From Opportunities Abroad to Finding Purpose in the Philippines: How This Returning OFW Started His Own Business

Aldreen Barron, the owner of Brunch Cafe, shares why he returned to the Philippines, where he opened his own business after working as an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) in Singapore.

Statistics show that there are about 1.83 million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) deployed in several countries across the world, as working abroad promises better opportunities in the form of better pay and career growth. Considered modern-day heroes, these OFWs are not just able to help their families but the entire economy as well. In fact, inflows from OFWs have become one of the domestic economy’s growth operators for years.

Though some OFWs tend to stay abroad for years to provide for their families, there are some who go back to the Philippines. Doing so allows them to start a new life with what they have saved up from their years of hard work.

Such is the case of Aldreen Barron, an OFW who came back home to start his own business after working in Singapore for nine years. This is his story and how Brunch Cafe came to be.

From OFW to Business Owner—Taking a different path from the many Filipinos who want to build their careers abroad, Aldreen Barron returned to the Philippines to act on a longtime dream of opening his own coffee shop.

Finding Better Opportunities Abroad

Unlike other Filipinos who really aim to work abroad, Barron’s path toward becoming an OFW was purely made of sheer luck, as he just wanted to find a better opportunity. This brought him to Singapore. 

“My first job there was as a [professional] cake decorator in a private cake shop that catered to different big companies and celebrities. [I worked there] for 4 years,” he begins.

Eventually, however, he changed jobs. “I felt that I am not learning and growing anymore as an individual, so I decided to find a different career path—customer service. [It] was way too unexpected with my personality as an introverted person, [but] I told myself that I need to get out of my comfort zone if I wanted to be successful in life,” he adds.

But changing careers is not that easy, and his experience was a testament to that. This transition led him to struggle physically, emotionally, mentally, and financially. What’s more, he was even jobless for three months, which meant that he had to use up all his savings.

Thankfully, he found helpful friends during his stay there. “I got my second job as a Managerial Trainee again in a very unexpected way,” Barron explains. “[I faced] lots of trials and challenges along the way because I didn’t have the experience. But because of my hard work and dedication to learn, I succeeded and surpassed all the trials.”

Aldreen Barron on Finding His Why

These same friends—whom he counted on during the hard times he faced—were also the same people who knew about his dreams of having a successful coffee shop and sought to reignite that passion.

“Honestly, it only started while drinking at home in Singapore with my housemates,” he shares. “[I told] Randolf, Jay, Paolo, and Kheylid that someday I will have my own cafe. [I said this] with confidence during the pandemic period—not knowing what is the future ahead. lt did not need to be big, but at least [it’s something] I can call my own.”

“When I was still young, I remember that my mom used to have different small businesses,” he goes on to add. “From small hair clips [she tried] to sell in different malls [to] stores to accepting loading stations with different telcos, [and] even opening up a carinderia in Manila behind their office gate…all those businesses were unsuccessful because of lack of knowledge and no one is hands-on.”

It was then that he had an epiphany of his own. “So one day, I told myself that we will be successful,” Barron says resolutely. “One of the deciding factors also was that I’m not getting any younger and I need to think of my future. What if Singapore does not like me anymore and I lose my job? What will I do?”

A Moment of Realization

Aside from the uncertainty of where his future will take him, Barron reveals that the inspiration for him to leave his job and return to the Philippines stemmed from a profound loss. “I can’t say it inspires me, but I think I strived to do it when my second to the oldest brother passed away last year June 2022,” he laments. “I felt depressed and traumatized at the same time. It happened so quickly that until now it still haunts me [that I didn’t spend enough] time with them, especially with him more frequently.”

“This coffee shop was originally [designed] to be operated by him and myself, as were both in the same industry,” he adds. “Now, me and my youngest brother, Leon, [are] more active and hands-on in the day-to-day operations and fulfilling the dream.”

What’s more, Barron also shared about how working abroad taught him that life isn’t easy, especially how it was even more draining than struggling at home because by being an OFW, he had no one with him. 

Recalling his experience abroad, he says, “My second job really gave a big influence on my decision to start the coffee shop, as I am the senior manager of the restaurant. My job is [to] oversee and manage the day-to-day operations and do admin work at the same time. Not just that—once in a while I’d have to help the team in washing the dishes and even join the kitchen team in preparing the food when someone is not feeling well.”

“With all these experiences, I realized [that] if I can do all of this to someone else’s business, why can’t I [for my own business]?”

Equipped with the skills to start his own coffee shop—from his stint as an OFW in Singapore—Aldreen Barron was more than ready to start his own business.

Learning from Mentors

Although the pandemic may have caused many businesses to close down, it also gave rise to new businesses that thrived in those circumstances. One example includes the restaurant industry, which remains strong to this day. “During the pandemic, we opened a new outlet—not knowing if it would [be a] hit, as the economy was down that time,” he explains. “And yet it was successful.”

“After the pandemic, we opened again the biggest [store] out of the three outlets. After that, I got overwhelmed with [the] workload and again, [I thought to myself], ‘If [they] can do it, why can’t I?’ [But] dedication, hard work, and perseverance are what really drove me to push through with my dreams to have my own coffee shop,” he adds.

Running a business has taught him a lot, but aside from learning from The Business Manual, which he reveals has been one of his go-to sources, he says that, “Honestly, my boss from my previous company abroad taught me how to become a more business-minded person, be more responsible, and have more ownership in everything I do.”

“My brother who passed away [also] taught me that no matter what position you are in the company, always treat your staff with kindness because those people will help you when you are in your lowest,” he adds.

Coming Home and Opening Brunch Cafe 

“We are still very young, just like me—kidding!” he laughs. “We opened the cafe [to the] public last April 10 as a soft launch and we officially opened and blessed the coffee shop last June 8, 2023.”

This, however, was not a walk in the park—as he too faced challenges while starting out. “We had so many struggles when setting up the cafe,” he laments. “We struggled [with] finding suppliers for different equipment and ingredients, so slowly we have to research and survey different cafes.”

“Finance is a big part of the struggle, of course,” he continues. “We didn’t realize that we [had to] spend more than the target budget for the renovation due to the major changes of the unit.”

Catering to a niche market was another factor that Barron had to consider, given that his coffee shop was more for the upscale folk. “During the first opening, the struggle was how to introduce yourself to the people around you. They were not used to having in an upscale coffee shop in the area. [Determining] what price range to target [was also a challenge]. But now people are slowly getting to know us.”

Having lived in Singapore for nine years, Barron also took bits and pieces of his stay in Singapore and incorporated them into the cafe’s design. Among those were sustainability and having a “homey vibe”.

In fact, during the interview, he enthusiastically shared how sustainability is important to him, even adding how Singapore has inspired him about beauty and being eco-friendly. Singapore, as he described it, is one of the busiest countries in the world yet it still manages to promote and value sustainable development.

Taking inspiration from the sustainable and environment-forward approach of Singapore, Aldreen Barron incorporated these elements into his restaurant.

Life in the Philippines as a Business Owner

Being back home meant being able to spend quality time back with his family. “Yes, every now and then, they [his family] visit here as customers and give feedback on what can be improved on our menu and customer service without any biases,” he shares. “Aside from that, my youngest brother assists in shop operations after his work-from-home occupation. He also helps with the prints and social media layouts that we publish”. 

Business operations can be challenging but it feels rewarding when done right. When asked to share his biggest accomplishment, he answers that, “I think our biggest achievement so far was to be able to start and open the business itself. Because this has been in the planning phase for the longest time. And to see the satisfaction from the faces and feedback from our new and regular customers.”

“I’ve never been happier—now that I’m back home and with my family for good after nine years,” he ends. “A big part of [why I am happier here in the Philippines] was that I can already manage my own time and not worry about what my boss will say. With that, I can finally pursue my dreams of having my own cafe or business.”