At the heart of Manila is a bar that is always short-staffed, in a manner of speaking.
Now a Manila landmark and a curious tourist spot, the Hobbit House remains one of the most interesting bars in the Philippines for its offbeat appeal.
It all started when Iowa native Jim Turner, who was part of the first batch of Peace Corps volunteers in the Philippines, decided to stay in the country for good after two years of teaching English in the provinces. To support himself, he worked at odd jobs and eventually even became a manager of a television station, where he met different dwarfs who were then a staple of Filipino entertainment.
But, the station had to be shut down when Martial Law was declared in 1972. Finding himself out of work, with a few friends, Mr. Turner set out to put up a themed bar inspired by his favorite fantasy trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings," along Mabini Street in Malate. When it finally began operations in December 1973, the bar was quickly overrun with little people looking for jobs as doormen and waiters.
The Hobbit House has since moved to its current home on the corners of M.H. del Pilar Avenue and Arquiza Street, where a colorful circular door leads to a quaintly decorated blues bar that serves a varied menu: steak, fish, chicken, pasta, pizza, and even Mexican food, as well as 200 kinds of beer, ale, and cider from Australia to Spain.
With pint-sized waiters and waitresses attending to customers, the bar has elicited different reactions from Filipinos, some of whom find the whole concept exploitative.
The true measure of the success — and sustainability — of a social enterprise, though, is the eventual transfer of the venture to the real stakeholders of the business. Several years ago, Mr. Turner achieved just that when he passed the ownership and control of the Hobbit House on to its staff.
With seven stakeholders — all of them shorter than four feet — on the board, the business became a legitimate corporation, not a one-off charity project. And while Mr. Turner still visits the bar almost every night, it’s the dwarfs who have now taken center stage.
Pidoy Fetalino, who has been with the Hobbit House from the very start, recalls undergoing a six-month course in restaurant management with Mr. Turner’s help while he worked as a cashier in the early 1980s. He became manager 11 years later.
“The Hobbit House has become an institution,”he said. The bar, aside from giving folk music legend Freddie Aguilar his first break and the “Apocalypse Now” crew a regular hangout in the mid-70s, also became the top tavern for political subversives during the Martial Law era.
Today, the Hobbit House is regularly listed in foreign travel guides, even topping Lonely Planet’s list of unusual and bizarre bars and restaurants in 2010.
The bar has also somehow become a beacon of hope for the growing dwarf community. In a country that doesn't offer much social support for the short of stature, the Hobbit House is practically considered the best place for them to find work.
No longer limited to circus acts and game show gimmicks, the dwarfs who run the bar have found new roles as businessmen through the Hobbit House — a far cry from the exploitative nature that some critics assume of the bar.
But, Mr. Fetalino said that the Hobbit House doesn’t employ just anyone who needs work. “We look for people with basic skills — reading, writing, and relating to people,” he said. Because the Hobbit House draws a crowd that is of roughly 75% foreigners and 25% locals, the ability to clearly communicate with customers is a must to clinch a job at the bar.
In 2006, the success of the Hobbit House eventually allowed it to open a branch in Boracay, perhaps the Philippines’ most popular tourist spot. Mr. Fetalino said that the business is also open to franchising. “We hope to someday open in Palawan."
For now, the manager is looking forward to a meeting next year with a friend from Cagayan de Oro, where he also plans to put up another Hobbit House.
His dreams for the bar are anything but diminutive. “I just want the Hobbit House to last,” he said. “I want the other generations to experience the kind of achievement that this business has given us.”
He also talked about how the press has revived public interest in the bar after the BBC article, “Philippines’ little people thinking big,” was published last month. The story, which focused on the Little People Association of the Philippines’ radical plan to someday set up their own community on a donated piece of land near Montalban, captured the local and international media’s attention — and left the Hobbit House phone ringing off the hook. LPAP president Perry Berry was once a manager of the bar.
While not involved with the organization, Mr. Fetalino supports his fellow short-statured friends’ towering dream. “That kind of donation is a huge help,” he said.
A look inside the 38-year-old Hobbit House, however, seems to suggest that the place, with its live music, continuous flow of food and drinks, and good-natured laughter, is one where the little people and their not-so-little patrons can happily coexist.
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