The story of Tatoy’s Manokan (Part I)

Tatoy’s Manokan is opening a new restaurant at the Atria business park in Barangay San Rafael, Mandurriao to position itself right where the center of action is taking place in Iloilo City. But not many people know that Tatoy’s Manokan began in the early 70s as a three-table operation under a nipa roof along the Arevalo district coastline, right across the landmark restaurant that is definitely the most popular eating place in Iloilo City.

“The Villa beach was still clean and pristine (back in 1970), and every Sunday, groups of people would come to the beach to swim,” Honorato “Tiyo Tatoy” Espinosa told Manggad.Blog in a one-on-one interview. “We put up a small shanty and three bamboo tables and benches on the beachfront and started selling broiled native chicken and bangus,” he added, speaking in Hiligaynon (the local dialect).

Tiyo Tatoy 2
The author with Honorato “Tiyo Tatoy” Espinosa founder of Tatoy’s Manokan in Iloilo City.

Tiyo Tatoy had no capital. His only source of livelihood then was fishing and gathering “tuba” from coconut trees that were abundant in the place. He was a “mananggete”, as tuba gatherers are known. But with the little money he earned from fishing and selling “tuba”, Tiyo Tatoy embarked on a venture that was to become Iloilo City’s icon for food.

Every Saturday, he would buy three heads of native chicken from a “talipapa” (makeshift market) in Barangay Mohon, Arevalo, situated about 1.5 kilometer from where his small business sat. In addition, he bought three pieces of bangus and other ingredients. His young sons were tasked to do the marketing, using a push-cart to carry the goods from the market.

“It was hard labor for my boys pushing that cart loaded with chicken, fish and softdrinks,” Tiyo Tatoy recalled. “When they got home from marketing, their shirts were always soaked with sweat.” But the boys never complained. The small business provided the family with additional income to help send the children to school. Tiyo Tatoy and his wife, Consejo, have nine children, four boys and five girls.

Hector, the fifth child of the Espinosa couple, added that the family also raised cows to supplement their income. “We tended cows owned by other people, with the agreement that we would get one calf in alternate order with the owners as compensation,” Hector said. “When we finally had a male and female cow, we returned the originals to the owner and raised our own cows,” he said. The children also raised pigs.

Hector 3
Hector Espinosa, 5th child of Tiyo Tatoy and Nanay Consing Espinosa.

“It was through cattle-raising and piggery that our parents managed to send our eldest sibling, Nestor, through engineering school,” Hector proudly said. When the time to pay tuition fees came, Tiyo Tatoy would sell a cow or pig to raise the money.

The business continued to draw customers. Soon, the “manokan” became a weekend operation, opening on Saturdays and Sundays. “We had bank managers, doctors, lawyers and businessmen as regular customers,” Tiyo Tatoy said. But lack of capital continued to put a limit to the business.

The big break came sometime in 1975 when Tiyo Tatoy stood as wedding sponsor, and one of his “kumares” turned out to be the wife of a Filipino-Chinese grocery store owner near the Central Market. At the reception, Tiyo Tatoy mustered the courage to ask his “kumare” if he could buy his supplies on credit from her husband’s store. “I tried to mask it as a joke, half expecting to be turned down outright,” Tiyo Tatoy said. His “kumare” spoke to her husband. The latter agreed.

Tiyo Tatoy started buying his supplies, including softdrinks and beer, to accommodate his growing customer base every Saturday. “Gina lista lang (All my purchases were just listed down),” he recounted. He then went to the store on Monday morning to pay for his purchases. Now, Tatoy’s had become a by-word among the people of Iloilo City. It was the place to eat the best-tasting lechon manok in town.

By the late 1980s, Tiyo Tatoy was literally besieged by clamor from customers to open on weekdays. But it wasn’t customer demand that triggered the decision. It was an accident that saw three daughters hit by a delivery truck not far from his “manokan” business as they walked along the side of the road. The driver of the truck lost control of his vehicle and hit the girls, then between the ages of 5 and 11, on the roadside. It then hit a concrete fence that collapsed from the impact. The girls were found unconscious underneath the truck. Miraculously, they survived.

This was in 1981.

“Perhaps my parents saw this as a sign,” Hector said. “Tatoy’s soon began doing business seven days a week.” From then on, there was no stopping Tatoy’s Manokan. Its name and reputation grew not only locally, but even on a national and international level. Visitors to Iloilo City always made it a point to savor the lechon manok before going home. Even Presidents like Joseph Estrada, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III, became regular customers during visits to Iloilo City.

(To be continued)

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