When this whole food park thing started, it felt exciting. The very idea seemed to open up all manner of possibilities for eating in the city. The promise inherent to the concept is this: a lower barrier of entry for potential new food vendors means that the parks could be a space to discover different kinds of innovative cuisine. In theory, they’d be incubators for the future of Manila eating, allowing chefs both professional and amateur an equitable, low-risk, low-pressure space to test out their brewing culinary ideas. It sounds lofty in retrospect, but the owners of all these food parks, typically younger folks who use words like “disrupt” and “revolution,” would speak in these lofty terms.
It didn’t work out that way. Perhaps it was always silly to expect these outdoor spaces to be the utopian ideal for food development, to hope that every trip to one of these parks would yield some sort of amazing new culinary experience. On the other hand, it seems completely reasonable that these spaces at least differentiate themselves from each other, that the multitude would result in a greater variety. What’s been really disappointing is that every new one seems determined to follow an imagined formula of what makes a food park successful, assembling all of the same parts over and over again.
What at first felt like a completely organic and independent movement in the food scene just ended up giving rise to new franchises.
They seem to be built from the ground up expecting to offer only the same kind of things that are already being served in the dozens of food parks now dotting Metro Manila. They call out for vendors on the internet and on tarps outside their locations, and often list what kind of food they’re looking for. It gets pretty specific: they want, among other things, a place that serves pork belly, one that serves a burger of some sort, a brick oven pizza place, some kind of Japanese concept, a Mexican place, and a seafood joint. Right from the outset, the impetus isn’t to create something new; it’s only to replicate the success of what has already come before.
There is so little variation to the formula that over the last year, some of the same vendors show up in multiple food parks. What at first felt like a completely organic and independent movement in the food scene just ended up giving rise to new franchises, creating the unneeded guarantee that wherever you might end up, you’ll always be able to find a battered and fried giant squid.
There isn’t even a lot of variation in their aesthetics. The container van has become one of the most common sights in Quezon City, where the food park boom is really concentrated. Some of these places have some sort of theme, but it’s all just window dressing on the same structural bones of stacked metal and wooden tables. It just seems like bad business. In adhering to the same formulas, in being either unwilling or incapable of creating singular experiences for their customers, there are few compelling reasons to go to one food park over another. There’s barely a compelling reason to visit any food park at all. All you’re really getting are burgers in a more uncomfortable setting. There is evidence to suggest that the approach isn’t working—plenty of food parks have already closed down, or seem to be on the verge of closing. The crowds seem to be dwindling, the initial curiosity undone by the crushing certainty of sameness.
The crowds seem to be dwindling, the initial curiosity undone by the crushing certainty of sameness.
There are outliers, of course. Food Hive on Visayas Avenue has a stall that only serves goat meat, and that’s across a vendor that sells Balkan food and a nitrogen ice cream joint that forgoes the typical flavors and goes straight for weirder things like sampaguita and gin pomelo. It feels like, as a whole, that place is more willing to take risks, and a trip tends to yield something uniquely satisfying. Not everything is great, but even the failures tend to be interesting. And one must give credit to the people willing to put these stranger concepts out there.
But that is the exception and not the rule. The new developments in the food park craze seem to be built around everything but the food. The latest addition to Quezon City’s endless parade of informal food spaces is The Yard Streetfood Cinema on Timog Avenue, right beside the MTRCB building. Their vendors take on intellectual property-defying movie themes for their stalls, and still pretty much end up serving the same food as every other place—the same lineup of ribs, chicken, pork belly, fried squid, and aquarium drinks that may as well be declared the city’s official cuisine. What makes it different is that they screen movies there, with a projector setup casting images on a blank wall. While the intentions are noble, it really isn’t much more than a poorly executed gimmick, and only serves to highlight how these parks seem to have gotten away from thinking about the food.
..it really isn’t much more than a poorly executed gimmick, and only serves to highlight how these parks seem to have gotten away from thinking about the food.
And we apparently haven’t reached the satiation point for food parks just yet. On Maginhawa, a tarp announces a new food hall looking for vendors, despite the fact that there are already three big food parks on the same road, and three more on the intersecting Malingap Street. On Tomas Morato lies the future site of a food park run by the Fruitas corporation, just a stone’s throw away from Savour Manila, which hasn’t even been able to fill up all of its vendor spaces. On Anonas, a failed food park announces that it is under new management, and is looking for new vendors. Somehow, the trend carries on, even though it feels like we’ve hit some sort of limit. And the new places don’t seem eager to learn lessons from their predecessors, going about things the same way yet again, adding even more sameness to the food landscape.
This article was originally published in the December 2017-January 2018 issue of Rogue.