Del Union’s Fresh Perspective on the City Cafe Scene

Photo by Kieran Punay

While inspired by the essence of the beloved surftown cafe El Union, Del Union is more than just a mere replication, but a homage to the city of Manila and its residents. The cafe’s attempt at redefining an excellent coffee experience is centered on community-building, staying true to its beachside roots.

Take a photo of Del Union in the middle of the day with a film camera or even with your smartphone, and you will suddenly be transported to a cafe rendezvous from decades ago. From its warmly lit space, a menu showcased on a cinema marquee-style board, to its vibrant, sunset-orange furniture, Del Union’s visual aesthetic speaks to vintage film sensibilities. Yet, the cafe’s contemporary characteristics such as dedicated work and study spaces and reimagined menu offerings remind customers that the cafe still exists in the continuously innovating 21st century. 

Tucked in the third floor of the Fullybooked bookstore in Bonifacio Global City, Del Union may be somebody’s best kept little cafe secret for now, but if there’s anything to know about its origins, Del Union will soon be buzzing with newcomers and returning patrons. However, co-owners and creative directors Matt San Pedro and Kiddo Cosio clarify what might be a misconception: Del Union is not merely a version of the La Union branch—El Union— in the city, rather, a space of its own.

The welcoming team at Del Union assures its customers that they are ready for a good cup of coffee or an enjoyable conversation. Photo by Kieran Punay

“It’s more of what El Union would have looked like if we opened in the city to start with.” San Pedro says. “It’s really a love letter to Manila and an homage to a time that’s passed, and a [manifestation of] a sense of nostalgia for a time to come.” According to the co-owners, the plans for opening a branch in Manila had been in the works for a long time, but they got halted by changes in circumstances. “Following the trials and learnings of the pandemic, our core team was ready to take on the challenge of growth.” Cosio says. Del Union finally opened its doors to customers in February 2024.  

Back in La Union, the El Union cafe has since become a thriving community space. Its welcoming atmosphere in the surftown right beside picturesque beaches turned it into a common haunt for an assortment of patrons, including surfers, tourists, and locals. San Pedro says that this characteristic is what they wanted to adapt most for their venture in the city. “We know we couldn’t really translate that direct experience: El Union is right by the beach, where things are a bit more laid back.” San Pedro says. “But we wanted to make sure that we maintain the ‘third space’ essence of the shop. We wanted to do [here] the things we were passionate about, which is that of design and good coffee.”

Del Union’s freshly ground coffee beans for their drinks. Photo by Kieran Punay
Del Union’s classic Orxata is posing to be a crowd favorite. Photo by Kieran Punay

The co-owners’ passion for design is evident throughout the entire space. Del Union’s seamless integration into the bookstore was one of its intentional features. “We really wanted to remove the barrier that separated the two spaces because we wanted to make people feel that they were still in the bookstore. It’s always nice to see people walk in and out of the store just to check out the menu and if they like anything, they’ll line up.” San Pedro says.

The customization of the space didn’t end there: as the co-owners assert that ninety-nine percent of the store was custom-built. The ceiling ‘waffle lights’ underwent multiple different prototypes to get the desired result. The overhead shelves are currently empty, but San Pedro aims to populate it with design books to turn it into a design library. According to an Instagram post, the table booths are customized with mother of pearl inlay and brass trim. The cafe also features hardwood stools, a comfortable modular sofa, and a customized stainless steel fountain and bussing stations. San Pedro says that the team is excited to add more decor pieces into the shop, filling the overhead shelves with design books and other vintage items in the near future.

Must try: A carefully crafted sandwich on a bed of foccacia bread. Photo by Kieran Punay
Del Union adapts local Filipino flavors in their filling deli sandwiches. Photo by Kieran Punay

“The most interesting thing is we didn’t realize how far you can really go in terms of touching every small detail in the shop.” San Pedro says. “Even if it did cause significant delays [ahead of our opening date], I have no regrets and I love that we did it the way we did, because it came with a lot of lessons on how to do things better next time.” 

The co-owners recognize that due to the daily hustle and bustle of city life, people’s time is precious. According to Cosio, Del Union aims to be the fastest specialty coffee bar in the city. Del Union plans to accomplish this by putting their beverages in nitrogen-filled kegs, and bringing their drinks out on a tap, similar to beer. “By doing that, we’re able to cut down a lot of time in building a drink, and focus more on interacting with the customer.” San Pedro says. “If there’s any frustration about having to wait so long in a line, we are able to quell that a bit by giving the customers their drink as soon as possible.” 

However, for customers that want to spend more time in the cafe and explore the menu options, Del Union reports that they adapted their El Union menu for an adventurous, city-dweller palate. The variation of their menu is what further distinguishes it from its other cafe counterparts in the area. “Foreign voices and styles largely dominate coffee experiences in the city. But we were very purposeful to develop a style that references Filipino pop culture spaces.” Cosio says. While still offering the drinks that they were known for in La Union for over a decade such as the Orxata and their classic espresso-based drinks, Del Union also offers gourmet focaccia sandwiches in collaboration with chefs and bakers who helped them develop the recipes, maintaining a Filipino essence throughout their menu. 

Every detail in the interior of Del Union’s space was meticulously designed and customized. Photo by Kieran Punay

“If you look, you will find we are asking questions and telling jokes about Filipino-ness, and how that feels in space, food, and drink,” Cosio further expounds. “Our menu by EJ and Alex of Makan makes deli sandwiches out of pinikpikan and dinakdakan, of northern Pinoy imagination.” Del Union also offers other interesting delicacies such as muscovado cookies, calamansi muffins, and sapin-sapin cheesecake. 

The playful curiosity and optimism that permeated throughout the store from its inception, design process, menu, and its plans for the future is what offers Del Union its charm. When asked what they think makes a good coffee experience, San Pedro says, “To me, a good coffee experience is a cheerful barista, a comforting environment, and a great cup of coffee.” After spending some time inside Del Union, it’s difficult not to agree.

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