How Nonie’s Boracay Is The Inspirational, Feel-Good Story We All Need Right Now
This little restaurant faced down two closures with good food and resilience to remain one of Boracay's go-to destination dining spots
When the immigrant couple Shria and Patrick Florencio decided to pack their bags, leave their comfortable jobs in Singapore, and start the most difficult business in what is one of the hardest locations in the Philippines, they didn’t know they were going to be in for one rollercoaster ride.
Shria and Patrick have always been on the move. Shria was born in South Africa, with Indian roots, before her family moved to New Zealand to settle down. Eventually, she would go on to work in Melbourne, Australia, before relocating to Singapore. Patrick, on the other hand, is born to Filipino parents who came from Marikina. He was born and raised in Canada, backpacking the world shortly after graduation, before eventually working and getting relocated, as well, to Singapore.
And in Singapore is where the two met.
Their work was great, the pay was amazing, and they had each other’s company in a booming country. But inside, Shria knew there was more to life than the sparkly walls of Marina Bay Sands and the free gym perks.
“Part of my job was CSR. So, I was finding that most of the time, I was more interested in the CSR and not my actual job,” Shria says. “That’s when I knew I wanted to do my own thing. It was a cool company, but I just knew I wanted to do something else.”
“We played around with different business ideas like tech, startups. We even went to an incubator in Singapore. We played with a few ideas, but then, settled on the hardest business you can do, the least scalable, and in what was apparently the hardest location as well,” Patrick says, laughing.
And so, Nonie’s was born in Boracay.
Nonie’s: good Filipino food
Nonie’s was named after Patrick’s mom, just like their iconic Nonie’s BBQ grain bowl, which was recreated after his mom’s original recipe. It was also Patrick’s dad who found the location at Station X, where Nonie’s is now situated.
“When we we're looking for spaces, we were very naive. We thought we could get something on the front beach—but that was obviously not possible, especially as newcomers. Then, my dad saw this big building being constructed. He just sent the video, and then we emailed them,” says Patrick about finding their space at Station X.
In fact, Nonie’s opened even before Hue Hotels and Resort Boracay, the major hotel that constructed Station X. And quickly, it became the locals’ and tourists’ go-to place for good, conscious, and locally sourced Filipino food. You’ll find chicken and pork adobo made with grilled chicken and a crispy but flaky 72-hour pork; bistek tagalog served with seasonal local greens; kare-kare made with homemade tempeh and cashew and coconut milk; and delicious grain bowls (a.k.a. rice bowls) featuring local adlai or black rice sourced from a cooperative in Iloilo.
There was a secret, of course, to their good food. And there were three pieces to the puzzle that made Nonie’s Filipino core stand out. One, Shria and Patrick worked with Chef Ramon Antonio, who has been a hero of Filipino heritage cuisine (working previously for Marco Polo Ortigas’ Filipino all-day restaurant, Cucina), to develop the core menu of Nonie’s.
Two, they made sure they were working with local suppliers to get only the freshest ingredients, sourced sustainably and responsibly. Their coffee comes from Kalsada, a social enterprise who works with communities up north, they use fair trade tea that comes from a woman’s cooperative, and they would tweak their menu based on what’s in season and what’s available in mainland Aklan.
Three, Nonie’s made everything from scratch so they had everything to their standards. Their bagoong is made from scratch, their breads are baked daily, and even their kimchi is not just cabbage, but made in their kitchen with trimmings of sitaw, kangkong, okra, or whatever local vegetables that they have in the kitchen that would otherwise end up as scraps.
The fact that the food tastes and looks so good should’ve been enough to make a good restaurant, but the couple made sure Nonie’s was there for everyone, for all kinds of people, for all nationalities. This is why they have a lot of vegan and gluten-free options on the menu, and dishes like kimchi noodle soup, bao sliders, and grain bowls inspired by the increasing Korean, British, and Australian residents in the island.
With their mind-blowing flavors, the on-point plating and presentation, and their Instagrammable interiors (which Shria admits is just all Pinterest!), Nonie’s quickly became a local and tourist favorite, earning them the Travellers’ Choice award from Tripadvisor and driving hoards into their quaint little spot at Station X.
But right when things were going well, their efforts and savings finally paying off, Boracay had to close down for rehabilitation.
Two closures, one challenge: to stay alive
“Actually, there were a lot of rumors, but you were sort of hoping it wasn’t true. Maybe it's just a couple of weeks. We were in Manila when we heard the news,” Patrick recalls.
It was just 13 months after they first opened in February 2017.
“I grew up in New Zealand and there, you would never ever in a million years, just get six-weeks’ notice during the peak season to shut down your restaurant with no government support. So, for our team and for us, we were like ‘Surely this is not happening?’ We've never lived in the Philippines, we didn’t know anyone in the media, we had no connections whatsoever. What do we do now?” Shria says.
Thankfully, because of their recent pop-up in Poblacion, they made a few friends who invited them to open another pop-up in their establishment. One pop-up after another, the couple’s resilience, their unique way of relating to people, and the loyalty of their staff kept them together during the 6-month closure. And when the island reopened in October 2018, it was as if the tap was just turned back on, and the tourists poured back into the island. They were back in business.
On March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic happened, again, closing down the tap that has just been turned on for Boracay. While the first one hasn’t been a walk in the park for Shria and Patrick, this second closure proved to be even more challenging.
“This one is very unpredictable. It's hard to plan. You don't know when it's gonna end,” says Patrick.
Instead of closing down, Nonie’s persevered. Patrick and Shria poured their savings into the restaurant, so there was no way they were going to pack up and leave in the face of crisis.
“Despite the two closures, we've never once thought, ‘Okay, let's just go back to Singapore.’ We never want that. Even though it's been very challenging, at the same time, there's always some sort of opportunity that comes up, which kept us going,” Patrick says. And so just like many restaurants, they knew they had to pivot and offer their food in a different way.
Throughout the lockdown, they offered take-away, DIY homecooked meals, they sold tingi deli offerings, and lunch and dinner boxes for delivery.
“Like you said, leap of faith, right? We were very comfortable to take a leap of faith because we knew, well, we don't have kids. We don't own anything yet. We don't have a have a mortgage to pay. And we knew we could always we had skills we could always fall back on,” Patrick says.
And with these skills that Patrick took pride in is the skill to innovate. In the midst of the pandemic, the couple not only kept Nonie’s alive; against all odds, they also gave birth to a brand new concept: Little Taj.
Brand new beginnings
It all started with Shria’s samosas.
“She made samosas one day, and we tried to sell it. There's this Facebook group called Boracay Eats, where everyone was selling their food. So, we posted it, and like the very first day, we got an order for 20 dozens altogether,” says Patrick.
From a couple of samosa chaats, Patrick and Shria began to expand their menu and started offering tikka nights on Mondays, or palak for Wednesdays. Now, Little Taj has a full menu that’s also offered at Nonie’s. Here, Shria gets to flex her Indian culture and heritage, creating dishes that she grew up with, made friendlier to the Filipino palate. And because of the support that Little Taj is getting, it’s now set to make a debut inside Station X’s Food Hall soon.
“It's been a journey,” says Patrick. “When we were new, it was all about the restaurant. We met people initially through the restaurant. They would come as customers and then we’d get to know them through the restaurant. For the first couple of years, it was all work. We barely went to the beach.
“Surprisingly, the first closure is when we really got to enjoy the beach. And then now, it’s the same with the pandemic. I would say, I guess, a positive thing from the pandemic is we really got close to the community. This year, everyone sort of came together. Everyone was supporting each other. We were all in the same boat. So that was that was a big positive.”
For the Boracay newcomers, the pandemic opened up an opportunity to finally become a part of the island family.
“It was just so nice to meet people from different lifestyles. There's so many ways to live, you know. You have digital nomads or you have people who come here for kite surfing, and they're like my parents’ age, and they moved here to be full-time kite surfers!” Shria says.
With all of their enthusiasm, dedication, and creativity set in full gears, on January 1, Nonie’s reopened their doors for dine-in customers. They started with four of their original employees, slowly scaling back up their operations as more people start to dine out and even fly back to Boracay to travel. Now, they’re at seven employees, slowly getting back to their original 13-man team as soon as they can.
Dining at Nonie’s now is still as great as ever before. The food is fresh, delicious, and meticulously prepared. The heart is there, the intention is there, and all the right flavors certainly comes together in every plate.
For Shria, their decision to move to Boracay has been stronger than ever. From the first time she laid eyes on the island to today, four years of challenges after, nothing has changed for her. “I remember walking down the beach and you know, it was just the right energy, it was so vibrant. I just really love it,” she says.
Even though the pandemic is far from over, Nonie’s is definitely on their way back to recovery. There are no faltering hearts here or wavering resolve. In Shria’s words, “We like the challenge.”
Patrick agrees with her, laughter on his lips and hope in his eyes. “I think we made the right choice.”