Honesty Café: 98% Honest Since 1995

I first heard about this Batanes café in the late ’90s when it was featured in a Filipino news program. It was about a small store that’s so honest that there were no waiters or servers tending it. Customers picked the food they wanted, such as fruits and biscuits, jotted down what they got in a ledger, and then left their payment in a locked box. Those who needed change just wrote down how much they needed and came back for it the next day. For items that needed hot water, such as cup-o-noodles and coffee, they simply served themselves with the basic amenities in the shop.

A few years later I read a travel article about the same shop in a local daily. It talked about how the owners, married couple Jose and Elena Gabilo, started this business in 1995. Newly retired schoolteacher Mrs. Gabilo observed fishermen boarding the Port of Ivana, the jump-off point to Sabtang Island, one of Batanes’ three major islands.

Honesty Coffee Shop is located on National Road, Ivana, Batanes. It's right next to the Port of Ivana.

Honesty Coffee Shop is located on National Road, Ivana, Batanes. It’s right next to the Port of Ivana.

Her heart went out to the fishermen and their children who couldn’t get easy access to food or warm coffee. She placed a thermos of hot water, coffee, and sugar for them in a corner, and assumed that they would leave her money as payment. In the beginning, the fishermen just took them for free, but after a month she discovered money tucked in a box for her. [source: Philippine Daily Inquirer]

Soon she added other food items, such as biscuits, canned meats, and candies. In 1998, The Honesty Store was born. The owners were too busy tending to their agricultural farm nearby that they couldn’t find time to watch over the store. They decided to rely on the honesty system, where people pay for what they take, and clean up after themselves. The system worked for years as The Honesty Store evolved to Honesty Coffee Shop, which now sells tourist souvenirs on top of their basic café and carinderia (eatery) items.

A brief history of the café is at the entrance.

A brief history of the café is at the entrance.

I couldn’t believe that such a business, let alone the virtue of complete honesty, existed in my home country, the Philippines. I clipped that article 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.

As I stepped into the store that first drew me to Batanes, it was everything I had imagined—a rustic hut strewn with basic food items that you can find in almost any typical cafeteria, except that there were no employees. It’s decorated with colorful wooden crafts and notes from visitors around the world.

A few rules have changed. 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.

There was a vibe of positivity in the store painted with bright shades of blue, and quotes about honesty displayed on 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 the overall culture of honesty and zero crime rate in Batanes has not changed since the ’90s.

July 6, 2015

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