In today’s fast-paced culture of convenience, a healthy, nutritious meal is usually foregone for the instant gratification of processed meats and fast food. Most of the time, people don’t know what they’re eating and if their food is doing them more harm than good.
Happy Hippos, located at Streetscape Mall in Banilad, definitely doesn’t give up any of the benefits of fresh, healthy food while providing convenience and great taste: the vast menu is familiar, with dishes like French toast, beef sliders, and jambalaya, yet very clearly made to be much more nutritious than standard ‘healthy’ fare served in other restaurants as an afterthought.
Eryn van Winden, who owns and runs Happy Hippos alongside her husband, Ruud, shares that they had zero experience in running a restaurant, and had consulted with friends who owned restaurants when they were first starting.
Happy Hippos was originally slated to open before the pandemic, but as lockdowns and quarantine restrictions were put in place, the enterprise was put on hold. This turned out to be lucky in a way, she tells us, as they had found a leak shortly thereafter and spent the better part of 2020 working on repairs, as well as adapting to these new restrictions. By December last year, the menu was set, the staff trained, and the restaurant opened a few days into the month.
The beginning was not easy, no thanks to the strange attitude many Cebuano diners have when it comes to eating healthy food. As Eryn recalls, people would pass by curiously, only to walk away once they saw the restaurant’s health-conscious offerings. “I realized ‘staying healthy’ is not a good thing, because [for some people] healthy means it’s not tasty.”
This correlation has proven to be false, especially at Happy Hippos. While you don’t forget that what you’re eating is good for you, you might find yourself surprised that something made to be healthy can be so delicious and filling at the same time. “Some people come in, they think our portion is very little, but because the quality is so good after they finish it, they’re surprised. They didn’t expect themselves to be full.” The dishes certainly feel very hearty, and all without the use of any unhealthy, unnecessary chemicals or ingredients that seem to be universal these days.
Pretty much everything at the restaurant is made from scratch, from dips to the sauces, down to the bread. Knowing exactly what goes into their food is how the establishment ensures that it’s as healthy as it can be, free from preservatives or artificial flavorings. They don’t use iodized salt, palm or vegetable oil, or concentrates. Even their smoothies are all made of freshly frozen fruit in season, without any added sugar.
“We don’t believe in processed food,” Eryn states. While she tells us that she’s no chef, some of the dishes and smoothies are her recipe, most notably their in-house hummus — which, astoundingly, contains less than a gram of salt. Still, the hummus is a hit among patrons, who buy up freshly made batches every day. “The restaurant started because of hummus, so it represents a lot of who we are.”
While the restaurant’s concept is healthy food, Eryn emphasizes that this does not necessarily mean their choices are all vegan. “Health is not only about plant-based food, but also being inclusive when it comes to what counts as nutritious,” she shares. “Red meat doesn’t mean it is not nutritious, especially if it’s good quality.”
Eryn says that this is still not even an extreme to her in terms of healthy eating — “Maybe one day, I can,” she quips—but mentions that their menu is still catered to the hesitant market, and still has to appeal to those whose perception of healthy food still swings negative. Going all out on the health factor could potentially discourage any curious diners. “If [we] close down, it doesn’t benefit anyone.”
This health-conscious attitude isn’t limited to its food, as Ruud points out the air quality monitor sitting at their order counter, which helpfully displays the air quality index, as well as CO2 levels. The restaurant uses a ventilation system that refreshes the air indoors every 19 minutes, effectively keeping it free of excessive contaminants and carbon dioxide for a safe dining experience.
The past few years have shown all of us just how important it is to maintain your health and take care of your body, and Happy Hippos is, in its way, changing people’s views on what it means to eat healthy food. Going healthy does not have to mean sacrificing flavor, and in such difficult times, enjoying the good things is necessary. “You also need to enjoy life, because mental health is also important,” Eryn says. “That’s my belief, and I want to incorporate that into the food.”
Happy Hippos is on the ground floor, phase two of Streetscape Mall, and is open every Tuesday to Sunday from 7 AM to 10 PM.
Photography Rocky Roska