The Next Big Food Entrepreneur: A Hotbed of Food Entrepreneur Startups in Manila! @MercatoCentrale

(Text by Paul Wenceslao, Photos and Video by JR Velasquez)

One bright idea, as the old adage goes, leads to another, and in the case of the Filipino food enthusiast, a family favorite recipe or an odd combination of ingredients scrounged up in the cupboard can perhaps lead to the next local food craze. Mercato owners, RJ Ledesma and Anton Diaz, made this a possibility by holding an annual competition for every budding food entrepreneur: The Next Big Food Entrepreneur.  

Mercato Centrale, operating a popular chain of food markets all across Metro Manila, came as the battleground for the recently concluded competition, in which every aspirant was welcome to submit an application – in the hope of winning P100,000 as start-up capital along with a six-month free stay at Mercato.

For the past three years, The Next Big Food Entrepreneur has produced a slew of new food businesses coming from various places in the country, and this year’s batch of semifinalists is no different, if not more diverse. There were students who aspire to be full-fledged food entreps, an Indonesian food enthusiast, several individuals who luckily chanced up on the competition’s ads, and a Pinoy Masterchef winner. 

“This year’s edition of The Next Big Food Entrepreneur offers a lot of diversity. A large number of creative savory meals were featured,” explains Abbie Sinjian, Experience and Event Manager of the Mercato group. 

The food served by the participants ranged from flavorful Indonesian cuisine to the artfully stylized version of the local snack turon, much to the delight of Mercato’s owners as well as those who sampled the food from different booths during the competition’s awarding ceremony last Friday, December 19.

“We had a hard time selecting the winners, since everyone did a wonderful job and served really good food,” Sinjian added. True enough, each of the booths have the potential to make it big in the Philippines’ bustling food industry. 


The 2014 TNBFE Winners

Being selected as a semifinalist in The Next Big Food Entrepreneur, which subjects participants to actual selling at a couple of food markets, is already considered a win for the budding entrepreneur. After all, booths get to showcase their wares to the buying public, observing how their products perform after making adjustments to both the food and the booth display. It’s the proverbial first step to establishing a food business.

A total of 14 participants made it to the contest’s semifinal round, all of which having dainty booths and serving noteworthy cuisines. The competition was expectedly stiff, and four came out as the big winners: Bakmi Nyonya, Bigorots, Turonne de Manila Café and Hunger Buster.

The Next Big Food Entrepreneur Winner 2014 series:

Bakmi Nyonya (Indonesian – Filipino Cuisine)

Bakmi Noodles

Bakmi Nyonya, owned by young couple Lucy and Gershwin Garcia, emerged as the overall winner of The Next Big Food Entrepreneur 2014. Throughout the competition, the Garcias happily introduced the Filipino palate to Bakmi Ayam, Indonesian noodles with beef, mushrooms, choice herbs and spices. Topping the noodles were large shrimp dumplings with homemade chili sauce. 

The noodles are firm, adding robust texture to the dish. As for the flavor, tasting a spoonful starts off with a mild tinge of beef; the intertwining flavors of the herbs and mushrooms then arrive for a pleasant kick in the end. 

Apart from Bakmi noodles, Bakmi Nyonya also serves spiced rice topped with sambal. Any food lover who adores a playful mix of strong flavors would adore this dish. The rice, in itself, is big on taste, without needing a viand to satisfy the palate. Adding sambal and an order of shrimp dumplings gives this dish an appetizing edge.

Thanks to the Garcias’ devotion towards building different layers of taste and incorporating a dainty booth design, they also bagged the People Choice Award and the Best in Innovation plum. Bakmi Nyonya is well on its way to expanding the range of flavors that Filipino palate appreciates. 

Bakmi Nyonya
FacebookBAKMI Nyonya
Mobile: +63 925 870-8899

Related Blog Post: BAKMI NYONYA: Best Indonesian Cuisine in Manila!  


Bigorots (Modern Filipino Heritage Cuisine) 

Bigorots 2

Pegged as an early favorite to win The Next Big Food Entrepreneur, JR Royol’s brainchild, Bigorots, offers smart Filipino fusion dishes, namely Royol’s own take on Pork Humba and Chicken Pinikpikan. Having completed a culinary course at the Center of Asian Culinary Studies, he placed his cooking skills on full display, as he handily won the Philippine edition of the popular TV show MasterChef. 

Bigorots’ YOLO Humba, which playfully incorporates the saying: “you only live once,” is easily a crowd favorite, having impressed critics with its crispy exterior and its “melts-in-your-mouth” fatty meat layers. Not short on taste, the well-seasoned pork slab is partnered with a bed of rice and presented in soup spoons. 

Royol, staying true to his roots in Benguet, also featured his winning dish on MasterChef – the Chicken Pinikpikan. It didn’t come with a soup base, unlike its traditional counterpart. Instead, he used the broth to marinate the chicken meat and then cooked it to perfection. 

The meat is firm, has a subtle “gingery” taste and goes really well with both brown rice and white rice. “I call it perfectly cooked chicken,” Royol admits. 

Bigorots won the Best in Savory category of The Next Big Food Entrepreneur.  


Related Blog Post: BIGOROTS: Bicol + Igorot Heritage Cuisine by Pinoy Master Chef JR Royol! 


Turonne de Manila Café (Artisanal Turon)

Turonne De Manila

A popular local snack, the turon is normally considered cheap comfort food. Danz Semilla had other plans – he turned his love for turon and his penchant for making artisanal desserts into a winning dish at TNBFE. Semilla’s booth, Turonne de Manila Café, bagged the Best in Desserts award.

The artisanal turon, as some would call it, stays true to its traditional cousin, having a crispy outer layer and a banana slice inside. Unlike regular turon, however, Semilla’s masterpiece incorporates butter cream, creative flavors and picturesque plating, which can give any stylish dessert a run for the money in style and taste. 

Taste-wise, the Bacon-Maple Turon – the booth’s best-seller – is a modern marvel. Its banana filling acts as a subtle background, like a well-decorated stage, to the crispy shell and the bacon-maple combo. The bacon grants the dessert a salty dimension for a balanced flavor. 

Every bite from the Bacon-Maple Turon is accompanied by a luscious outpour of crisp and sweetness, tailored to please the inner sweet tooth of most Filipinos. TNBFE’s panel of judges was beyond satisfied. 

Turonne de Manila
Facebook: Turonne de Manila Cafe  
Mobile: +63 927 660-8705
Telephone: +632 842-3680 

Related Blog Post: TURONNE DE MANILA CAFE: Best Pinoy Dessert Innovation! 


Hunger Buster (Burgers and Sandwiches) 

Hunger Buster 2

Conceptualized by a group of Atenean students, Hunger Buster distanced itself from the competition by dressing up their booth well, making its products appear even more appetizing. Furthermore, its owners aggressively joined food markets, including Mercato, prior to TNBFE and used social media to promote their wares. As a result, they garnered stellar sales and even won an award (Best Booth for UP Ecosoc’s Foodgasm) in the process. 

Erika Cantor and her friends applied the same winning strategy upon joining TNBFE, and it eventually earned them the award Best in Marketing. Marketing and promotions, however, aren’t the only noteworthy things dished out by Hunger Buster; they happen to serve seriously tasty burgers.

Hunger Buster’s signature burger patty has an ideal balance of meat and lean fat, making their burgers juicy and tasty. The booth’s best-seller, Dying, is peppered with bacon strips and melted cheese. The beefy taste pops right out of the first bite, followed by the salty zing of bacon and the creaminess of cheese.  

Burger lovers with big appetites have the option of ordering an extra patty if they opt to bust hunger even further. 

Hunger Buster
FacebookHunger Buster 

Related Blog Post: HUNGER BUSTER: Best Affordable Gourmet Burgers in Manila!


Noteworthy Participants

Although four winners were named in the competition, the entire group of semifinalists proved that quality products can be served through dedication, creativity and an openness to make necessary adjustments when needed. The Next Big Food Entrepreneur is not just a competition; it is actually a training ground to produce successful food businesses. Think of it as The Apprentice minus the firings and Donald Trump’s campy gestures.  

The rest of TNBFE’s batch of semifinalists, alongside the winners, all have a clear shot of garnering success if they decide to pursue their goal to put up a food stall en route to perhaps having a restaurant or a food truck in the near future. Truth be told, yummy delights were aplenty during the competition. Let’s have a peek at what the other participants offered last Friday. 


Up in the Clouds (Artisanal Ice Cream)

Up In The Clouds

Young couple Jonathan and Jessica take pride in serving the very first Butterbeer-flavored ice cream in the country, pleasing Harry Potter fans and dessert lovers alike. Beneath the hype is an icy treat that is not too sweet and has a rich and creamy flavor. 

Not far behind is the Milk & Cookies which is just plain addictive. It successfully marries the taste of cookie dough with the creamy texture of ice cream. Celebrities like Kris Aquino and Sam Pinto have tried their ice cream and loved everything about it.

Up in the Clouds
FacebookUp in The Clouds IceCream  


Cubano (Cuban Sandwiches)


Inspired by the Jon Favreau film “Chef,” a group of La Salle students decided to make a Pinoy version of the Cuban sandwiches featured in the movie. The result is a cross between a pugon pan de sal sandwich and a Panini. 

Cubano’s Pulled Pork is blessed with tender pork strips, homemade barbecue sauce and crispy bread. The barbecue sauce is gentle on the taste buds while the pork seemingly melts in the mouth. Remarkably, the pressed bread does not drown the taste of its contents, weaving a harmony of flavors.

Mobile: +63 917 312-8051 


Siowarma Twist (Crispy Shawarma Siomai)

Siomai Twist

Imagine combining shawarma and siomai? That’s exactly what a customer will get upon ordering an item from Siowarma Twist. The fried siomai ball has a shawarma filling and is slathered with garlic sauce. 

This creation is a potential game changer in preparing shawarma; it comes as a lighter and cheaper alternative to the popular meat wrap. The garlic sauce is tart and bears a mild tangy kick, meshing lovingly with the meat. The crispy shawarma ball is perfect for people on the go.   

Siowarma Twist
Mobile: +63 905 775-0387


Dirty Fingers (Chicken Fingers) 

Dirty Fingers

A traveler at heart, software engineer RJ Dumalanta, has tried a wide variety of cuisines from Southeast Asia. This explains his playfulness when it comes to experimenting with flavors, and his version of the popular meal starter Chicken Fingers is reminiscent of his travels. 

Dumalanta’s booth, Dirty Fingers, has a long list of specialties and among his most noteworthy flavors is the Honey Salted Egg. The sauce is an opulent mixture of honey and salted egg with an ensalada siding. The chicken is nicely cooked, as the meat effortlessly takes on the flavor of the salted egg. Composed of veggie bits, the ensalada adds a welcome crunch to each bite. 

Dirty Fingers
FacebookDirty Fingers  


Mad Wraps (Mini Wraps)

Mad Wraps

DLSU is known for producing highly creative businessmen, and Manny Pineda comes as no exception. As opposed to serving the standard rice meal, Pineda went with bite-sized wraps for TNBFE. Other countries have their own versions of wraps, and he wanted to establish one for the Philippines. 

The bold attempt is most certainly a success, which is ascertained when one tries Mad Wraps’ creations. Acting as a full meal in a small crispy package, the Pork Barbecue Wrap is surprisingly filling. The potato-based stuffing comes to life once one tastes the barbecue sauce. As for the Mac and Cheese Wrap, it comes off subtle at first, but the experience becomes pleasurable when the cheesy kick hits. 

Mad Wraps
Number: +63 917 869-3998 


Tiya’s Kitchen (Squid Adobo)

Tiya's Pusit

Idelfonso Ellerina, Jr. adores the fresh morning catch from his hometown (Surigao), so much so that he prefers to eat seafood over meat. This penchant led him to putting up Tiya’s Kitchen, inspired by the terrific cooking of his aunt, and eventually joining TNBFE. 

Ellerina’s squid adobo has a mild spice that adds excitement to the dish. Firm and tasty, the squid exhibits a fibrous texture that parts easily upon each bite. The adobo base does not interfere with the squid’s taste; in fact, it builds a salty central flavor that goes perfectly with rice. The squid even blends with Bakmi Nyonya’s Indonesian noodles as if it was the brainchild of both booths.  

Tiya’s Kitchen
Mobile: +63 998 994-5643  


Pallman’s Pinoy Sandwiches (Sandwiches)

Mr. Pallman's

Pallman’s Pinoy Sandwiches – a play on words regarding how Americans pronounce the Filipino term “palaman” – does not mind infusing a little humor in its name. Its products, however, are seriously good. After all, the sandwiches are Butch Tanseco’s way of honoring his grandmother’s recipes.  

Aiming to be the Filipino version of the international sandwich chain Subway, Pallman’s Pinoy Sandwiches is a bold attempt gone right. The Bistek Pinoy Sandwich, Pallman’s carrier flavor, is smacked with strips of cream cheese, onions and traditional bistek. The flavors pop right out but never overwhelm. It is among this writer’s favorites.

Pallman’s Pinoy Sandwiches


Naughty Nachos/Wicked Wings (Nachos and Chicken Wings)

Naughty Nachos

Marianne Borja is serious with her cooking. If not found at her workstation at a local BPO office, she is either busy preparing nachos and wings or making her friends try her wonderful creations. Upon learning about TNBFE, she found a starting point to showcase her wares to the buying populace. 

Her Death by Bacon Nachos is peppered with onions, tomatoes, cabbage and the dish’s x-factor – the homemade cheese sauce, which bears a strong cheesy kick. A spicy option is available for those with adventurous taste buds. The Sisig Nachos highlights the flavor of the cheese sauce even further, which bursts with every bite. The crunchy texture of pork sisig tickles the appetite.  

Naughty Nachos
FacebookNaughty Nachos   


A Guy’s Flan (Leche Flan)

For Junee Sibangan, inspiration came when he tried what he claims to be the best tasting leche flan ever at a baptism in Mindoro. Not knowing how to cook, he persevered to recreate the dessert and wound up with something really special. 

A Guy’s Flan features an assortment of pleasantly creative flavors like Blueberry Cheesecake, Mint Custard and Graham Vanilla. The Blueberry Cheesecake tastes like custard mixed with blueberries and a hint of caramel. The flan does not crumble and has a wonderfully firm texture.

A Guy’s Flan


The year 2014 has been pretty interesting for the Filipino food entrepreneur, with TNBFE producing a fresh batch of potential new businesses. Given the progressive improvement of the participants in the past few years, the 2015 edition of The Next Big Food Entrepreneur promises to be just as exciting.

The Next Big Food Entrepreneur Winner 2014 series:

Live an Awesome Life,


Disclosures: OAP is a co-founder of Mercato Centrale and The Next Big Food Entrepreneur. 

P.S. Thank you to our sponsors for The Next Big Food Entrepreneur 2014 competition!

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2 thoughts on “The Next Big Food Entrepreneur: A Hotbed of Food Entrepreneur Startups in Manila! @MercatoCentrale

  1. At first people think that going to food business is challenging and quite scary. But to be honest, it only takes courage, guts and patience to succeed in this industry. Keep it up! more power to you guys.

  2. Hi Anton,
    This is Sig Torres, your previous Officemate at Procter & Gamble. (Was from GBS – Financial Services)
    I would like to touchbase with you on some business related proposals since my company’s services can complement with yours.
    Hope you can return my call at 09178455959 / 02-5872263

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