.
A survey conducted by Oxford Economics and sponsored by SAP-SE showed that 69% of surveyed SMEs have adopted digital and technological solutions to adapt to the crisis. With their physical store now closed and all foot traffic gone, Rosemarie and her staff turned to Viber groups and courier services to keep the business alive.
Though Rosemarie and her team have found a way to transition into the “New Normal,” they admit that the changes brought about by the pandemic have taken some getting used to. Face masks and face shields serve as another step the team has to take into consideration.
“I’ll admit,” says Dwight, speaking through several layers of fabric and plastic, “sometimes it gets difficult working under the face mask and face shield. It’s hard to breathe under them, and they get hot, so it gets tiring after a while.”
The transition to digital business came with its own frustrations for Rosemarie and her team. Where before they could rely on walk-ins and face-to-face exchanges, now all orders come in through a single phone. Much of Rosemarie’s time is now spent managing hundreds of incoming orders — but for her, it’s hardly a problem.
“We had some customers from before who were really looking for us when we closed up shop,” said Rosemarie. “They messaged us saying, oh, we’re so glad we found you again.”
Unemployment rates have settled down to a rate of 39.5% of adult Filipinos — still high, but lower than it was in July by several million individuals. Those still employed have settled into new modes of business.
“At the start of the new setup, we didn’t have a lot of customers. Now, we have quite a lot,” explains Eugene, now based from the commissary along Katipunan. A constant flurry of phone calls, beating whisks and delivery boys have come to punctuate his daylight hours.
Rosemarie and her team have found their footing once more. Where at the start they relied on close contacts within the village to keep up meager sales, now they ship off cakes and confections to customers all across Metro Manila.
As they expand their range, Rosemarie recalls the help her neighbors had provided. She now fashions herself the village baker, with neighbors coming by regularly for their now-usual orders.
“It’s like we’re returning to how things were before with our small communities,” says Rosemarie. “We’re selling to our immediate neighbors. They’re not buying from the big companies as much anymore, but from small stores like ours. This could still lead to something good for us small businesses.”
“We still get many orders. We’re still able to release a lot of cakes each day,” says Dwight. “Even if there’s a pandemic, we’re doing what we can to earn.”
Comfortable as they are with their current situation, anxieties creep in during quiet moments and lulls in the workplace. Bakers whisper about gossip back home as they pipe out macarons. Facebook video calls from concerned spouses and parents punctuate the evening downtime after a day at work. Their jobs are in Manila, but so is the virus, and they long to see their relatives again.
Fear over the coronavirus is never far away. Rosemarie’s staff make it a point to go from home to work to home again, with no detours along the way. At the end of the day, they clamber into the company L300, brought by Glen to their Manila homes. Ian chooses to live in the bakery, fearful of bringing the disease home to his family in Payatas.
“My family back in the province, they’re very worried about me,” shares Eugene, his own relatives having asked him to come home with his wife. “They told me, the virus is there in Manila. But me and my wife told them, it’ll be the same as before if they return home. I’ll return to my old work, which was hotter and harder and paid less.”
Though the pandemic posed a compelling point toward closing the shop, Rosemarie shares that it was never an option for her. She could have closed up store entirely and returned to baking as a hobby, she says, but she decided not to.
“My staff, they’re one very good reason for staying open,” repeated Rosemarie.
Rosemarie remains optimistic. A religious woman, she believes things will turn around one day in the future. “I want to tell our customers that we’re still here. In fact, we’re better than ever,” she says.
Despite the hardships now faced by small businesses, many remain hopeful. The same Oxford Economics survey showed that 88% of SMEs in the Philippines remain confident that their businesses will grow over the next three years.
These sentiments of hope are shared by Rosemarie and her community of bakers. Settled as they are into the new situation, they all hope for a return to how things were. “It’s possible — but only once there’s a vaccine,” speculates Rosemarie. She echoes sentiment shared by many Filipinos — though scientists postulate a 2024 date for any successful vaccination efforts. In the meantime, she and her staff continue to find ways to navigate the “New Normal.”
Despite his families’ wishes, Eugene chooses to remain in Manila with Rosemarie and her team. He carries with him a personal wish for the future. “Things got really bad under the pandemic, but I really hope our store will rise up again one day,” he says.