FACES AND VOICES OF COVID-19
ILIGAN CITY (MindaNews / 26 Sept) – When the lockdowns began last year, Michael “Mic-mic” Fuentes Morales felt he needed to have an additional income stream to support his young family, nurturing a five-year-old son.
At that time, he was doing online freelance work doing computer graphics, making logos and other designs. “It’s not really sustainable work, it just depends if I have friends or contacts who’d ask me to do graphics work,” he said.
He also helps his wife, Charlette, in her baking business, making cakes, cookies, pastries. “She’d do the baking, we’d sell them online, and I’d do the deliveries,” Mic-mic said, riding on the food delivery fad in Iligan.
But Mic-mic’s passion in life is coffee.
When he was a student at the Mindanao State University – Iligan Institute of Technology in 2009, he worked part-time at a local café, the Almighty Brews, a walking distance from campus.
“It was there that I learned everything about coffee, where I learned that a barista is different from a bartender,” he smiled.
In 2013, he left for Riyadh for a two-year contract to work as barista, further honing his skills. “I got more confident with my coffee skills. While working there, I knew I had enough knowledge and skills to have my own café,” Mic-mic said.
The plan was to save money and build his own coffee shop back home.
But back then, it wasn’t meant to be. His work in Saudi Arabia ended on a sour note. Mic-mic came home, and once again worked as barista, in a café in Cebu City.
Fast-forward to COVID-19 pandemic.
Like many in his generation, Mic-mic became a biker during the lockdowns.
“Bicycle became a fad, especially with the call for social distancing as people started using bikes to go to work and to move around town. My friends were into bikes, and I got left behind. So I decided to join them,” he recalled.
But what got many people interested in biking are the long rides, having fun with friends visiting faraway places, and having exercise at the same time.
On those rides, Mic-mic noticed something: “We’d leave early for the long ride, and my friends would have 3-in-1 coffee in Naawan.” The Misamis Oriental town is almost 30 kilometers away from home.
The idea of having coffee early in the morning and pedalling a bike ticked something in Mic-mic’s mind. He himself wanted to have his coffee first hour in the morning.
“Sometimes when I’m too tired to brew, or I run out of coffee beans, I’d love to go to a café. But at the start of the pandemic, there were no coffee shops that opened that early,” he recalled.
After maybe three months of biking with his friends, he noticed that he had a hard time catching up. His pace was the same, he was sure. But it appeared that his friends, especially the rich ones, were riding much faster. “I found out they upgraded to expensive bikes that will make them faster. I can’t beat them in that department,” he lamented.
Mic-mic thought maybe it was time to put the bike to other, better use.
“Because building a coffee shop takes a lot of time and a lot of money, not to mention your monthly overhead costs, I’ve long wanted to start small, with a coffee cart. Maybe this was the right time,” he recalled.
Furthermore, Mic-mic thought it’s better to have a café serving customers in the outdoors as it is safer as COVID-19 is known to spread faster in the airconditioned, indoor setting.
In September last year, he started planning and working on his pet project, which would be a marriage of bicycle and coffee. He would serve coffee as it is the livelihood he knew for years, and it would be on wheels, albeit a pedal-powered one.
And thus it would be called … The Pedal Bean!
The bicycle he bought from the surplus shop he used for his coffee cart. His mechanical engineering technology degree, especially the welding skills he developed, was of big help in building it.
He started with the most basic of coffee gear, but something that the coffee enthusiasts love to use – a Kalita coffee dripper and a manual grinder that he got from Shopee. And a Hario kettle with a long spout for the perfect pourover coffee.
But he made sure to use the best, freshest coffee beans. Luckily for him, a young entrepreneur like him opened only recently the Arabigo Coffee Roastery, Iligan’s first commercial specialty grade coffee roaster. It sources beans from the country’s winning coffee farmers, and from specialty green coffee vendors abroad.
“People love having coffee first thing in the morning,” Mic-mic said. And so that’s what he did, his coffee spiced up with Charlette’s cakes, cookies and pastries.
Iligan’s favorite running area – the 250-meter stretch of the Doña Teodora Blvd. near Redemptorist Church with an island in the middle – is only two blocks away from his place along Jamille St. in Barangay San Miguel. So just before 6 a.m. on Oct. 25, 2020, he pedalled his coffee cart to the running area and parked by the side of the street.
While upscale coffee shops have been in Iligan for years, Mic-mic’s approach at specialty coffee – grinding the beans and brewing the coffee by the roadside, the runners catching a whiff of the aroma – suddenly became a hit.
The physical fitness people – the runners and the bikers mostly – became his first customers.
When MindaNews visited his shop around 7 o’clock on Sunday morning (26 September 2021) to take pictures, two bikers dropped by to order black pourover coffee.
His coffee cart is open from 6 to 10 a.m., and 3 to 8:30 p.m., just before the curfew siren blares 30 minutes later.
But The Pedal Bean has become so popular on social media that Iligan coffee lovers get their caffeine fix there, the customers standing by the roadside enjoying their coffee, or will just drive-through and pick up their brew, even if it’s far from the commercial area in the poblacion.
Since people now know about The Pedal Bean, Mic-mic opted to just fix location of his coffee cart, right outside his apartment along Jamille St. The joggers and bikers continue to come as it’s so near for them, and Iliganons from other parts of town visit, too.
“I like his concept of coffee on the go. The place is not noisy as it’s in a residential area. You can see Mic-mic’s process of brewing coffee and talk with him about coffee,” said Albrecht Angara, a long-time friend and a home brewer himself.
He usually orders coffee from Mt. Apo, if available. “And the sweets they serve, which his wife makes, is perfect combination,” he added.
Now that Albrecht – a nurse who is busy with the government’s vaccination program – has less time to spend at Mic-mic’s place or brew his own coffee, he would just call his friend for his favorite pourover brew and pick it up on the way to work.
“I like The Pedal Bean because it sticks to the coffee street culture. I like how pure their coffee is, not all milk and sugar,” seconded photographer Cille Bayron.
Before Iligan’s COVID-19 cases soared because of the Delta variant, she was there every day.
Her advice to entrepreneurs struggling during these times: “Don’t let the pandemic be a hindrance to your business’ success. Be like The Pedal Bean.”
Mic-mic says that The Pedal Bean has been of great help to his young family, now that it has become more stable.
He has since upgraded his coffee gear, getting a Hario V60 for his dripper and the popular Timemore hand grinder. He chanced upon a used manual espresso machine on Facebook, from somebody who wanted to swap it with a bicycle. “I immediately messaged him to ask if I can pay cash instead,” Mic-mic said.
He paired the espresso maker with a milk steamer, so now Mic-mic offers some basic espresso-based drinks like Café Americano, iced coffee, latte and cappuccino.
Business is picking up so he hired two assistants, a cousin and a neighbor, to help him out.
Now that The Pedal Bean has become popular, Mic-mic registered his business so he could also avail of some help from the government. “They offer some packages to help small businesses, and who knows I can get a loan later to expand my business,” he added.
To give back to the community, Mic-mic joined the Iligan Barista Community (IBC) during the “community pantry” craze last April.
On two weekends, the local baristas offered free coffee and other food items to frontliners.
But Mic-mic admits it’s not all good in these troubling times.
For one, his location for The Pedal Bean in Barangay San Miguel is a flood-prone area. “When it rains hard, we have no choice but to call it a day,” he stressed.
For most businesses in this pandemic, when the community quarantine goes up, business goes down. And The Pedal Bean is no exception: “When the city’s COVID-19 cases increased, fewer people came.”
With the surge of Iligan’s COVID-19 cases lately, the city was placed under General Community Quarantine, limiting people’s movement as Mayor Celso Regencia implemented a color-coding scheme that only residents of certain barangays can go out on certain days. September is supposed to be Iligan’s merriest during normal times, with a series of activities prior to the feast of St. Michael the Archangel on September 29. But it was silent last year, and so it is now.
According to the city’s Emergency Operation Center Health Cluster, Iligan has 4,543 cases as of Sept. 23. Of this number, 410 are active, with an alarming 7.88 percent case fatality ratio, which is more than five times the national average of 1.51 percent.
Because his ultimate dream of building a café is still not attainable in the near future, Mic-mic plans to add more coffee carts. “I’d love to see more coffee carts on the streets, not just The Pedal Bean’s, so it’d be as ubiquitous as tempura or kwek-kwek,” he said, referring to two of the more popular street food in the Philippines.
He also plans to roast his own coffee to save money on beans. Mic-mic is now learning how to roast, but so far only for his own consumption. Again, he is using the most basic equipment – a pan and an egg whisk, manually stirring the beans. When he saves enough money, he plans to buy a proper coffee roaster.
“But my long range plan, my ultimate dream, is to have my own café,” he said. It will of course have another name, and Mic-mic vowed to keep The Pedal Bean in Iligan’s streets. (Bobby Timonera / MindaNews)