Tag Archive: Ernest Escaler

Ernest’s Garden

Ernest's Garden

Ernest's Garden

There are some people, like Ernest Escaler, who manage to turn a simple hobby into a giant business venture. Chit Lijauco listens to his success story.

A flock of ducks and geese trail businessman Ernest Escaler as he walks through The Sanctuary, his latest development on his 8-hectare vegetable patch in Silang town, Cavite province. This “vegetable patch” is better known as Gourmet Café, the popular first-of-its-kind coffee place an hour’s drive southwest of Manila, and the resto that started the lifestyle of salad eating. That was about 25 years ago. Today, however the attention of this entrepreneur who turns everything he touches into gold (he is an investment banker, a real estate developer, an impresario and a producer)  is on his latest baby.

The Sanctuary sits on a one-hectare area. It is a place for meditation and communing with nature, a retreat or a haven for wounded souls and an opportunity to experience the monastic life.

“Children are not allowed in here, neither are radios and television sets,” the lord of the manor speaks. “The idea is for everyone who comes here to listen to the birds and the rustling of the trees, and every sound that nature makes.” One can sense the passion in Escaler as he speaks of the The Sanctuary which he built because he feels that “the world is getting too noisy.”

Those who would spend a weekend, a  couple of days or even a week at The Sanctuary will also have to fix their own beds, clean their own toilets, rise with the sun as the rooms have no curtains and talk to no one, not even the farm hands. Food will be served on time outside the rooms, and collected later. A life like the monks indeed-if only temporarily.

Designed by architect Andy Locsin with dabbles from Escaler, the area is a huge den that holds a beautiful chapel, 10 rooms for at most two people, a sun deck, an eating nook and a roofed gathering place.

Escaler said that he had always envisioned a place like this on this property but had the opportunity to start it only last September. Still, the place is already operational, although Escaler is not promoting it full blast. “I’d rather that people learn about it by word of mouth,” he says of this exclusive space that fetches quite a sum: P5,000 per room per day.

Comparatively expensive for this area, The Sanctuary, however, will more likely become another hit.. Like Gourmet Café which, according to Escaler, “is a hobby that turned into a nightmare”.

From the late seventies to the early eighties, Escaler was one of the biggest coffee exporters, reintroducing Philippine coffee to the world market. At about this time, he acquired a two-hectare property in Silang town, near his home on the Tagaytay ridge. On this he planted orchids and coffee as a hobby. He also began to plant lettuce and herbs, again as a hobby.

Friends began to order his produce and so he started to do deliveries. The business grew to a point that his farm manager told Escaler that they needed to buy another truck to deliver the lettuce and herbs. He then asked how much such a truck would cost and was told. “P250,000”.

“Okay”, Escaler reacted. “With that amount, cold we put up a restaurant here instead so that for these people can just pick up their orders?”

Thus, the first Gourmet Café arose, made of coco lumber and a 30-seater serving coffee and salad. “At that time, not too many people knew how to eat salad. And they might think that pesto tasted like medicine.” But it began to serve good coffee and fresh salads as well as to sell coffee beans, vegetables and its own bottled sauces.

Business was slow in the beginning. Escaler remembers averaging only five cups of coffee a day and giving away all the garden’s produce to the seminaries and convents that litter Tagaytay.

But somehow, the idea sank in and Gourmet Café eventually became a hit. People came in droves and it became a common sight to see lines and lines of cars parked in front of that log restaurant on the highway going up Tagaytay. It was definitely a novelty. First of all, a good place to eat outside the city is always a come-on, and at this time, a rarity. Then, to make your own salad from fresh ingredients, the cost of depending on the weight of your concoction less the dish was a treat no other restaurant then was offering. Lastly, to eat the salad with original sauces from the Gourmet Cafe kitchen, sauces that were also bottled and sold to the growing clientele.

So successful was the idea that at one point, Gourmet Café had seven branches all reduced that number to two.

The original spot, however, continues to grow. From two hectares, the garden has grown to eight. The restaurant is now a two-story chalet at the back. The first log restaurant is now a country store that sells the fresh vegetables and herbs from Escaler’s garden, his bottled sauces, jellies and jams, pots and pans, kitchen and garden stuff and many more. And the vegetable patch now draws an average of 2,000 tourists a week at an entrance fee P20.

A successful business story, whichever way one looks at it. And Escaler is not one to keep his cards close to his chest. The place is now also the training ground for agri-business students from University of the Philippines in Los Banos as well as from universities in Tokyo and Paris.

Well, perhaps not all his cards; for expect an astute businessman like Ernest to keep some of his aces. Like The Sanctuary, for instance, and whatever other hobby he will be coming up with in the future.

A Man for Others

Jesuit educators believe their singular mission is to mold each and every one of their students into a “man for others.” This was the vision of Society of jesus founder St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Ernest Escaler

Ernest Escaler

Ernest Escaler parlayed his Ateneo education into an enviable career in banking and finance that eventually empowered him to put up a diversified group of companies that employs as many as 700 people.

“To be a man for others. I really took that philosophy to heart.” Says the 61-year-old, whose first act of supreme sacrifice was to end a blooming career in 1973 in New York as a commodities trader at Sumitomo Shoki America Inc. so that the Philippines could benefit from his expertise.

“I left a job in New York that paid me $5000 a month and came back to one that paid me P5000,” laughs Escaler.

More than the money, he gained the chance to put his Economics degree from the Ateneo and Master in Business Administration from the prestigious International management Institute of Lausanne, Switzerland to good use. He was the first Filipino to graduate from the school set up by Harvard Business School at Bancom Commodities Services Inc., a subsidiary of the Bancom group. During its heyday, Bancom attracted the best and the brightest graduates of Philippine business schools.

After four years of being in the thick of international and domestic trade of commodities, it was time for the third of the six siblings to go out on his own, like his father had done before him. Escaler and Co. (Management Consultants) Inc. was born. It provided consultancy and project development services and estate management.

What followed were a succession of companies that have made indelible marks on the business landscape, such as the Gourmet Coffee – the first branded coffee from the Philippines to make it big here and abroad – and Gourmet Farms, which was the first among the first to commercially produce organic vegetables in the Philippines.

“I would say that I taught Filipinos to eat a salad and to appreciate brewed coffee,” says Escaler. “The whole concept at that time was to tell the world that we have world-class products here.”

“We do not have to be so colonial minded,”continues Escaler, who is as passionate about his coffee and vegetables today as he was 30 years ago when he started on his journey to become one of the biggest buyers of local coffee.

When he is in the country, the dedicated bachelor spends his weekends at Gourmet Farms Inc. in Silang, Cavite where he has his farm, restaurant and one of his latest babies, the four—year-old Sanctuary where people can come for a silent retreat, or recharge their mental, emotional and spiritual batteries while enjoying delicious organic food.

Escaler, who admits to having entertained the idea of entering priesthood, goes on retreat about once a year, just to get himself together and renew  the strength he needs to carry his multitude of responsibilities.

Aside from running the Gourmet group, a full service travel agency, real estate company, restaurant and fast-growing business process outsourcing company, he is also involved in a number of civic organizations. These include the Asian Cultural Council Philippines Fellowship Program, which is affiliated with the Rockefeller brothers fund based in New York and the Ballet Philippines Foundation Inc.

“I tend to support things I cannot do myself,” he says. It explains why, in 1987, it was not difficult to get him to help Chito Afable, a classmate at the Ateneo. Who was coach of the senior basketball of the Ateneo de Manila University.

“I took it on because nobody was supporting the team. We took care of the team’s needs like shoes, uniform, vitamins. At that time, there was little budget even for the uniform,” says Escaler. “All of that came out of y pocket.”

It was an investment that certainly paid dividends as that celebrated. Ateneo basketball team that included Gilbert “Jun” Reyes, Eric Reyes and Danny Francisco and Alex Araneta eventually won the coveted championship, the first since Ateneo joined the Universities Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP).

Escaler proudly displays the trophies that Ateneo won back-to-back in 1987-1988 and 1988-1989 seasons in his den and sanctuary. He is not as involved as he used to be as the Ateneo team is now very well financed. “They don’t really need me anymore,” explains Escaler,

Escaler does not really mind, however, as there is still so much that he wants to do. Including helping put out to the world a better image of the Philippines by bankrolling such productions as the Flower Drum Song by Lea Salonga and, most recently, the video of the dancing inmates of Cebu to be included in the late Michael Jackson’s This is it DVD under Sony Pictures.

Escaler says that his most fervent dream is to make more millionaires among Filipinos, especially his people. “I want them to inherit the companies. I am mentoring a lot of them because I want them to be strong enough to eventually own the companies.” Says Escaler.

“I already have enough for myself. The businesses are really for others,” he adds. Spoken like a true-blue Atenean.