“Before all this millennial stuff…” says Steve Benitez of his solo travels in the 1990s. “I was a Millennial in a Gen-Xbody.” Avoiding tourist traps, he chose to experience travel walking and living among locations, perhaps as a witness to their daily lives. In today’s age of Airbnb and TripAdvisor, this behavior may seem pretty ordinary, but Steve was ahead of his time over 20 years ago. Spending time in cafes was his “in” with the local culture. Every town would have this neighborhood community spot. Drawn into the gravity well that is the local espresso cafe, Steve found his travels bringing to life a fresh love for cafes and that coffee shop community vibe — something that was non-existent in the Philippines during this time.
When returning to his hometown of Cebu City, Steve would long for the next cafe experience and it was in one particular cafe in Orange County, Los Angeles where a friend pushed him to finally take the leap.
Steve opened Bo’s Coffee in 1996, which introduced espresso-based beverages to the Philippine market. The idea caught on very quickly, and Bo’s had 10 stores in Cebu. “the way we did it was to pour in all this milk and sugar,” he reminisces. “But today the market has become more discriminating in taste.” Steve says if you put more milk now they would say “no I wanted good strong coffee.” He’s observed that compared to 20-23 years ago, there’s a certain way people like their coffee nowadays and people are starting to drink coffee at a younger age.
Today, Bo ́s has grown to over a hundred branches both here in the Philippines and abroad. And while blended and sweet drinks still hold a strong position in their menu, Steve’s vision has grown and developed over the years. “The good thing now is that there’s a lot of innovation with the coffee beverage industry before it was purely hot drinks now with all the blended drinks it’s the kids intro to drinking coffee – is the ice blended very sweet drinks, almost like a milkshake.”
“We’re second wave, moving into the third wave,” says the CEO of their current position in the market. They have been making a point of always highlighting Philippine coffee and the exceptional quality Filipino service. This is probably showcased best at their first Tribute Store, which opened in Cebu in December of 2018. The Bo’s Tribute Store offers a unique experience: handcrafted, Filipino interiors, murals, furniture, and even beverages that you can only get there. Steve is exceptionally happy with the Philippine coffee and teas in their experience bars. He calls it their “slow bar,” a place to take your time with the coffee, know the source, the process, and the story behind each cup.
Moving into the future, Bo’s as an organization seems committed to helping the local coffee community, farmers, and producers. By the end of 2019, we’ll see them building a coffee processing mill in North Luzon to further their focus into specialty grade Philippine coffee beans. And with new investors in the form of the Navegar fund, the vision for Bo’s to become a global Philippine company is becoming more and more tangible. “Navegar brought in was more of good governance, fiscal discipline, and really deliberate and strategic decision making.” Steve shares. He says it’s as if “you’re fusing in the best of entrepreneurship, and you fuse the best of professional discipline and the result should be more positive.”
Though much has evolved over the last 25 years, you can see in Steve’s eyes that he’s still that same guy: the traveler, the wanderer. He’s still seeking out new experiences and having new stories to share. And he still loves coffee. Perhaps it’s that love for the communal coffee experience that Steve now gives as his gift to the customer as he and his partners take the Bo’s Coffee brand international, introducing a taste of what the Philippines has to offer to the broader global market, and bringing a piece of home closer to Filipinos abroad.