Lowbrow restaurant group gets high marks
One’s wrong. The other’s bad. Another’s a hole in the wall.
Yet the young and hip food concepts inspired by these words are bringing in just the right revenue to keep the young and nimble Lowbrow group on an aggressive expansion mode in the country’s hotly contested quick service restaurant scene.
Wrong Ramen, which “proudly proclaims its inauthenticity,” is a 21-seater ramen house that sells unconventional ramen flavors. There is no Japanese chef, and the taste profile is closer to the Filipino palate, making it popular among Filipinos.
To ensure loyalty, Wrong Ramen, which was opened at Forbestown in BGC in 2013, keeps a record of each customer so that they will know the favorite menu items and hopefully keep them coming back for more helpings. What it wants is a relationship with customers who are not fussy about food provenance.
“That is why we are Wrong Ramen. It is not authentic Japanese but it is yummy,” said Charles Paw, who cofounded the Lowbrow group with designer Dwight Co, who oversees operations, design, product development and marketing.
Then there’s Bad Bird, which was inspired by Filipinos’ insatiable desire for fried chicken.
“During the time [in 2014], everybody was doing rotisserie chicken, or healthy chicken. We did not want to be healthy,” Paw said with a chuckle.
And the market, apparently, did not either, as Bad Bird emerged as the top-selling concept at the Century City Mall in Makati City, encouraging the group to spin it off into a full-service restaurant.
Bad Bird was born in the Hole In The Wall, a food hall opened in 2014 at the top floor of Century City Mall.
“Bad Bird is the strongest concept under Lowbrow and it is our own invention. After three years, it was the most consistent in sales so we spun it off into a standalone restaurant,” Paw said.
The first Bad Bird with a fuller menu was opened in 2017 and there are now five branches serving the unapologetically fried and flavorful chicken plus other inventions that are also winning loyal clients.
“We don’t have just chicken, but everything from soups to appetizers. We also have grilled meats because right now the most popular cuisines are Japanese and Korean so our menu is skewed toward those traditions. That can also be seen in our interiors,” he said.
The Lowbrow group, described as having “the guts of a design studio and the mind of a tech company,” will not slow down the pace of its expansion, to think that Paw and Co are not exactly experts when it comes to food.
They are not chefs, but they do share a love for design, food and the desire to excite the market with new and profitable concepts.
“I like to think that we are really a technology and design company that just happens to be doing food,” said Paw.
Theirs is “a good match,” said Paw, with Wrong Ramen, the first product of their collaboration, getting them off on the right foot.
“We felt that all of these restaurants looked the same, that is why we have to be different. Our advantage is that we like to think out of the box. Like at the time when everyone was going healthy, we went the other way,” Paw said. “Our marketing is also different in that we really focus on building a community around our customer base, which is mainly composed of young individuals and families, the adventurous ones who want to try something new.”
Paw, whose businesses include Digital Walker, said running a food enterprise was different from trading because “there are a lot of moving parts” like the quality of the food and costing.
“When you are a distributor, you just buy a product and then sell. In food, you have to monitor more things like food costing and consistency. You have to make sure that your product is consistently good,” said Paw, who considers the excitement of building something new the driving force behind his development of more and more concepts, even if he is already busy with his current crop of businesses.
And the challenge is to be successful the first time.
He believes that in business, there are only two positions to be in, either successful or not.
“There is no in-between, nothing in the middle,” Paw said. “It is either you will do very well or you will not because if you will just be average, you will not be able to earn enough and expand. So you need to do very well, so that the returns will be very good.”
To increase those chances of success, Paw suggests that entrepreneurs decide from the start the specific market they want to tap.
“You cannot target everyone and everything. If you want to go for the C and D markets, then you have to plan your business around that market, the food cost, design. The same goes if you target the middle class,” Paw said.
For Lowbrow, the key markets are decidedly the millennials, thus the accent on design—millennials do love taking photos of themselves, their food and the places where they eat—and the flavorful food that is not too painful on the pocket. For Bad Bird, about P400 a person.
He and his partner have the same vision, thus they work well together. They have not yet clashed, thus the 50-50 partnership works. The work
is divided according to expertise and inclination and the number of branches in operation is a testament that the relationship has so far been productive with the two having no desire to change the terms of their five-year partnership anytime soon.
He also advises would-be entrepreneurs to hire the right people, those with the right skills to meet demand and, more importantly, the right attitude since the food business in particular is characterized by long hours and more work on holidays.
Lowbrow itself will need to hire more people as it plans to open 5-10 stores a year of just Bad Bird. Also, the plan is to roll out to the market at least one new concept every year.
“We want to experiment every year and see how it goes from there. So far we have a Thai and a steak concept in the works. And then we will scale up successful concepts like Bard Bird. We have another concept called Fowlbread that we are thinking of expanding as well,” Paw said.
Paw and Co have their work cut out for them in the coming years and the dyed-in-the-wool entrepreneurs would not have it any other way.
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