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Building on food fads

By Chupsie Medina
First Posted 09:27:00 08/20/2008

Filed Under: Economy, Business & Finance

MANILA, Philippines -- Geronimo and Beth Casas are currently still riding on the growing popularity of the food cart business, which is why their store along busy Kamuning Road continues to be crammed with all sorts of brightly colored vending stores on wheels or stands.

The orders still come in, long since 1998 when they had their first order to design and fabricate a portable food stall for a client who wanted to set up a smack business catering to the busy students of the University of the Philippines in Quezon City.

Manufacturing food carts, however, has grown to be a highly competitive business in recent years especially when franchising became the buzzword among micro and small businesses. ?We?ve resorted to advertising in ?Buy and Sell,?? says Beth, taking advantage of the popularity of this twice-weekly publication.

Advertising has been a new tool for this mom-and-pop partnership that started in 1987. Previously, simply showcasing their wares along Kamuning Road had been good enough to build and grow G.N.C. Enterprises, a single proprietorship that bears in the initials of Geronimo.

Even as the paid ads are bringing in a modest growth in the business, Beth and Geronimo still believe it is the quality of their products, the before- and after-sales service that they provide, and their unflinching support for the aspiring entrepreneur-food cart owners/operators that are the bedrock of their continuing patronage.

Plus toss in more than two decades of the couple?s experience, perhaps even a lifetime for 48-year old Beth. As a young girl, Beth had been helping out her father?s oven fabrication business. She remembers her folks riding on another food fad: hot pandesal.

Beth?s initiation to the business had been to order materials that would go in putting together an oven. Then, she would watch welders joining steel and bending galvanized iron sheets. She learned too how to bake pandesal since her father would teach prospective oven owners how to mix dough and bake them.

When Beth and Geronimo, then a senior civil engineering student, married, both stayed on with the family business by being useful in whatever way. It proved to be a priceless opportunity for Geronimo when the couple decided to open their own shop in a relative?s garage.

?Nangutang kami sa bumbay (We borrowed money from the neighborhood creditor),? Bess says. With P10,000 borrowed from informal lenders, husband and wife bought their first welding machine. Then they pawned an old car that was owned by Geronimo?s parents for P14,000 as capital to buy supplies.

They set aside P100 a day as payment on the unsecured loan, and saved whatever extra earning they could squeeze out from fabrication orders. In less than a year, they were debt-free, had gotten back the car?s registration papers, and were ready to take their budding business to a new level.

In 1988, the shawarma craze hit Manila. A prospective client approached them to fabricate a shawarma rotisserie based on an imported model that was already operating in one of the metropolis? malls.

At the shawarma outlet, Geronimo poked and pried, trying to understand how the rotisserie worked. Bess, on the other hand, sat in a nearby corner furiously drawing to the best of her ability the various features of the rotisserie. When they got home, the couple plus their team of workers started to work.

In less than a month, the first locally fabricated shawarma rotisserie was operational. Soon, they were being deluged by orders. ?The bank thought we were robbers,? says Beth of the amounts of money that they were depositing in their account every banking day.

With the business bonanza, the couple moved their garage operations to a newly bought lot. They retained the bakery operations that was included in the property and expanded it as a training area for their baking equipment customers.

Customer service has been a unique selling proposition of G.N.C. Every oven, rotisserie, or food cart that is sold, Beth says they make sure that will be someone who will troubleshoot any problem that is received. ?Even if it?s in the far north, just as long as we don?t cross any waters, we will send a man,? says Beth.

They also continued the tradition started by Beth?s father of training people on how to use the equipment. ?We even give the names of suppliers: where to get flour for the baked pandesal, meat and spices for the shawarma,? says Beth.

In the food cart side of the business, they help clients come up with a practical and workable design. ?We ask them what they want to sell and come up with suggestions of how their cart could look like,? says Beth.

They now even help in dressing up the food carts with tarps or stickers that are they too had helped design. This one-stop shop concept has helped keep them abreast with their competitors in food cart fabrication.

?It?s pricing which is really our biggest challenge,? says Beth. Some customers had pointed out that other fabricators sell at lower prices. But Beth is quick to respond that whatever they churn out of their shop, it will always be consistent on quality standards.

The long years in the industry has taught Beth a most valuable lesson: that to be able to weather fads and competition, it is never wise to scrimp on materials and quality of work. ?We have weathered the years because we never succumbed to cutting corners. Even when our best workers were pirated by others, we knew that we would always continue to grow, and this has been proven time and again,? says Beth.

What does she advice those who would want to start their own business? ?Tiyaga at tipid (Persevereance and thrift),? she says. Perseverance, Beth says, helped them take that first loan to where the business is now; and thrift ? or keeping their needs as simple as possible -- has made it possible for the couple to keep the business growing.

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