I first heard about this Batanes café in the ’90s when it was featured in a Filipino news program. Can you imagine a store so honest that there are no waiters or servers tending it? Customers pick the items they want, jot down what they got in a ledger, and then drop the money in a locked box. Those who need change would write down how much they need and come back for it the next day. For items that need hot water, such as cup-o-noodles and coffee, just serve yourself using the amenities in the coffee shop.
This model has been working since 1995.
The owners, married couple Jose and Elena Gabilo, started this business when Mrs. Gabilo retired from teaching in school.
After observing the daily regimen of the fishermen boarding the Port of Ivana, the jump-off point to Sabtang Island, one of Batanes’ three major islands, her heart went out to the fishermen and their children. They couldn’t get easy access to food or coffee. She placed a thermos of hot water, coffee, and sugar for them in a corner. In the beginning, the fishermen just took them for free, but after a month she discovered money tucked in a box as payment. [source: Philippine Daily Inquirer]
Soon she added other food items, such as biscuits, canned meats, and candies. In 1998, Mrs. Gabilo and her husband officially set up the Honesty Store. Too busy tending to their farm nearby, the couple couldn’t find time to watch over the store. They banked on the honesty system: People pay for what they take. The system worked without a glitch. They renamed the Honesty Store into Honesty Coffee Shop, which now sells tourist souvenirs on top of their basic café and carinderia (eatery) items.
I clipped that article I found in the ’90s and kept it in my “Places to Visit” folder that I started in my teens. I finally booked a trip to Batanes, the northernmost island of the Philippines, in April (2015).
As I stepped into the store that I read about in my teens, it was everything I had imagined—a quaint hut decorated with colorful wooden crafts and notes from visitors around the world. The items for sale arranged on shelves and tables, and some dangling from the ceiling. While there’s nothing remarkable about the choices—just basic grocery items—what makes it stand out is the experience you won’t find anywhere else in the country.
A few rules have developed. Instead of writing the down the change you need and coming back for it the next day, you need to pay the exact amount. If not, think of it as your tip for the humble owners. Guests must also clean up after themselves.
There was a vibe of positivity in the store painted with bright shades of blue. Quotes about honesty are found in different spots, perhaps meant to remind those who are tempted to pull down the honesty rating of the café.
A 2012 interview with Mrs. Gabilo quoted her saying, “As far as I know, 98 percent of the customers pay the right amount.” There were reports of unbalanced sheets in Honesty Coffee Shop the past few years, but Batanes’ zero crime rate has been untainted since the ’90s.