Ensuring the freshness and quality of food items everyday and making diners happy are key to Ocean City’s iconic status and enduring success for 30 years now. With more Ilonggos patronizing Ocean City, the seafood restaurant grew bigger from a 20-man team to 68 employees now, serving more mouth-watering meals in a total of seven branches, two of which are at SM City Iloilo.
Convinced that SM’s high foot traffic is good for the business, they first opened a kiosk in SM City Iloilo’s food court in 1999 and then a stand-alone seafood restaurant in Southpoint, which opened in 2016.
According to its second-generation leader, Eric Borromeo, delivering consistent freshness, quality and customer satisfaction were closely tied to the fact that they are very hands-on when running the business and that local ingredients are mainly sourced from public markets. It used to be that he was the one who personally went to the market early in the morning to catch the best ingredients.
“I used to go to the market myself. Ingredients like seafood, beef, and vegetables— are all bought from the public market,” he muses. Eric appreciates that Iloilo markets offer the freshest local ingredients enabling restaurant owners like him to maintain the authenticity and quality of their food offerings, especially the Ilonggo dishes.
While he is now more focused on other aspects of restaurant operation and his kitchen staff does the marketing, Eric recognizes that “local public markets play a crucial role in sustaining a lot of other businesses.
This is why Eric sees the ongoing modernization of Iloilo’s district markets, as a positive development that will benefit many especially local SMEs like their company. He shared, “We can all look forward to a better experience from an upgraded market. We won’t experience difficulty in sourcing for supplies and ingredients for our recipes. With this, we can continuously serve delicious cuisines to Ilonggos and tourists in the city,” shared Borromeo.
“Market-fresh ingredients make a lot of difference – it’s the heart of every recipe. It’s what makes food delicious and what makes a customer keep coming back for more,” he added.
Birth of Ocean City
Ocean City was established in October 1992 at General Luna St. in Iloilo. “Ocean City was founded by my father, Ernesto Borromeo Jr. and his friends. One of his friends has a restaurant in Cebu called Majestic, which is based on most of our Chinese cuisines. So when Ocean City was established, they also incorporated Ilonggo and Filipino food. That’s why Ocean City offers a combination of Chinese, Ilonggo and Filipino dishes.”
They became popular for dishes like mixed seafood soup, grilled blue marlin, mixed vegetables with oyster sauce, crabs with chili sauce, steamed prawns with garlic, steamed lapu-lapu with soy sauce, crispy tadyang, pandan chicken and yang chow fried rice to name a few, which captured the Ilonggo palate.
Standing strong in the new normal
Like any other business in the food services industry, Ocean City faced many challenges during the pandemic.
“We really struggled from the beginning because people were afraid to go out. The main source of our income is the food deliveries alone,” recalled Borromeo. “Then we were able to adapt by joining Grab and hiring freelance riders. We concentrated on the deliveries until the customers could go outside again.”
Aside from adjusting to the new normal by focusing on deliveries, being a tenant of SM City Iloilo helped Ocean City cope during the pandemic. “SM understood the problems of the restaurants. SM helped by lowering the rent instead of having fixed rent. They were willing to just take a reasonable percentage of what we earn. That is such a big help. That is why our restaurant recovered,” said Borromeo.
As pandemic restrictions eased, the number of customers dining at Ocean City gradually increased and the business has somehow recovered. Now, Ocean City is back, bringing with it some valuable lessons from the tough times. “What we’ve learned during the pandemic is that not everything is certain. When problems arise, you have to innovate. You have to get out of your comfort zone and try to adapt to continue the business,” Borromeo shared.
Today, Iloilo’s famous seafood restaurant is in full swing once again. Emerging stronger from the pandemic, Ocean City continues to serve great food to Ilonggos with a vision of letting more Filipinos taste their delicious dishes. “One day, we might be able to expand the business outside Iloilo. We’re not just for Iloilo.”