Manila’s dining scene has grown exponentially in the past years, with new (and better) restaurants popping up at blazing speeds—and significant to the turn of this era is The Moment Group of Restaurants. Partly leading the pack is Abba Napa, whose role as as founding partner for creative development has her developing homegrown concepts, such as 8Cuts, Ooma, and Manam, and bringing in renowned international franchises that include Michelin-starred xiao long bao joint Din Tai Fung.
Napa has long been exposed to the food world; her mom owned a Filipino bakery abroad, and her dad had invested in the L’Opera Group which her family came to own. But entering the industry herself was not something she had always planned to do—nor was it something imposed on her by her family, who she describes to be “very cool and forward-thinking”. As a young entrepreneur out of college, Napa’s initial endeavors were in retail (among her most prominent ventures are the Tropical Retail Company, through which flip-flop brand Havaianas made its way to our shores). But she had the perks of eating for free at her dad’s restaurants as his way of supporting her—and this in turn exposed her to the ways of the dining world.
“It was during this time that I discovered how romantic [the world of restaurants] all is, in a way,” she shares. “The camaraderie of the team is special because you end up spending ungodly hours together, and you all feel like you are a part of one cast that puts on a big show together every night. Then there is the instant gratification aspect of those instances when your diner loves their meal. I fell in love with all of it,” Napa shares.
While she went on to take up Restaurant Management and Culinary Techniques at the French Culinary Institute in New York, Napa was convinced at the time that she wouldn’t enter the industry herself. “It was so damn consuming—of your time, your brain, your imagination.” That is, until her dad terminated her free-meal benefits, “ . . . because he said I was no longer a struggling entrepreneur. I was crushed. [But] he said if I wanted to continue eating there for free I would have to put in the work like everybody else.”
Having fallen deeply in love with restaurants at that point, and in spite of her dad’s advice (”there are far easier ways of turning a profit and making a living than being in food!”), Napa decided to join L’Opera. “[It was] less for the free food,” she clarifies, “but more because I just loved being around it all. It was intoxicating to me.” By 2012, Napa—along with Jon Syjuco and Eliza Antonino—founded The Moment Group, making their debut to the public with ‘Cue Modern Barbecue in Bonifacio Global City.
To have a restaurant be brought to life by people who will make it their own and make it something larger and more amazing than we could have ever imagined is superbly important to me now that I have grown up a bit more in this world.”
Napa points out a few things that distinguish the food world from other industries. Among these is the value of consistency and repetition—one which entails recreating a certain dish or menu item and maintaining the same level of quality—in F&B. “No matter how talented and creative and lucky you are, if you can’t consistently bang out your style of food on a daily basis, you aren’t going to make it,” she explains.
More crucially, Napa points out the food world’s dual nature as both a product, and a service industry. “That makes F&B a real people business. I believe it is even more about people than about the food,” she explains. “Creating the food, imagining up the space: that stuff is the easy part . . . [but] the challenge is, and will always be, galvanizing a growing team of people across a multitude of kitchens and dining rooms to not just believe in the vision every day, but to also translate that belief into the best product and service possible.”
In the six years it has been since The Moment Group’s debut, Napa’s philosophy and approach has grown. Though she admits her to having focused on the restaurant concept and product as her end goals in the past, she’s expanded her scope to emphasize the impact restaurants make on the actual people fueling them. “Today my end goal is always about the experience . . . the diner’s journey . . . AND the people who recreate that experience day in and day out.” And while Napa admits this can be difficult (and a “never-ending process”), it’s a challenge that she readily takes on. “[In the beginning] we made, and continue to make, many mistakes . . . But I really enjoy what I do, so much so that it has never really been a struggle.”