[R]osario Juan’s original concept for Commune café and bar was a cross between Friends’ Central Perk and the Cheers bar. Situated in the edgy neighborhood of Poblacion—a downtown area in Manila’s central business district, Makati—Juan wanted to provide a respite from the bustling city and a place to encourage friends and strangers to come together.
Industrial light fixtures and exposed ceiling beams emphasize the urban location, while large glass windows breathe light and life into the corner café. Antique wrought iron chairs rest on the white tiled floor, hugging a curved coffee bar at the space’s center, where customers can take a front-row seat to watch their coffee being brewed—on either the shop’s vintage Italian espresso machine, or one of the many manual brewing devices. But Commune’s real star is the rectangular communal table, a wooden desk that seats up to twenty people.
“Culturally, Filipinos are cliquish,” Juan says. “They don’t come alone and just meet people. We wanted to challenge that habit by putting in a communal table.” She says the table has been instrumental to introducing people and engaging strangers in conversation.
Juan’s love affair with coffee began when she interned with a coffee company. The company later hired her as a communications officer and trained her as a barista. She managed coffee companies in Shanghai for four years before returning to the Philippines in 2009.
Juan first opened Commune in Makati’s Salcedo Village in 2013, inspired by a desire to provide a place to gather with friends.
Plans to tear down the Salcedo Village building to make way for a high-rise prompted the move to Commune’s current location in the Poblacion space. While Juan repurposed items from the old café both for cost and consciousness, she says the new edition is more grown up. “The old café’s design was a bit cutesy. Now we’re more minimalist,” she explains. “We’re still friendly and approachable, but we’ve matured a bit.”
The second floor, aptly called Upstairs, is where Commune stages events such as plays, open mic nights, workshops, and talks.
Serving as a venue for these events is part of Commune’s commitment to community building. “We like collaborating with artists, students, and other groups. We like supporting all these small endeavors,” she says.
Supporting local community also means promoting the growth of locally grown coffee. The menu features coffees from different regions of the Philippines, sourced from farms around the country and roasted through a third-party partnership. Available year-round, the Commune blend is primarily arabica, with a touch of robusta. Other popular menu items include single-origin selections, such as those from Benguet, a northern region, and Davao, a region in the south.
Strong community ties are also built among Commune’s baristas, who receive training on coffee appreciation, standards, and best practices. “It’s all very collaborative,” Juan shares. “I get their input on preparation methods and such. When I travel and experience new ways of doing things in cafés abroad, I share my experiences with them as well.”
Filipinos are big coffee drinkers, but much of the coffee they consume is from instant mixes—sachets of locally grown robusta coffee blended with creamer and sugar. “We’re a three-in-one country,” Juan says. “Everyone’s used to milky and sweet.” Coffee shops like Commune provide an opportunity for Filipinos to broaden their taste buds and embrace the specialty coffee movement.
Juan works closely with the Philippine Coffee Board in sourcing and growing coffee in the Philippines. “The goal is to put the country back on the coffee map,” she says. “We’re largely a coffee-drinking nation. But we don’t grow enough coffee even for our local consumption, which is one of the reasons we’re overlooked as a coffee growing country.”
Juan notes that consistency of quality is essential in highlighting the Philippines for its coffee. To address this, she works with the coffee board on projects involving technology and knowledge transfer, as well as training farmers on post-harvest practices. “The potential is there,” she emphasizes. “We just have to work on establishing it.”
Commune also supports local businesses. “We have all these creative collaborations,” Juan says. “We like working with a lot of local people, businesses, and start-ups.” The café sells pastries from home bakers, while food items on the menu are made from local and seasonal ingredients. Their best sellers include apple pie, cookie shots served with milk or a scoop of ice cream, and a grilled cheese sandwich with four homemade cheeses.
When I ask what’s next for Commune, Juan says they’re looking to expand in more creative ways. With a recently acquired one-kilogram Probat roaster and another one on the way, they’re going to start roasting their own coffee, in addition to sourcing coffees from new origins, to diversify their offerings. Juan is also looking forward to hosting more events in the coming year, including coffee education classes and workshops.
“There was one day when I knew someone from each table then I would go to all the different tables and say, ‘You guys should talk. Maybe you can collaborate,’” Juan says excitedly. “I like that, being able to connect people.”
—Rina Diane Caballar is a freelance writer based in Wellington, New Zealand.