In New York City? Really? Former advertising exec Nicole Ponseca explains how she opened Maharlika, and got great buzz and press from Day One.
Maharlika in New York City's East Village has been a word-of-mouth hit since opening in January 2011. Glowingly reviewed in The New York Times, the restaurant, which serves Filipino cuisine, was described as an "empire in the making," and recently launched two pop-up restaurants in Williamsburg. Nicole Ponseca, 35, a former advertising executive, co-owns Maharlika with fellow Filipinos, Noel Cruz and Enzo Lim. She tells us how the restaurant became a success, despite serving a cuisine unfamiliar to many diners and having very little start-up money.
How did you go from ad exec to restaurant entrepreneur? The idea really started more than 10 years ago. I was working at Saatchi & Saatchi and my clients wanted to try Filipino food, but there weren’t any places I thought I could take them. At the time Filipino food was still in the shadows, stuck in the cupboards of Philippine families. So I started working at restaurants, in addition to my advertising job—hostessing, waitressing, dishwashing, so I could learn the business. My bosses didn't know because I didn't want them to worry that I couldn't handle the workload. In 2007, with eight years of experience under my belt, I quit my day job and started working as a GM.
What did you learn that you applied to opening your own place? I loved working at [New York City's] Mermaid Inn—I learned the most about hospitality, how to treat guests, about achieving consistency. Danny Abrams is one of the best restaurateurs out there and I don't think he gets enough credit. Anyway, Miguel Trinidad was a Dominican line cook I knew and we became friends. I told him about my idea for a Filipino restaurant he said "Let's do it!" I said, "What the hell do you know about Filipino food?" and he said, "Well, what does Jean Georges know about Malaysian?" In 2009 we backpacked through the Philippines for three months. And by backpacking I mean hitchhiking, motorcycles, and dirt roads from Manila traffic to the Visayan Islands to learn about the food.
So how did you initially launch Maharlika? I couldn't find investors because they didn’t know what Filipino food was, and because no one else was doing it, they didn't believe in the concept. I was working at [Brooklyn's] Juliette at the time and my boss had a restaurant in the East Village that was kind of failing so I asked if I could use the space on Saturdays and Sundays for brunch. It was a pop-up and we opened in January 2011. I didn’t know that pop-ups were going to be a trend—at the time they didn't really exist except for Ludo's Bites in L.A. It was completely accidental and dumb luck. This is how we built the brand and created a following with no money except for food costs—we initially spent $1,000 on food and that was it. We were open for five months and we were so successful we started looking for our own space.
I remember reading a lot about Maharlika around this time—blogs and articles in The New York Times and New York magazine. What was your marketing and PR strategy? We don't have a publicist or anyone dealing with our PR. It was really about building a brand via word of mouth and social media. New York magazine was the first one to pick it up on [its food blog] Grubstreet—they talked about sisig because we were using pork in a different way, the ears, cheeks and snouts. So many outlets picked it up from there. We did zero pitching on any media we've received.
You opened your full-service version of Maharlika in November 2011 with just $12,000. How did that happen? In our current space [also in the East Village] we're operating as a management consulting firm. There were restaurants that have failed in that space before us, so we approached the owners of the lease to open Maharlika there. There's a 20-year lease on the space and they had a freaking liquor license in the East Village, which was so rare! They agreed, so in essence they're almost like our investors—the structure was already there for us to operate. They operate the business as their own LLC and we manage the space. We spent $10,000 on equipment at an auction at a restaurant that was closing and $2,000 on décor. It was all about creative décor—we purposely picked cultural icons and things that are recognizable for a Filipino. This is a business built on heart and soul.
What do you think diners are responding to best? Our menu is small, so we can use better quality ingredients and do everything really well. From the first day we opened the doors, the Filipino community came out to support—and not only do they come once, they come back three or four times and bring their friends. The restaurant is set up in a way that there is a wink and a smile to Filipinos, but a non-Filipino can enjoy the experience and not feel locked out.
What's next? We opened a pop-up brunch and concept store in Williamsburg in November and we've been offered another space in Chelsea. It's amazing the opportunities that have been thrown at us, but I'm just trying to pace myself. I'd love to bring Maharlika back home to California, where I'm from.
CLARISSA CRUZ is the Fashion Features Editor of O, The Oprah Magazine. She is the former Style Editor of People magazine and has written for Entertainment Weekly, InStyle, Food & Wine, and Budget Travel. @clarissanyc1