In a kitchen the size of a studio apartment on Guijo Street, counters and tall racks of ingredients, condiments, and takeout containers fill up the space that a bed, desk, and bathroom normally would. Sunlight bounces off the contrasting navy and white walls. The free line cooks wear masks. A few tables that create an L shape make up their dispatch area — lined with freshly packed orders, ready for contactless pick-ups.
Amidst the busy and snug space, the head chef is busy studying. In the wake of her careful examination of a proposed restaurant concept where the brief was for “painfully addictive” Korean fried chicken, she had begun a series of experiments to be tasted by Mikee Villareal, the young, beaming, and platinum blonde CEO of the online-only restaurant group, MadEats. After eating those experiments almost every day, Villareal concurred: the secret to creating chicken that stays crispy during delivery is the same thing that all cooks at pre-pandemic chicken winners before them knew. "It has to be fried twice.”
Judging from the motorbikes picking and packing food cargo into their insulated boxes in Kapitolyo and the fringes of BGC, cloud kitchens, spaces purpose-built to cook food for delivery, are on the rise. But MadEats is the first to go all in on a techie playbook, spinning off multiple brands out of one kitchen facility so they can maximize the gains. Conceptualized in September 2020, MadEats was born in anticipation of a world in which delivery is the norm, and the future of food is digital. But when they finally launched in November, this prediction materialized into the reality for restaurants — they had to make people happier at home while the rest of the world stayed temporarily closed.
The anatomy of MadEats
Behind the delivery-only food group are individuals who have worked in food & beverage marketing and business development: Mikee Villareal (Chief Executive Officer), Keisha Lao (Chief Product Officer), and Andie Cruz (Chief Marketing Officer). The all-female team’s core philosophy captured the attention of their now-investor and Tinder co-founder Justin Mateen along with PayMongo Chief Growth Officer Luis Sia. MadEats is the first local F&B venture Mateen has invested in and the third venture he has funded in the Philippines — joining the likes of Avion School and PayMongo.
Orders are usually placed on their website where their menu is divided into two sections: Chow Time, a line of Chinese grub for everyday selling dimsum, rice, and noodles, and Yang Gang, which is focused on Korean fried chicken. The site illustrates all my desires for a painless ordering experience: time-saving quick views, a condensed list of dishes, and online-friendly payment methods. For now, they are relying on third-party courier manpower while they work on assembling their own fleet of riders dedicated to getting to where their customers are.
In contrast to ordering on FoodPanda or GrabFood, where Chow Time and Yang Gang are also available, the MadEats website grants you the exclusive opportunity to cross-order from both food brands and conveniently end up with a box with three flavors of Korean fried chicken and a side of Chinese fried rice topped with sweet and sour pork. Their delivery-only model was orchestrated to suit the needs of conscious consumers who are independent, open-minded, pleasure-seekers. “When it comes to the consumer market for food, there will always be traditionalists and purists,” said Cruz, the marketing officer. “Since our [brands] are playful both in taste and in marketing, we imagine that the behavioral thinking of our target market is that they are the ones who like to take risks.”
The website’s flood of colors and bold fonts did welcome me just like how it felt before to enter the Food Choices in Glorietta when it was newly renovated. At the same time, I was thrilled at the thought of eating food from two different places while avoiding the doubled inconvenience and fees that it otherwise would’ve cost me.
I try it out myself on an impossible Monday when I am drained empty from ambitiously catching up on all the work in my to-do list. I expected, irrationally, to have the kind of carbo-loaded and deep-fried food that would wipe away the exhaustion.
Moments later, a hot and unusual combination of Chinese takeout boxes and signature Korean chicken waited for me on my dining table. In just a few taps and clicks, a man on a motorcycle paid my house a visit to hand me a warm paper bag carrying the food I caught myself staring at through my phone a mere few minutes earlier. I called my mom to join me while I unpacked my favorite dishes. Mom examined the stark contrast of red and black printed on the remnants of a torn and discarded paper bag, “Where’s their restaurant?” I tore open the last sizable tub of cheese supposedly meant for the soy garlic chicken and motioned for her to sit and start eating before the food got cold. “They don’t have one.”
If there’s anything I learned from scouring Hongdae, a street lined with restaurants in Seoul that offered street food and then some, it’s that anything delicious turns into something unbelievable when dipped in cheese. The same principle applies to Yang Gang’s OG fried chicken with its thin and crackly crust submerged in their OG crack sauce (a tub of silky and rich cheese that equalizes the spiciness). Plus, their tangy rabokki, a firecracker hot fusion of instant ramen noodles and rice cakes and a subtly sweet jjanjangmyeon with an outburst of umami are easy to devour on their own or great pairings to their signature chicken — which the kitchen tweaked based on early impressions from its first customers, I learned from Villareal later on.
A sensation experienced by most was exorbitant levels of spicy. “We can concede to the fact that not a lot of people like spicy food, but what we can do is give them a variety of other dishes that are not spicy,” Villareal said, pointing to their expanded selection of chicken flavors: OG Fried Chicken, Fire OG Fried Chicken, Soy Garlic, Sweet Curry, Yangnyeom, and Kimchi BBQ.
I abandoned my cheesed-up fork and spoon to navigate a pair of chopsticks towards the red oyster pails. Inside the first lucky meal I pried open, I found a generous serving of their namesake fried rice with bits of beef topped with a fried variation of classic siomai — a combination that I now crave for often. I also could not resist a bite or two of their balanced sweet and sour pork which, to no one’s surprise, also paired perfectly with the Chow Time fried rice. On the side, I had an unbelievable amount of stir-fried noodles bursting with a strong garlic and sesame flavor which I want in all my birthdays to come. The best decision I made was ordering the fried dimsum, which disappeared in mere seconds.
With our realities minimized to our immediate vicinities, MadEats creates versions of our cravings specifically engineered for delivery. “We make it a point to look for cuisines that are delivery-friendly because we believe that good packaging and a delivery experience can only do so much,” Lao says. “We want our food to remind people what it’s like to eat at a restaurant.” They deliver within a radius where they feel the food is at its peak — when the texture, freshness, and temperature are, under most circumstances, preserved. To make good on their vision to grow their national reach, they are also working on expanding their delivery footprint beyond the immediate neighborhood by setting up more cloud kitchens in the near future.
For now, they’ve dropped hints about the third and next member to join their growing list of homegrown brands: Fried Nice. “Rice is intrinsic to the eating culture of Filipinos,” Cruz says. They allude to a possible repertoire of adobo fried rice, mushroom fried rice with truffle butter, and maybe even a plant-based bibimbap.