Out of

How to Stay Human

by Jonty Cruz
Photos courtesy of Kiddo Cosio and El Union

Talking to Kiddo Cosio of El Union about  how the pandemic has affected his surftown coffee shop and why being “a humans-first company” is more important than ever.

“I miss Sunday mornings in Surftown,” says Kiddo Cosio, co-founder of El Union Coffee in San Juan, La Union. Back in the before times, Sunday mornings were spent appreciating and maybe participating in “the hungover, post-party analysis” of a night (hopefully) well spent and hazily remembered. “When caffeine is most appreciated!”

Surftown has been quiet of late. Kiddo would usually spend summers welcoming flocks of tourists both familiar and new to El Union. The coffee shop sort of serves as San Juan’s unofficial community center where tourists can meet up and get to know the local players. On huge days, a thousand customers would be a quaint estimate. It’s in total contrast to the summer Kiddo and company just had. One where the priority is less about surviving through the rush of tourists, and more just surviving. “Summer break is normally all-hands-on-deck for El Union: the weather is hot and the crowds are large,” he says. “This year, we are all-hands-on-deck, but in a different way. Rather than being prepared for large crowds, we have to be disciplined as a team, so that we don’t bleed out, honestly.”

Recent months have forced the whole team to face an unexpected and dire reality. From pausing on expanding the business with a new concept in Manila  to seeing how best to maintain and support the company’s relationship with its coffee suppliers, the struggle to stay afloat has never been more difficult.  But while the lockdown has forced them to change plans and tighten up their day-to-day routine, Kiddo and the team remain committed that whatever happens next, they will live up to their philosophy of being “a humans-first company.”

The following interview was conducted via email and has been edited for publication.   


Jonty Cruz: Hi Kiddo, what’s been keeping you busy these days?
Kiddo Cosio: First, and always, parenting! We’ve never had helpers at home, and with the kids’ school group on indefinite break, that means a lot of time together. This has its ups and downs, as family always does. The kids have been surfing and biking more than ever.

Earlier on in the pandemic, like many people in the world, I got into gardening, and the wonderful world of permaculture, composting, and regenerative food farming. We started a small garden at home, and a bit of a nursery at work. I guess all of this came from my survival instincts kicking in. Being a parent, and facing imaginations of apocalypse and dystopia, it seemed like an important life skill to be able to grow food. Now, I want a farm!

The shop has been back open since May, and we have begun shipping our roasted coffee nationwide.

Apart from everything else, going to coffee shops has been something people really miss. Why do you think people have such an affinity for coffee and coffee shops?
I like to believe humanity anchors itself on ritual. And most of those rituals revolve around eating and drinking. A coffee shop taps into that, I think. There are few things as communal and solitary as a coffee shop. It is where we socialise, but also work, and stop to think, or maybe read. It [also] doesn’t hurt that coffee is a legal psychoactive substance.

Aside from essential frontliners and those who have returned to work, most people in the city are still stuck at home. How has your life been like in La Union? Have you noticed differences from how your community has fared these last few months compared to those you’ve seen or heard about from the city?
I have never been more grateful to live in a small town. We live a few meters from the beach, in a low density, provincial neighbourhood. Though we continue to stay close to home, we could always go outdoors, surf, swim, and later on, ride bikes around the neighbourhood. Though I only see it via social media, it is in stark contrast to a lot of friends who have had to stay in their apartments or houses for months.

“There are few things as communal and solitary as a coffee shop.”

Was there a particular day that stuck out for you during this whole pandemic?
We have a photo with the team hanging out the day we closed shop before the lockdowns began. I remember it the way I remember jumping off a high rock into the water—the anticipation, but also ignorance. We had no idea what we were in for!

How hard have the last few months been and how have you kept busy/productive?
The last few months have been challenging, both for business, and for us as individuals. The silver lining of the lockdown period was having the time to cope with the flood of thoughts and emotions brought about by the pandemic. That meant a lot of introspection, more reading than usual, gardening, and lots of time on the beach a few meters away from our house.

It wasn’t too long before we had to break the inertia and get back to work—just planning our survival. Thankfully, we have a roasting lab, and our business classification allowed us to operate that department. Since then we have launched our online store and can fulfil coffee orders nationwide.

Not to sound too grim but what does survival look like for El Union?
Our survival plan includes: a universal and equal basic wage for all. This means that owners and managers took the biggest pay cuts, now receiving the same as entry-level staff, and we all signed on happily. We supply three meals daily to all team members, offer housing assistance as needed, transport solutions, and maintain a health fund for the team. We have a monthly open-book transparency report to our team about how we are managing resources as a collective. Every six months, we will reassess if we can return to normal operations. But the idea is that if we band together and cooperate well, we have a better chance at survival. Any profit would be icing on the cake… or sugar in the coffee, choose your metaphor!

Have you had time to reflect on what El Union’s strengths and weaknesses are and how the pandemic highlighted them?
The pandemic put to the test our ideals as a humans-first company: our survival is still a thesis undergoing defence! It has also challenged our creativity: what can we offer people, and how can we get it to them? First, we have undergone a redesign of our whole bean coffee product line, and secured nationwide delivery. We have created a ‘bottle club’ that serves as a milkman for coffee, delivering chilled, coffee drinks around San Juan and San Fernando. On a smaller scale, one of the programs we have for our crew is a one-for-one creative challenge where a team member designs a new product—a cookie, a pastry, a cool sauce in a bottle—and they get 100% of the proceeds. In turn they create a second product for the company to sell. We are in the process of pivoting the floor of the cafe into a small provisions store, with a curation of localised things that would be helpful to people in our neighbourhood.

“The pandemic put to the test our ideals as a humans-first company: our survival is still a thesis undergoing defence!”

What’s been the most surprising thing that’s happened for El Union during this quarantine?
Support for our online offerings has been humbling, and we are most grateful. I can’t say that we are surprised. We have always loved our customers and community, and they have been keeping us alive.

Do you see tourists coming back any time soon? What do you think customers will have to do once they do?
Tourists have begun trickling in, and the government allows minimal travel within the region. Given we are an easy drive away from Manila, I do expect that we will be one of the first destinations city folk will visit. Tourists need to seek out verifiable info from the scientific community about best practices. Actually, we already know them: avoid crowds, avoid enclosed spaces, socially distance, wear a mask. That’s very easy to do at the beach, in my opinion. The heavy lifting is on the government: mass testing, rapid response for contact tracing and isolation, and making the issue less about politics and more about the relevant science. Of course, limited movement is something the individual has control over. We are mostly doing as we should. Don’t even get me started on the government!

You had plans to open an El Union branch or a new coffee shop concept in Manila right before the pandemic really hit the Philippines. Could you share your plans for it and where it is now?
We have had to hibernate all plans for our Manila concept, which was meant to be a happy mix of El Union Coffee and our small bar, The Shrine of Satisfaction… and then some. Right now, we simply do not know when and how to progress, and so we hit pause. We are assessing the situation periodically to see if it would be a good time to unpause. But it is very much up in the air.

Travel and the F&B industry are two of the most hit right now but El Union represents something more than just those two things. Where do you see El Union going from here and what kind of support do you think you’ll need?
We are focusing on localisation, and that is a theme for us nowadays. An example of that: in the middle of the pandemic, we landed over a ton of freshly harvested green coffee at the roastery, as part of a commitment to a farmer-producer community we have been working with for a few years, Kapi Tako in Benguet. The closest farm we buy from is in Sablan, only five towns away from us, right at the border of La Union and Benguet. We understand that our business isn’t unique in its struggle to survive. And to get through this, we need to stand with our best suppliers. And so, even though coffee bar sales are down 90%, we bought the green coffee from Kapi Tako, and took it as a challenge to put our money where our mouth is and use our creativity to roast, market, and sell the coffee. We have always said that we are about “coffee in the service of humans,” never in it for solely business goals. And we are in the middle of having to prove that claim, more than to anyone, to ourselves.

“We need to be better at playing in the light.”

“We have always said that we are about ‘coffee in the service of humans,’ never in it for solely business goals. And we are in the middle of having to prove that claim, more than to anyone, to ourselves.”

There’s also been a rise in new F&B businesses and initiatives on social media during the pandemic. As someone who started small, what advice would you give new entrepreneurs?
Business is always in the service of humans, and never vice versa. That starts with our teams. Great experiences and products come from fulfilled and happy humans who are fully engaged and challenged in and out of the workplace. Anyone can learn to pour a decent drink into a receptacle, but it is challenging to safeguard human ideals, when financial ideals so easily take the center stage. Humans first, and [the] product will be good.

A lot of changes have been happening both in food media and the food industry itself when it comes to being more inclusive and calling out abuse. As someone who’s also used the El Union platform to advocate for farmers and the environment, what responsibilities do you think F&B industries should have moving forward?
The spirit of the times, the zeitgeist, is hot with important social conversations, and rightly so. I am of the firm conviction that the food and beverage industry has always been political, we just didn’t talk about it much. We have always made choices that affect the lives of people. Now is the time to explore a mindset that is more human-scale, more localised, and with economic models that look more like circles than like pyramids. I think personalities in the F&B world need to use their voices and actions to join the conversation about the relevant social issues of food, nutrition, and the environment. Consumers will remember our conviction, and lack thereof, even after the dust settles. And with social media here to stay, there will be nowhere to hide. We need to be better at playing in the light.

To end on a more optimistic note, what are you looking forward to once people can start going back to San Juan and El Union?
I am excited to enjoy some good music and drinks together. If and when we make it through, we will certainly have a reason to celebrate! ︎

Jonty Cruz has worked at Esquire Philippines, The Philippine Star, and Rogue Magazine. He also co-founded All Good, a social-impact storytelling platform.