(SPOT.ph) With the mere handful of healthy eating places in Metro Manila, it’s inevitable that you'd turn to places that are more convenient. Let's face it: It isn't always easy to go out of your way for that rainbow-like grain bowl or pretty smoothie you keep seeing on Instagram.
Despite wanting to eat healthily, sometimes getting to do that within an hour-long break just seems impossible—so you go for the next practical option. We love practical and convenient as much as the next guy, but we also know you can't have it every day without it taking a toll on your body. That's where Real Food in Bonifacio Global City comes in.
It's on the corner of 5th Avenue and 25th Street—an unassuming two-floor building that’s easy to miss, perhaps because of its plain, white façade, overshadowed by the shiny, attention-grabbing establishments towering beside it. The interiors look far more welcoming than the outside, thanks to a coziness accentuated by lush plants and light-wood décor, not to mention the vibrantly fresh produce that’ll greet you as soon as you step inside. On the wall across the main entrance is a big monochromatic mural that reads, “Keep it real.”
Real Food is the newest neighborhood market this side of the Metro. It might be one of the few places in BGC where you could find "cheese"-dusted kale chips, vegan non-dairy ice cream, keto-friendly chocolate spread, or whatever snack you’d otherwise think as intimidating. But the homegrown grocer isn’t here to raise their eyebrows because you had that greasy burger for lunch. They actually love seeing people who aren’t the stereotypical soccer mom, gym rat, or yoga instructor browsing around the store.
“It’s nice to see the average office worker opting to buy something from us than at your local convenience store. That’s the by-end that makes me happy because you’re penetrating markets that you wouldn’t think [you could],” says co-owner Honey Almendral.
"If you look at our store, you’d think ‘I’m not going in there.’ But when you come in and look at the prices—okay. And then you feel good about it because you had something healthy for the day."
“If you look at our store, you’d think ‘I’m not going in there.’ But when you come in and look at the prices—okay. And then you feel good about it because you had something healthy for the day. It just starts like that, so that’s what I’ve seen so far in BGC. We have a lot of customers from across the street who nibble on tsitsirya, but now they have a better option. A better choice,” she adds.
Along with Katrina Mañosa, Nicole Fandiño, and Bea Lhuillier, Almendral opened Real Food Alabang in 2016. The first outpost at Molito Lifestyle Center might be half the size of the new branch, but it gave Real Food a foothold in the Metro’s flourishing healthy-food scene. In the same year, restaurants that promoted healthy living such as SaladStop!, Green Pastures, and The Wholesome Table, had just started to pick up.
“We all live in Alabang, so we wanted to put up a grocery where we could buy the things we wanted to feed our families,” shares Mañosa. “It was created out of [a] selfish desire to have a place where it would be easier to find the things that we look for.”
Not that it was hard to find the pantry staples they needed, because they already had go-to places for their organic vegetables or, say, fresh milk. “It was more like one person makes this, one person makes that. Get the eggs here. Get the veggies there. It’s logistically challenging, so we thought that there might be a market for people like us who were making the effort to get these things and want to have them all in one place,” Mañosa explains.
Like many great things, this healthy lifestyle (or conscious living, as they put it) started with curiosity—well, at least for Fandiño. About five years ago, she stumbled on the documentary Food Matters (2008), which talks about the impact of diet on one’s health.
“I’m not kidding, I probably watched 15 of them—Forks Over Knives (2011), Super Size Me (2004), King Corn (2007)—they’re all produced by somebody who’s pushing for a certain agenda, whether it’s veganism or the GMO industry. But generally, there’s a unifying theme, which is [to eat] less processed food,” she shares.
“It’s not just a business, it’s something we truly believe in and live.”
Her interest grew from there. She started from simple steps like reading the ingredients on the back of food boxes. “You have to be vigilant about what you’re buying because, for me, the big learning is that food producers are just in the business of making money. They’re not in the business of nourishing you, so if you want to nourish yourself and your family, you are the one who has to watch,” says Fandiño.
The four were already friends before they set up Real Food and have advocated this kind of lifestyle for many years. Mañosa, in particular, was once vegetarian. “It’s been easy to buy into the concept [of Real Food] because we already believed in it. It’s not just a business, it’s something we truly believe in and live,” she adds.
Keeping it real
With all the tempting, over-the-top options out there packaged so alluringly, you’d know for a fact that eating healthily isn’t always easy. But what exactly is real food? Is it food advertised with seals of approval as gluten-free? Does it have to be organic? Almendral likes to put it this way: “I think it’s real food when it’s farm-to-table; where you know your source and there’s nothing added.”
“It’s like what we say, ‘get real or keep it real.’ Remove all the preservatives and get what it is. If it’s milk, it should come straight from a cow—there’s nothing added. And if there’s nothing added, it’s going to be said,” Fandiño adds.
Carbs, protein, and fat are all good and necessary in keeping a balanced diet but, for the folks behind Real Food, refined sugar is one thing worth limiting since it's a leading cause of diseases like diabetes and heart disease. The store also carries a lot of gluten-free items, including freshly baked bread and pastries.
“It’s like what we say, ‘get real or keep it real.’ Remove all the preservatives and get what it is.”
Mañosa says that they have customers coming in that follow a particular diet, whether it’s targeted for an illness like cancer, or an aesthetic diet focused on weight loss or body building. “They find a lot of stuff here because the ingredients are limited. If you’re trying to avoid hidden ingredients like high-fructose syrup or whatever, we have a lot of products. The ingredients are few and labelled so you could see and get an idea of what you’re eating.”
She also adds that Real Food supports all sorts of diets, and admits that she doesn’t want to label some diets as “faddish” because she doesn’t want to play down people’s efforts. Meanwhile, popular diets like the ketogenic diet, even veganism or vegetarianism, may sound appealing to people who are just starting to live a healthier lifestyle, but the bottom line is losing weight isn’t equal to healthy eating. “We’re not a diet shop,” says Almendral.
It takes a village
Real Food boasts having over 200 suppliers from around the Philippines—most of them micro entrepreneurs, co-ops, and farmers. On the other hand, over 90% of Real Food’s products are local, while about 20 out of the 200 purveyors supply the shop’s daily pile of organic and chemical-free vegetables and fruits.
Each supplier is carefully chosen. “We know all our suppliers. It’s really a personal relationship with them. We know why they started their business. It’s very interesting to know why many of them developed their businesses because they have their own health concerns,” says Mañosa.
They also have a lot of raw protein options such as organic, grass-fed beef and pork, free-range organic chicken, and a wide selection of wild-caught seafood. At the far end of the store is a freezer dedicated to ice cream and desserts, as well as pre-made, microwaveable vegan and vegetarian meals supplied by popular brands like The Corner Tree and The Superfood Grocer. They even have vegan-friendly ingredients like non-dairy cheese.
“We want to highlight that there are so many great, healthy, and well-made Filipino products. And their packaging looks awesome,” she adds, explaining that local products don’t get too much attention. Some of the grocery’s bestsellers include local grains like Mindanao-sourced adlai, guilt-free snack food like sugar-free banana chips and vegan gummy worms, low-carb favorites like shirataki noodles and cauliflower rice, and fermented beverages like kombucha and kefir (Trust us, they taste better than they sound).
“We want to highlight that there are so many great, healthy, and well-made Filipino products. And their packaging looks awesome.”
According to them, the rule of thumb in eating consciously is forming the habit of knowing what’s in your food. “If you can’t pronounce the ingredient, it’s most probably a chemical that makes the food last longer or gives it more color. If you look at regular tapa seasoning, it’s all words that you can’t say. All of us have kids so we try to find products that would be appealing to them,” Mañosa says.
“They’re our test market,” Fandiño laughingly adds.
In the constantly fast-paced urban hustle, it wouldn’t hurt to remember why places like Real Food exist—perhaps it’s here to remind us that even if we can't always make the best food choices, it's all about balance, and no one’s going to judge you for grabbing that bag of chips. At least read the label—it’s a start.
Photos by Marikit Singson