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Restaurateur craves for new concepts

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ENRICO and Elizabeth Dee in Kai

What began as a modest 100-square meter restaurant has spawned into 70 fast-food units, 28  market restaurants, five canteens of multinational corporations, some neighborhood malls, and soon, foreign franchises.

Does working on a grand scale reflect the traits of the Dragon in the Chinese horoscope?  Businessman Enrico “Rikki” Dee demurs that not every Dragon is necessarily  enterprising or aggressive.

But in his case, big ideas, confidence and enthusiasm have driven him to succeed.

Dee and his wife Elizabeth—“Beng” to friends—were starting out a family and a restaurant on Pasay Road called ChinChin in the late 1980s.

Although its specialty was home-cooked, fish head meals, the main attraction were the drunken shrimps. These freshwater shrimps, marinated in liquor before cooking, were considered a novelty then.

Coming from a family of foodies, Dee always wanted to explore new tastes. He drew inspiration from a family outing in a Hong Kong restaurant that served drunken shrimps. Dee adapted it to ChinChin’s market.

One of its patrons was taipan Henry Sy who loved the food so much that he invited the Dees to the food court of the SM North Edsa mall in the late 1980s.

“He gave me the opportunity and guided me on how to expand,” said Dee. The dining outlet was renamed Chin’s Express, specializing in Chinese fast food. The Dees then ventured into Inihaw Express for Filipino grilled items.

The restaurant businesses are under the umbrella of Food Link in which Dee is the president and CEO. Beng is the COO and the head of the fast food division.

With some partners, Dee opened concept restaurants in the mid-range and high-end categories in the malls.  He describes Crocodile as a  glamorized ihaw-ihaw; Ebun offers Kapampangan cuisine with eggs;  Mangan is Filipino comfort food and Kapampangan specialties; and Mesa serves modern Filipino cuisine.

For the upscale market, Dee opened Kai, offering modern Japanese cuisine, whose chef, Gilbert Pangilinan, worked in Nobu in New York. Dee’s latest success is Cerveceria, a restaurant-bar in Greenbelt inspired by a trip to Spain he and his team took to try out the tapas bars.

Growth areas

Dee said Food Link has been experiencing double-digit growth, attributed to the opening of new outlets and the Filipino spending power. In the fast food segment, the average receipt is P80 per head. In casual restaurants such as Mangan and Ebun, the receipt averages P400 per person while high-end restaurants’ receipts hit around P1,000 per head.  The canteens post P45 per head.

“We’ve been in the industry for more than 20 years. When we started, the objective was to find growth areas. We did it organically within the capacity of internally generated funds. As you expand, you look for growth areas outside your comfort zone,” he said.

Beng rejoined, “You look for the challenges and challenge them.”

In the fast food segment, Beng pointed out that the challenges include providing customers with value for their money and coping with the expansion of malls. Although more malls in the same vicinity provide more opportunities for business, the market gets divided.

Dee said the fast food has to constantly refresh its format, changing the looks, presentation, signage, takeout boxes and even the people who manage them.

“You can’t take things sitting down. You need to be focused and go with the tune. Today’s needs may not be next year’s needs.  The food market today is more demanding and sophisticated. They want good value for a good deal. When you do well, your neighbor will copy you immediately.”

“It’s as if they’re picking on your brains,” said Beng. She cited how other competitors would pick up names of their dishes since there’s no patent.

“Before you would order, two or three viands with rice. We started the combo meals in the late ’80s. Now it’s a staple. We also started giving free soft drinks with the meals, now most fast food meals have a soft drink and dessert,” said Dee.

“When the novelty is gone, you have to keep on innovating,” said Beng.

“If you stop, others will surpass you, especially with new players and young blood,” said Dee.

Unique concepts

Even in the high-end restaurant scene, Dee’s outlets have become trendsetters.

“We introduced Kai with a big bang. We introduced modern Japanese cuisine.  Now many are doing tempura oysters and the food styling,” he said.

Dee cited that the restaurant’s  challenge lies in thinking of a unique concept and the operations.  “Our policy is to create a total experience from the moment customers come in until they get their bill. You’ve got to think of consistency of food, service, and hiring good people.”

Mesa is the fastest growing in Food Link’s portfolio.

“As a modern Filipino restaurant, the ingredients and cooking have not been tampered with—just enhanced,” he said. “We don’t want the kare-kare to be drowning in sauce, but it has the oxtail. The fish fillet is not served whole. It’s sliced so you can eat the head and tail separately.”

The original drunken shrimps in ChinChin have been reinvented into Swayaw wherein live shrimps are thrown in a bowl over hot rocks, served like a hot pot.

One of Mesa’s successful items is the crispy lechon served like Peking duck, wrapped in pandan crepe and accompanied in different sauces.  The diner has the option to get the whole pig, half or quarter.

Spawned by its success, Mesa is the fastest growing among the restaurants, with 13 restaurants by yearend. The busiest branches are in Greenbelt 5 and the franchise at Boracay Regency’s beachfront. The other provincial franchises are in Davao, Cagayan de Oro, Iloilo, Cebu and General Santos.

For more than a decade, Food Link has been operating canteens of some big companies and serves 15,000 to 17,000 employees daily.

Dee continues to look for growth areas. Plans are afoot to bring in some global brands. Asked if these would compete with their restaurants, Beng replied, “It’s okay to compete with ourselves.”

Neighborhood centers

Lately, Dee established  a real estate company, Premium Link Development Corp. for  the construction of neighborhood centers named Central Mall in the provinces.

“Our family was into construction,” he said. “It was a natural progression. My experience as a tenant paved the way for me to do these malls.”

Central Malls are located in Biñan, Dasmariñas, Malolos and Binangonan. Dee plans to open one or two malls a year. These are 15,000- to 20,000-sq m, three-storey malls with over 200 tenants that include major anchors such as Save More supermarket, a department store, fast food outlets, Banco de Oro branches and tiangges.

“It wasn’t easy at first. There were many details that were not quantified in the planning, construction delays, negotiating with the local government and getting permits, the wait-and-see attitude of tenants. If you’re determined and focused on what you’re doing, it will succeed,” said Dee.

Pushing 48, Dee is envisioning that the his eldest, Eric Enrico Jr., will take over the real estate business while his second,   Eric Thomas who is a hotelier, will handle the foreign franchises of Food Link.

Beng cited trust and loyalty as advantages of keeping the business within the family.

Dee added, “I want my kids to join the business to bring new technology, new style and new direction. I’m staying to maintain the  core values.  We value hard work and not to borrow so much money. You can actually survive without borrowing.  We value being in a business that you enjoy. You have to like what you’re doing. If you work hard, you can play hard because you can afford it.“


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