When Life Gives you Lemoni Café
Lemoni Café and Restaurant, in D’Mall Boracay has been at the heart of the islands restaurant culture for 15 years. In all that time, with the comings and goings of newer restaurants and eateries, Lemoni’s fans have remained steadfast, growing and constant.
From the menu, the ambiance and decor, to the consistently cheerful and professional staff team. It is no wonder that Lemoni Café and Restaurant made it in to MY RANGGO’s 100 Best in Service Awards.
MY RANGGO Magazine spoke with owners Sarah Adey LaBrooy and Julia Lervik about starting out and how they have maintained their brand and success.
MY RANGGO: Can you pinpoint the moment the idea of Lemoni Café was born?
Sarah: Julia and I became close friends in 1999. We were both living on Boracay, our kids were small and we both loved and talked about food (obsessively). Julia had a background in cooking, having worked in many great kitchens in her native Sweden. She had also been running the Baling Hai Beach Resort kitchen.
I have worked Front of House in restaurants, since I was in school. So, my entire adult life. At the time it was just temporary, while I figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up. But I soon realized that I loved it and it WAS what I was meant to do. I’ve worked in the US, Australia and New Zealand, as well as Boracay.
We always talked about having our own restaurant one day. At that time there wasn’t a lot of options on Boracay. We craved fresh, healthy, tasty food and a higher level of service, which was not common on the Island at that time.
MY RANGGO: How long from your initial idea/concept was it before Lemoni opened?
Sarah: Once we got the spot in D’Mall, in 2005, it all came together pretty quickly as we had already been dreaming about it for so long.
MY RANGGO: Were there any difficulties, when you first opened?
Sarah: As far as quality ingredients and suppliers went, there really was very little on the Island in 2005. We had to bring in most things from Manila and that was challenging. It certainly was not the carbon footprint that we wanted to contribute either!
Things are much better these days, local supplier wise, so that aspect has become easier.
As far as staffing goes, we have never insisted on the need for prior experience when recruiting. We look for a really great attitude and willingness to learn. We can teach the rest.
MY RANGGO: Is there anything you wish you had known at the start of opening the business?
Sarah: We thought with great food, and great service, the restaurant would take off immediately…..but then it didn’t. We opened with the concept of healthy fresh food, an in-house bakery and all-day breakfast. Because that was what we’d been missing. All that is very common today in the restaurant industry but 15 years ago it was not yet a ‘thing’.
We were a bit before our time and so it took time for Lemoni to catch on. But we 110% believed in what we were doing, so we persevered and stuck with it until eventually we found our crowd….or they found us!
MY RANGGO: What are your most popular dishes and desserts?
Sarah: That would be a pretty long list!
We have guests that come back to the Island year after year, who look for their favorite dish which they still remember from their last Boracay holiday. Our breakfast is amazing and we have a gorgeous selection of salads. All of our sandwiches are on homemade bread from our bakery. And our seafood dishes are very popular as well.
MY RANGGO: I have a friend who still raves about your Mango Madness, every time I see him. What dishes have remained on your menu the longest?
Sarah: Our menu has just grown and grown over the years. We seldom remove items as everything on the menu sells.
Julia comes up with new items usually inspired from her travels. At first they are added to our Specials Board. If they prove popular, they are eventually added to the menu.
MY RANGGO: Lemoni Café also makes and sells specialist custom cakes, which is understandable because your cakes and desserts are delicious
Sarah: That came about accidentally. We didn’t make custom cakes when we first opened. But then friends on the Island started asking if we could make a special birthday cake, or a wedding cake and we said “we’ll try”. As our bakers gained experience, skill and confidence we thought ‘we can do this’.
We love to make custom cakes, or wedding cakes. Especially ones that we haven’t made before, which are a little challenging. To have a customer send us a photo of their dream cake and for our fabulous baker boys to realize it, and recreate it; it gives the whole team a great feeling of satisfaction.
MY RANGGO: You really do have a great team at Lemoni, and you have staff who have been with you for many years. What are the key elements, which Lemoni practices, that ensures the retention of staff?
Sarah: We always tell our staff to be humble and grateful for every single customer. Every single guest is a VIP in Lemoni Café, no matter where they are from.
Beth Milanes, our Manager, has been by our side through all the blood, sweat, tears and one million laughs all of these years. She was the very first person we hired and has become a very close friend of both Julia and I.
Our Head Chef, Ritchie, has also been with us since day one; maintaining our standards and flavors day in and day out. Ritchie has the best disposition of any chef I have ever worked with. He never gets in a bad mood and the busier he gets the more he sings. Frank Sinatra and the Philippine National Anthem are part of his repertoire.
Everybody’s favorite waitresses Nina and Jenny, who hold down the night shift, have also been with us since 2005. And we have numerous bakers, cooks and bartenders that have been part of the team for over 10 years.
We always joke that we are all growing old together! We consider ourselves a ‘family’ and call ourselves the Lemonheads.
We try to take care of our staff and let them feel that they are a huge important part of Lemoni’s success, because they are. I think its also very important to empower people.
During the Island closure in 2018, which was the worst thing our restaurant and the whole Island has ever gone through, we did everything we could for our staff.
MY RANGGO: You were one of the few restaurants that remained actively open during the closure. That was a lifeline to the community, as well as your staff.
Does Lemoni have any Corporate Social Responsibility projects
Julia: Lemon Café has, since its start, always tried to be as environmentally friendly as possible. We try to use as much locally sourced products as possible; trying to base the main parts of the menu on items we can find around here.
We have also always engaged our staff in the importance to care for our environment and involving them in island activities, such as beach and street clean ups, ocean clean ups, planting of trees.
Lemon Café has since its start been one of the main supporting establishments of Friends of the Flying Foxes work; which cares for the worldwide endangered species the Golden Crowned Flying Fox, and through that the environment of Boracay and northwest Panay peninsula.
MY RANGGO: March is Women’s Empowerment Month, and the three leading ladies of Lemoni are all guiding lights in this respect.
Sarah: We all learned that restaurants don’t run themselves! Julia, Beth and I put our heart and soul into Lemoni Café every single day.
I hope that our female team members have always felt supported and empowered by us too, every step of the way. We are strong women, and independent women and that’s what we try to instill in them.
MY RANGGO: Is there a secret to your success?
Sarah: One thing is that Julia and I have completely different strengths. Julia is everything kitchen and back of house and I am all things front of house. Which is why we have had such a great partnership all of these years; we compliment each other.
This might sound a little strange but its not just about money for us. We care about our Boracay community, and love what we do and where we do it (Boracay). We believe 100% in what we are doing and are as passionate today, as the day we opened in September 2005
We are so happy after 15 years, to have recently opened a sister restaurant to Lemoni Café, called DiniBeach Bar & Restaurant, which is located on the beach in Diniwid.
Finally, we have a beach front location after all of these years! It’s a big open air restaurant with a native roof that gives an ‘old Boracay feeling’, for people who want to escape the crowds of White Beach. DiniBeach offers the same high quality food and service standards of Lemoni Café. We’ll be expanding the menu too soon, to include more fresh Seafood and Steaks.
If you want to taunt yourself with images of delicious food, MY RANGGO would encourage you to visit, like and follow the Facebook and Instagram Pages of Lemoni Café and DiniBeach Bar & Restaurant: