After surviving lockdowns, small food businesses grapple with high commodity prices

Mang Tootz Foodhouse, found along Padre Noval Street, has survived pandemic-induced lockdowns and rising business costs as it continues to serve Thomasians homecooked meals. Photo by Joss Gabriel Oliveros/THE FLAME

AS EARLY as 4 a.m., street food vendor Noel Mandani goes to Divisoria to buy raw mangoes and sweet corn, products he sells along Dapitan street.

For the past 15 years, it has become his routine to wake up early, prepare his goods and sell until the afternoon. He then returns home at night with hundreds of pesos on hand.

The pandemic disrupted his business routine, but for someone who had to make both ends meet, there was only one option that time.

“I had to take a risk because I had no other job for several years,” Mandani told The Flame.

“During the lockdown, I sold some of my things. Of course, government aid is not always enough.”

When the pandemic restrictions were eased in 2021, he tried to reopen his business. But while in the process of rebuilding, he faced yet another hurdle, although it was not entirely a new one.

“It was a huge challenge because the prices of almost all of our goods went up. Even our capital increased,” Mandani said.

“If we bought the goods at higher prices, we have to sell them also at higher prices.”

Although the country’s inflation is gradually easing, commodity prices remain high for ordinary Filipinos like Mandani.

The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) reported that last month’s inflation – the rate of increase in the prices of goods over a given period – slowed to 5.4% from 6.1% in May. It was also lower than the 6.1% recorded in June 2022.

While he earns P600 to P1,000 daily, Mandani lamented that it is still not enough to sustain his business due to the higher prices of raw materials.

“The price of the sugar I use was P45 (per kilo) before, but now, it’s P95. I didn’t expect it to increase that much. Then the oil and the gas, I can’t cook without it,” he said in Filipino.

No choice

To stay afloat in a high inflation environment, food vendors have to raise their prices even if it makes their products less accessible to consumers.

Mandani increased the price of his raw mango and bagoong by P5. While he did not adjust the price of his sweet cheese corn, he reduced the serving quantity from 10 oz. to 8 oz.

“Consumers are suffering because it was impossible not to raise prices,” the food vendor said.

Even eatery owners like Riza Feliciano are affected by the high inflation. Since the basic ingredients like onions and rice cannot be removed from her dishes, she just reduced the serving quantity but kept the food quality.

“I still have to add siling labuyo (labuyo chili) to Bicol Express because it can’t be called ‘Bicol Express’ if it’s not spicy. So even if it’s expensive, I need to buy it,” Feliciano told The Flame.

Price increases cannot be avoided for some viands but Feliciano made sure it was kept to a minimum.

“That’s how we raise the price (of our food), only about P2,” Feliciano said.

According to the PSA, vegetables, especially onions, have a “substantial” contribution to food inflation.

Some food establishments have not changed anything in their business practices and just adapted to the economic situation.

Filipino-Mexican restaurant La Frontera, which opened during the pandemic, closely watches inflation spikes and buys raw materials ahead of time.

“Before the prices [of onions] increased, we ordered in bulk so that we are covered for a month [and] we get to survive a season of that price inflation,” La Frontera owner Christy Goronio told The Flame.

Goronio and her team do a “cost-savings project” to balance their expenditures and earnings while mindful of the fact that most of their consumers are university students.

“When we say (we serve) high, fresh quality meat using this X brand of ingredient, we do as much as possible because (the overall quality would be affected) when we have to shift (to other brands) just because we have to go to something cheaper,” she said.

Unlike other food stalls, Thomasian favorite Mang Tootz Foodhaus, which has been operating along P. Noval street since 1991, has not made changes in its prices and serving quantity despite the rising business costs.

“More manpower, more production, that’s how it is… if you increase the manpower, the production will be fast and you will be able to cater more customers,” Mang Tootz Foodhaus owner Jossadec Vergara said.

“Whether we have an income or not, we still continue to work as we also have staff who depends on us,” he added.

According to a bulletin released by the agriculture department last July 27, prices in selected markets in Metro Manila ranges from P37 to P60 per kilo for rice; P105 to P260 per kilo for fish; P40 to P220 per kilo for fruits; P170 to P550 per kilo for livestock; P6 to P8.50 per piece for egg; P30 to P260 per kilo for vegetables; P80 to P200 for spices; P78 to P110 per kilo for sugar and P25 to 100 for palm oil and coconut oil.

Consumers affected too

Because the high inflation has made managing a budget more difficult, some students have to be choosier on the items they will spend on.

Asian studies freshman Cherbie Pagatpatan said he only eats one to two meals daily—usually in low-cost eateries—to save on his allowance.

“My health is also compromised here since I usually eat processed foods since that’s what is accessible and cheaper,” Pagatpatan said.

“I think a lot of people will agree when I say eating [healthful food] is quite expensive and not accessible for everyone.”

For Pagatpatan, money seemed to have lost its value as people cannot buy that much today with below a hundred.

“I became more practical with my purchases and I gave more importance to my needs than wants. It affected me emotionally because the things I could buy that made me happy decreased,” he said.

The situation is not that different for creative writing freshman Kobe Balod, who was forced to skip meals because of the rising costs of food and dormitory rent.

“[We feel the burden of inflation] when we are unable to pay the month’s due,” Balod said.

“I mostly try to save up by budgeting what I eat and sometimes skipping meals altogether… so I can have enough money to commute to my dormitory the following week.”

Things have become more difficult for some students that they no longer find cheap eateries budget-friendly.

“I learned to spend less, preferring to dine at more affordable eateries…[but] there are also many instances that I compromise my needs by skipping meals…to save my allowance,” political science freshman Jada Castillo said.

Vulnerable to price shocks

According to experts interviewed by The Flame, the decline in the productivity of the agricultural sector and the dependence on importation led to rising commodity prices.

“The main factor of inflation is our problem with food security [and] our reliance on [imports]. Our agricultural productivity has declined due to agricultural neglect,” UST political science Asst. Prof. Arvin Beñas told The Flame.

Beñas, also the chief of staff of the Sugar Regulatory Agency, said he does not see the country achieving self-sufficiency in the next three years, citing the shortage of farm workers, the high fertilizer costs and the impact of climate change.

“The next coming years must be spent judiciously and wisely,” he said.

“Hopefully, in the coming years, we can improve the [crop] production so we wouldn’t rely on imported [goods]–that’s the idea for the long term.”

Beñas said some forces affecting inflation are beyond the government’s control but if correct decisions like improving agriculture productivity are made, it might not be a serious problem in the long run.

Economics department chairman Assoc. Prof. Carlos Manapat shared Beñas’ view, saying the problems caused by import dependence must be solved on a long term basis.

“Are we resilient in terms of agricultural output? We’re not because we are totally dependent from them (other countries), we are expecting that they will keep on exporting to us. But what if their agricultural output is just sufficient for their local consumption? There will always be a time that they will no longer export agricultural output to us,” Manapat told The Flame.

“We are not resilient. We consider ourselves as an agricultural country, but in terms of output, it’s not steady,” he added.

Manapat called on the government to have a “foresight” on the current economic situation, saying it should not rely on current inflation figures but should focus instead on solving inflation for the following month.

UST business economics department Asst. Prof. Marie Antoinette Rosete said the country’s reliance on imports makes its economy “vulnerable.” She said government agencies should develop the entrepreneurial skills of farmers “to invest in [themselves] and adapt to changes.”

Beñas and Rosete urged local eatery owners to buy directly from nearby local suppliers to save more on their ingredients costs.

“As much as possible, they [eatery owners] should buy closer, if not, right from the source to avoid the middle-man because too many traders adds to the inflation,” Beñas said.

“There are eateries who buy onions by the sack for the week. I hope they talk to the nearest farm. This is usually beneficial because the wholesale price will be lower and the expected price of the source is respected,” Rosete said.

IBON Foundation Executive Director Sonny Africa said importing can be used as a “band-aid solution,” but should not be the only option.

“[I]f we had stronger agriculture, stronger industry not reliant on import and vacillations of global exchange rates and then global economic shocks, that will actually be moderating inflation,” Africa told The Flame.

“If we have more efficient domestic producers, we will have cheaper goods and services—we will have better welfare for Filipino families and households,” he added.


During his second state of the nation address, President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. called inflation the “biggest problem” in the past year. He said price pressures were caused by external developments like the war in Ukraine, the cut in the production of oil-producing countries and the lingering effects of the pandemic.

Nevertheless, Marcos claimed that inflation is “moving in the right direction,” easing to 5.4 percent in June from a high of 8.7 percent in January.

“What this means is that in spite of all the difficulties, we are transforming the economy. We are stabilizing the prices of all critical commodities,” Marcos said.

Citing the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, Marcos said inflation is expected to ease further by the close of the year.

While the government paints a rosy economic picture, Mandani still faces uncertainties because the survival of his business is largely dependent on his customers, who are also burdened by rising costs.

“Regardless of how good your product is, there will be slow days. You just have to make up for it the next time,” he said. F

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