Financial Adviser: 5 Business Lessons Every Startup Can Learn from the Founder of Cabalen

Arguably the best Kapampangan specialty chain restaurant in the country.

Maritel Nievera was only 17 years old when she married her childhood boyfriend, whose family owned a small restaurant business in Pampanga. 

Being married at a young age, Nievera’s husband would occasionally ask her to assist in the family business, which gave her the opportunity to learn about managing a restaurant. Nievera soon slowly took charge and handled the day-to-day management of the restaurant operations in a few years.

Unfortunately, the marriage did not last long. When Nievera eventually separated from her husband, she decided to move to Quezon City, where she bought a small property using the proceeds that she received from the separation.

Nievera struggled being a single parent to her two children. Without a college degree to rely on, having dropped out at a young age, the only skills that she knew then was to manage a restaurant.

Using the property she bought in Quezon City, Nievera decided to start up her own all-you-can-eat restaurant, specializing in Kapampangan cuisine.

Luckily, the first Cabalen restaurant proved to be very successful, which encouraged Nievera to expand and open more branches.

Today, Cabalen is the largest Kapampangan specialty chain in the Philippines with over 50 branches.

The Cabalen group of restaurants also developed other food brands such as Mangan restaurant, Soi, BKK Express and EatPinoy.

How did Cabalen survive the challenges of the changing landscape in the restaurant industry, especially after the coronavirus pandemic and still be the most dominant Kapampangan specialty restaurant?

Here are the five business lessons every entrepreneur can learn from Maritel Nievera, founder of Cabalen group of restaurants:


1| Know how to differentiate and find a niche market

A differentiated marketing strategy enables a business to develop a competitive advantage in a market that is dominated by larger competitors.

“When I was conceptualizing the restaurant, I used to visit the most popular Filipino restaurants in Manila and we would dine there together with my children to try out the food and study their menu,” Nievera says. “I realized that all the restaurants were simply offering the same food with different names. I thought that there was no way for me to compete if I would just copy and be like them.

“When I went back to Pampanga, I tried to research the menu of the different Kapampangan restaurants. I went deeper into the Kapampangan food for every town until I came up with a menu that features all the best food of Pampanga.”

2| Know how to grow sales with word-of-mouth marketing

When customers love a product or service, they are bound to talk about it. The recommendations they make are much more highly valued than those that are advertised.

“When I did Cabalen, I knew that people will associate our restaurant with good food because Pampanga is known as the culinary capital of the Philippines, but nobody knew about us,” Nievera explains.

“One day, we had a customer who happened to be a food columnist of a major newspaper. I did not know her until she wrote an article about us, specifying how good our Kapampangan food was. Because of that publicity, our sales improved significantly. That was where I saw the value of marketing.

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“When Cabalen was becoming known in the community, a group of people from SM leasing visited and dined at our restaurant. After they ate, they offered us a space at the fourth floor of SM Megamall, which was newly opened at that time.

“Everybody was scared for me because we were the first one to open. Because of the support from people who already knew about us, we succeeded and somehow encouraged other Filipino restaurants to open in the same level.

“During the pandemic, we were able to open several of our stores within the scope of IATF regulations and managed to continue to exist despite the challenges. Modest revenues gave us the will to exist and provide our customers the food they were longing for.”

3| Know how to compete with a flexible business model

One of the biggest challenges to business success is learning how to understand and respond to changes in the competitive environment without losing focus to achieve goals.

“There was a time when our sales suffered terribly because we had one competitor who was offering a buffet service at a very low price,” she says. “The business model of Cabalen then was high-end, a la carte style, and the low price buffet of our competitor made it difficult for us to compete.

“What I did was to rethink our strategy and adopt my competitor’s model. I observed and simply copied how they did it, including the marketing campaign and offered our price at P100 lower than competition. The strategy worked for us and enabled us to regain our lost customers. Since then, Cabalen has been known as a buffet restaurant.


“We already have our own food delivery service before the pandemic. We only enhanced it by adding more delivery service platforms.

“Food delivery used to be an extra service for customers’ convenience and satisfaction but became a necessity during pandemic, which allowed us to ensure availability of our food products in the doorstep.”

4| Know how to provide value by delivering quality service

Setting service standards enables the business to deliver products and services in a way that consistently exceed customers’ expectations.

Providing quality service plays an important role in promoting customer satisfaction and making customers happy.

“It is easy to manage the quality of food if there is only one restaurant, but if you have multiple restaurants, it is more difficult to maintain the same quality,” Nievera says. “This is why setting standards is important.

“When you set the standards, you use it to train your people and monitor. We monitor the performance of each staff to make sure the whole process is properly implemented. We always strive to comply strictly with our standards not only about quality food and service, but also cleanliness and people.” 

5| Know how to offer superior product with constant innovation

Developing new products to fulfill ever-changing needs of customers is one way to drive long-term profitability of the business. By coming up with new ways to improve products and services, the business not only increases its productivity but also the value of its brand.

“One thing that I am very hands-on with is the food,” she says. “I am in charge of the research and product development. I will know when our food is not cooked right. I think the secret of becoming a successful restaurateur is being able to understand what good food is all about.


“When we decided to put up a commissary, I was looking more on keeping the quality of our food (high) rather than lowering our costs. For example, our dessert is a specialty that not all of our cooks can handle. So the first thing we tried to centralize was the preparation of our dessert.”

“During the pandemic, we innovated several new concepts like C Food Central that carries our Ready-To-Eat and Ready-To-Cook products. We also launched our Cabalen Express, Chaixi and Chayang kiosk concepts that offer affordable meals for delivery and take-out.”

Henry Ong, RFP, is an entrepreneur, financial planning advocate and business advisor. Email Henry for business advice [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @henryong888 


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