The power and appeal of great food never loses steam. It can change moods, create friendships, and even make opportunities happen during the most trying times.
Chef N. Rovillos is a man of impeccable taste and culinary wizardry. His cooking came at its best in the presence of friends and family, maybe because it's when he is at his most creative state.
That “friends and family” mindset has kept Illo’s Party Trays thriving since day one, as it brought celebrations to life in various households and companies despite the odds.
Initially, their menu was exclusive to friends and family as the food roster came from tried and true personal favorites. Maq Agapito, Chief Operating Officer of Illo's Group, tells it like it just happened yesterday; starting out as a makeshift home kitchen that was a silent witness to Chef N's extraordinary cooking. It was in a way, the last effort before he decided to move to the Caribbean Islands after numerous attempts at making it in the food industry here in the Philippines.
What was inspiring was that everything took off immensely at the 11th hour just before Chef N's bags were all packed. Much more of a family chef, the only thing that differs now is that he is cooking for an extended family: the food-loving public.
In a typical dining setup, it would normally be just people going to a restaurant and enjoying a good meal. However, for Chef N and Maq, it was more about elevating the dining experience for those celebrating in the comfort of their own homes.
Ever heard of turning trials into triumphs? They did just that.
Maq didn't expect the pandemic to be much of a setback, but they saw it as an opportunity to further bank on their "dine at home" concept. He believed that people should continue to celebrate the little things: birthdays, graduations, and other family milestones—especially during uncertain times. And what better way to celebrate than enjoying excellent food at home?
Of course, it's a fact that during this time dining out was not an option, but the celebrations would not stop. Illo's then came up with creative responses like gourmet party boxes and plated dishes and it worked perfectly for them.
"We started first as a food delivery business wherein all borders were closed,” said Maq.
Through word of mouth, Illo's grew its reputation as a lifestyle party trays business. It gained more than 1,000,000 followers on social media when it became more known in the showbiz niche as the "Party Trays of the Stars." Eventually, Illo’s Home was launched and this paved the way for their first flagship restaurant plus two more branches within a month’s time.
All these would not be possible if not for their kitchen team and fleet of delivery riders—many of whom were initially displaced during the pandemic in 2020 before working at Illo's.
Both Chef N and Maq focused on investing in their people. The duo made it their initiative to train people with no prior experience and created a team from the ground up.
It was an uncanny bunch. One such member of the team was a Sampaguita vendor, who quickly became an indispensable chef. The team quickly grew from 4 in 2019 to over a hundred in 2022, several of whom were housed in one place due to safety protocols during the height of the pandemic. With the meticulous training and comfortable staff housing of Illo's, they were able to create a recipe for safety and stability within the company.
Even in unfortunate circumstances, every cloud has a silver lining. While restaurants were taking a hit during constant lockdowns, because of the boom in food deliveries, the homegrown talents that kept Illo's running like a well-oiled machine catapulted the business to success.
Maq acknowledges that they are technically a neophyte company, so some of their structures aren't perfect. From manual transactions, they are now on their way to going fully digital.
When it came to managing and tracking payments from customers, Maq said PayMongo gives them a more convenient way of getting paid and a transparent overview of how much they're getting every day.
"One benefit of using PayMongo is that we're able to get GCash API Integration and credit card payments. The thing with online bank transfer, clients can be fickle-minded. When there's a more convenient way of paying, deals are closed faster," Maq said.
“It used to be just bank transfers and checking everything manually. We even got scammed a few times because of fake banking slips, but with PayMongo, we’re sure that everything checks out,” he added.
Back then, Illo's had difficulty tracking where the payments were coming from. Now, it's easy to find out everything—from payment transactions and refunds to doubled payments—thanks to the PayMongo dashboard.
"For my Finance team, if we're allocating it for a certain budget, then I know how much. In terms of reconciliation, it's easy for them to just cross it out." Maq said.
With their demanding schedule, time is of the essence and so is convenience. Accepting payments from customers made operations smoother for Illo's through PayMongo Pages, which enables their customers to fill out less.
"With PayMongo, it's just a few details like the card details and they're sure that the network is secure. It's credible and safe,” said Maq.
With the recent opening of their Makati branch in September this year, to say that they’re on an upward trajectory is mere icing on the cake.
Filipinos are an ever-festive bunch and as long as there are celebrations to be made, Illo’s Party Trays and Illo’s Home will be there to bring the flavors of home one tray at a time.
Maq Agapito is currently the Chief Operating Officer of Illo's Group.