By BING PAREL
Marj Pacheco’s thriving nail spa and RTW boutique businesses were the family’s bread and butter. But when the extended lockdowns due to the covid-19 pandemic forced her to close them down – in the process cutting off a significant portion of the family’s financial resources – Marj decided to shift gears and execute her “Plan B”: baking.
Energetic. Workaholic. Determined.
These are the words that come to mind when one gets to know Marj Pacheco, owner of Amaze & Graze, an online business offering creatively designed cakes, chocolate covered strawberries as well as grazing cold cuts.
Marj used to work as a customer service representative, then later on as HR (Human Resources) assistant for Miles & Levels Philippines, a car accessories distribution company. When she gave birth, she decided to stop working to take care of her child. During that time, she was already doing some business on the side, importing accessories from China and selling them online.
“It was in 2010 when I decided to put up a nail spa business, and also doing online selling on the side,” shares Marj, speaking in the vernacular. Since the nail spa business was the only one in their area in Pasig during that time, the place was always full of customers. This prompted her husband Vic – a freelance digital marketer – to urge her to drop the import and online selling and focus on the spa business instead.
The Instagram-worthy chocolate-covered strawberries in love boxes and baskets, themed cakes and grazing boxes from Amaze & Graze are all works of art and heart.
“I handled the business and managed it from morning until closing. I did that for two years from 2010 to 2012, then I decided to hire a manager and resumed the import business,” Marj discloses.
In 2015, she also started traveling to Bangkok, buying products to sell back home, eventually becoming a fashion boutique business. Marj also took the opportunity to take short classes in culinary schools, although she was not really that interested in the culinary business at the time. She would go to class from Monday to Friday, then became an on-the-job-trainee for a year after finishing a course in baking and pastry arts in 2017. After graduating, she put up a catering business.
Asked if she did not feel exhausted because she was taking on so many activities and businesses, Marj says, “Kasi I value my time, ayoko nang nakaupo lang sa isang tabi na walang ginagawa. So when I have a lot of time in my hands, I use that, nag-aaral ng kung ano-ano.”
Since her two boys were already grown up (the eldest turned 18 last month while the other one is turning 12 in May), she had a lot of free time. “Kasi wala nang batang inaalagaan,” she adds.
The nail spa business became so big, to the point that it soon had franchises located in Taguig, Pasig and Makati. Aside from the fashion boutique and the catering business, she also had a mobile bar. Since Vic also had his own business as a digital marketer, with most of his clients coming from abroad, things were really going well.
And then came covid-19.
It was on March 15, 2020 when Metro Manila was put on lockdown (enhanced community quarantine) due to the novel coronavirus, so “the nail spa business had to close because it involves direct contact with customers,” Marj recalls.
“At first, things were okay, and I was even telling myself that this is the time to get some rest. I was thinking that the closure would only last for two weeks, or at the most, one month,” she adds.
But the lockdown kept getting extended, month after month.
“During the end of April, that’s when I started experiencing headaches. Iba na ang pakiramdam kasi hindi ako sanay na nasa bahay lang, kasi people were not allowed to go out. Hindi ako sanay na walang ginagawa,” Marj continues, admitting that they did not expect the lockdown to last for so long, spanning several months.
Asked about the employees, Marj narrates: “In the beginning, we still had some funds so we extended help as much as we can because we did not expect the quarantine to last that long. But when August came, I decided to talk to them and tell them that maybe they should start looking for another job.”
Since the family income really came from the nail spa and the boutique business, the situation was understandably very depressing for Marj. And unused as she was to being idle, she began reading her culinary books again and revisited her baking recipes. “Vic told me, ‘Kesa sumakit yang ulo mo at wala kang ginagawa, why don’t you try baking again?’ The last time I baked was in 2017 after I graduated (from the culinary school). Hindi ko na-apply yung pinag-aralan ko kasi nga I was handling all those businesses,” Marj discloses,
So she started baking some cakes and gave them to some neighbors and friends. The feedback was so encouraging that Vic suggested selling them to the people in their village in Greenwoods who were laughingly described as “sobrang hilig sa pagkain” (loved eating).
“That was also the time when I decided to sell the nail spa business. I gave it my all, so that ‘vanity phase’ of my life is over,” she says, explaining that she called the nail spa her vanity business.
Asked if adjustments had to be made in their lifestyle because of the pandemic, Marj avers, “sobrang laki ng adjustments. Nabawasan ang budget for a number of things.” Fortunately, Marj and Vic raised their kids not to be extravagant. They were not also the typed who always went shopping or malling, preferring instead to spend their Sundays going to church.
While others have also turned to cooking and baking to start their own online businesses, the cakes of Marj stood out because of the beautiful and creative designs. There are unicorn cakes, drip cakes, cheesecakes and different types of cakes that are so wonderfully and attractively presented to the point that it makes one hesitate to cut them up. And of course, there’s the popular chocolate covered strawberries that are considered as best sellers especially during special occasions such as Valentine’s Day.
They also targeted a niche market – “not pang-masa” as Vic put it.
“I think it’s the uniqueness of the products that we offer. Everyone can bake but the design is critical, mahirap gawin. Ako kasi when I design I make sure that the customer is 100 percent satisfied,” Marj states simply.
Her standards are so exacting that there would be times when the cake is already done and ready to be boxed up, but if Marj notices something about the cake design that she is not satisfied with, or if she thinks there is something lacking, she would not hesitate to do it all over again. She is also constantly experimenting, doing her own brand of R&D (research and development), then giving samples for friends to try out.
According to Marj, she chose the name “Amaze & Graze” for her baking business because the feedback she often gets from people is “wow, that’s amazing” when they see the finished product. The “Graze” part, she says, came from the cold cuts, cheese balls and other products offered in grazing boxes.
To say that the business is doing well would be an understatement, since Marj has her hands full with orders. Vic serves as her taster, critic, photographer and “color mixer” – making every piece a labor of love, in a manner of speaking. It’s also this kind of collaboration that has given Marj the strength and resolve to bounce back, displaying the resilience that Filipinos are also known for especially in the face of adversity.
While there are stories about couples having difficulty in their relationship due to the pandemic, Marj and Vic say the situation was a positive development that has brought them even closer since they have more time to be with each other, helping each other. “I hear about other couples who are quarrelling because the set-up where they are always together is not okay…” Marj expresses.
Admittedly, the pandemic has brought certain realizations to Marj as an individual and as a businesswoman.
“I used to think that the nail spa business was for a lifetime, because I have been doing it for 10 years. But it’s like everything can change in a span of seconds, so you have to be prepared for whatever will come your way. You must have a backup plan,” she reflects.
“Napakalaking bagay talaga na kahit matanda na tayo, nag-aaral tayo ng tuloy-tuloy kasi hindi natin alam kung anong mangyayari sa mga susunod na araw. Malay mo baka yung napag-aralan mo dati magagamit mo din in the near future,” the indefatigable businesswoman expounds, stressing the value of learning regardless of one’s age as the knowledge could come in handy in the future.
“Hanggang kaya ng katawan mo, hanggang kaya ng oras mo, kung kaya mong mag-aral, tuloy-tuloy lang yang pag-aaral kasi malaking factor siya. Just like me, I graduated way back in 2017 but after that I was not able to use what I learned,” Marj continues, admitting that she never expected that her baking background would help her out so much. Without the baking business, Marj says she doesn’t even know what would have happened to the family because her other businesses had to be closed down.
Starting a business is never easy, but what is important is that “one should not be afraid of taking risks. All our decisions have corresponding risks. But before starting a business, make sure that it is really something that you want to do. It must be something that you are interested in because it will be difficult to nourish your business if you have no interest in it,” Marj offers this piece of advice.
For instance, she would start working at 3am and would still be at it by 5pm. But Marj says she doesn’t feel tired because she likes what she is doing, and whatever she earns from it is already “a bonus.”
“You must also know the business. You really have to study the business you plan to get into. And it’s not just enough to have the capital in starting a business – you must also have knowledge about it,” she shares, disclosing that she is working on new products and will be launching them in the days to come. Meantime, she is preparing for Easter Sunday and has planned product designs and offers up until Mother’s Day.
Kindhearted and generous, the couple has also taken it upon themselves to share God’s blessing by donating PPEs (personal protective equipment) and vitamins to frontliners when the business started to become profitable, saying that we should not forget to help our fellowmen.
Indeed, God’s amazing grace is apparent in the successful business turnaround that Marj is experiencing through Amaze & Graze.
Online Shop: https://www.amazeandgraze.ph/
About the Writer
Bing Parel is a Senior Vice President for the Editorial Department of WSP Incorporated, a Filipino-owned communications firm. In her past life, she was a travel magazine writer and associate editor for a glossy, and was also involved in the national campaign of a presidential candidate. She describes herself as a domestic diva on weekends and confesses that one of her frustrations is the inability to solve a Rubik’s Cube despite her teenage son’s patient encouragement and tutorial attempts.
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