Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — A couple of days ago, the Sandwich guitarist and Sweet Ecstasy co-owner Diego Castillo went to the restaurant’s new branch in Uptown Parade in Bonifacio Global City to do his weekly rounds and indulge in one of their famous double cheeseburgers. When he got there, he was surprised that it was completely packed. “As in, walang empty tables,” he recalls. As someone who had had no former experience dealing with business, Castillo took that as a sign that what they’ve been doing is working.
The scene is far from what it looked like just over a year ago, when he would sit at his own little seat in their flagship branch along Jupiter Street in Makati, just waiting for customers. “Oh boy, I spent many a day crying,” recounts Castillo. “Kasi you bankroll money because you believe in the product, but that doesn’t ensure success. You may have the greatest burger, the greatest pizza, the greatest whatever. If it doesn’t reach the target audience you wanna reach, then wala yun.”
Sweet Ecstasy was started by the radio DJ Monica Tobias and the yogi Al Galang in 2013 as an after-hours milk and cookies cafe (hence its sugary name). Fondly known to regulars as Sweet X, the restaurant began rolling out burgers in late 2012 as a way to introduce real food into its menu. Consequently, it came up with burgers heavily inspired by the ones that Galang grew up with in his hometown of Los Angeles.
Castillo had been a regular at the cafe before Tobias formally invited him to partner with them for their expansion. The two had been friends for years thanks to their backgrounds in music: Castillo was with his band, while Tobias was a DJ for Monster RX 93.1. It was after Tobias and Galang formally launched the Sweet Ecstasy burger at their original branch in Cubao, Quezon City, that Castillo came on board. “I tried it and I said, ‘Oh man, this is one of the best burgers,’” he says. He really believed in the burger, and it was that that became the basis for his involvement.
Once Castillo was in, the three set off to expand to Makati, carrying with them a strong belief in their burgers and ample knowledge of how to run a business. However, it took them a while before they got the new branch going, owing to the burden of having to file for all of the permits, hire lawyers and accountants, and streamline the kitchen. Even after opening, they still had to do some tweaking before finally hitting a stride three months in.
“We built everything from the ground up. Kami-kami lang talaga, which is why it’s very prideful,” says Castillo. “It’s like how I treat the band. You love it, kayo-kayo muna, and then you build on that. Since we trust each other and we know the product, that’s how it starts.”
In a way, Sweet Ecstasy is something like a 21st-century mom-and-pop; Castillo says that the burger joint is like a family-run business. In the early days, he would really try to talk to customers to ask them about the food. In fact, he laughs as he confesses to even calling Tobias “Mama” and Galang “Dada” because “that’s just how [they] operate.”
Eventually, the trio’s hard work paid off, and people started coming in thanks to positive press (most notably from Esquire’s “Best Burger” feature and chef JP Anglo’s Twitter endorsement). Sweet Ecstasy has even catered for high-profile events like Mar Roxas and Leni Robredo’s thank-you celebration and Marian Rivera’s baby shower.
According to Castillo, they don’t have a formal marketing strategy. The way that people post about their burgers and tell their friends to visit the store is all very organic. They don’t pay anyone to endorse them — customers just really seem to like their burgers enough to rave about them on social media.
In the end, Castillo says that success involves communicating with the customers and making them feel at home. “Because I’m a musician, that’s what I do,” he says. “That’s my thrust. I think that the customer is king. But even more than that, is that you have to give them an atmosphere where they feel like they’re taken cared of. That they have to feel special. Granted that we’re not a Michelin-starred restaurant, but if it makes them happy — they’re good, they’re happy, they’re filled — OK sa ‘kin ‘to.”
Castillo mentions that they’re continuously looking for ways to make the restaurant better. They’re looking at opening a fourth branch within the year, hoping to make each branch cater to the different section of town that it's in with unique menu items and interiors.
But while it is growing and changing for the better, according to Castillo, Sweet Ecstasy will always reflect its owners’ commitment to authenticity. “I know for a fact that no one will ever tell us, ‘Alam mo, fake na fake ‘yang Sweet Ecstasy,’” says Castillo. “That’s for sure. Because we fill it with everything that’s just us, really.”