Pasco was an OFW for 11 years before he decided to go home and put up his own business
In 1999, Ben Pasco started working in Taiwan as a maintenance engineer. It was his first job as he just had finished college from the Technological University of the Philippines, with a degree in Electrical Engineering.
Pasco returned to the Philippines when his contract expired three years after. He stayed for only three months before he decided to test his luck and fly to another country again, this time to Italy, where he stayed for 11 long years.
However, Pasco’s story in Italy is far from his experience in Taiwan.
“Domestic worker talaga. Literal, nagta-trabaho ka sa bahay sa loob ng anim na taon na hindi naman ako makalabas kasi nga at that time ako ay TNT na. (I was a domestic worker. I was literally doing domestic chores for six years. I couldn’t even go out of the house at that time because I was already a TNT),” Pasco told Entrepreneur Philippines. (TNT is a Filipino slang word that means “tago nang tago,” which literally translates to “hiding and hiding.” It refers to Filipinos who go to other countries as tourists and then stay there often for work purposes without obtaining proper documents).
For Pasco, this meant doing jobs that had nothing to do with his engineering degree—housekeeping, babysitting, taking care of the house dogs, cooking and even cleaning the toilet. Pasco admitted these are the things he just learned while on the job, since he didn’t have any related work experience beforehand.
Thankfully, the Italian government granted amnesty to immigrants six years after Pasco arrived in the country. With the help of his employer, he was able to obtain the necessary papers he needed to stay and work there as a legal immigrant. At last, he could step out of his employer’s house without the constant fear of being caught and deported.
During peak season, Ben's Halo-Halo sells about 500 glasses of halo-halo in a day
This opened new doors for Pasco, as he was finally able to accept more jobs that helped him save up faster. One of those jobs was for a regular post at a restaurant owned by his domestic employer. “Akala ko, cook. Inalok sa akin taga-hugas ng plato. (I thought they were offering me the position of assistant cook. Turned out, it was for a dishwasher post.),” he said with a light chuckle.
But because he really wanted to learn, he made sure to finish all his work early so that he could ask the assistant cooks in the restaurant to teach him basic cooking skills. This drew discriminatory remarks at first, especially because of his race; there was a notion there that Filipinos are good only at domestic jobs. But he persevered and later on convinced his colleagues to teach him.
His hard work paid off. After spending three years as a dishwasher, he was then promoted to assistant cook. After a year, he eventually became the head chef of the same 150-seater restaurant.
Instead of being contented with his position in Italy, Pasco decided to come home to the Philippines after a year of getting promoted. He said he really had no intentions of staying in another country for the rest of his life anyway.
“Sabi ko nga 15 years lang ako [sa ibang bansa]—hanggang doon lang ako. So ‘pag gusto kong umuwi bago mag-15 years, ano ‘yung gagawin ko? So nag-ipon ako nang nag-ipon (I already had a mindset that I would only stay abroad for 15 years. If I wanted to leave in less than 15 years, I knew I had to really save up,” the 43-year-old Pasco said.
“Kasi mahirap naman talaga ang buhay sa Italy. Doon kasi wala ka talagang ibang gagawin kundi magtrabaho nang magtrabaho—kung may pangarap ka. Kasi kung wala at kuntento ka lamang, sapat na yung isang trabaho mo, pero pangsarili mo lang. (Because life is really hard at Italy. You have nothing else to do there but work and work—especially if you have bigger dreams. If not, having only one job would do but it would only sustain your personal needs),” he added.
Failure before the success
Pasco’s dream was to be an entrepreneur in his homeland so when he came back in 2013, he immediately put up a business using his hard-earned savings—a small, neighborhood bakeshop.
Ben's Halo-Halo's menu is quite famous for its adventurous take on food. Aside from the classic halo-halo, they also offer spicy halo-halo and salted egg halo-halo
Using Php250,000 as his capital, he transformed his family’s old house in San Pablo, Laguna into a small store and bought equipment for baking cakes and pastries he learned to make while he was still in Italy. Unfortunately, the business shut down after only six months of operations.
“Kasi sa sobrang excitement, nakalimutan kong i-consider ‘yung market at ‘yung shelf life ng mga products, so nag-fail ako at that time. (Out of extreme excitement I forgot to consider the market in the area and the shelf life of the products. That’s why I failed),” Pasco admitted.
He was dejected, sure, but his desire to stay in the country overpowered all the negative feelings and thoughts he was having at that time. “Kasi ayoko na talagang bumalik sa Italy eh (I really didn’t want to go back to Italy),” he simply said.
So after just a month of the bakeshop’s closure, Pasco opened Ben’s Halo-Halo. Little did he know that his ingenious idea of mixing gelato in the shaved ice would result in 28 franchises of the brand all over Luzon in just four years.
Ben’s Halo-Halo’s rapid expansion
Using the proceeds he got from selling all the equipment he used for the failed bakeshop, which amounted to about Php100,000, Pasco decided to put up a halo-halo store in the same spot.
“Kasi ‘yung gelato, sabi ko bakit nga ba doon sa Italy, lahat sila kahit naka-scarf, pila talaga [sa gelato]? So sabi ko, bakit sa atin tropical country, bakit hindi? Nag-isip ako, sabi ko siguro papatok ito kasi nga unique ‘yung product (I realized people in Italy line up for gelato even when the weather is cold. So I asked myself, why not try it here, in a tropical country? I thought it would be a hit because the product is unique),” he explained.
Pasco opened Ben’s Halo-Halo just a month after the closure of his first venture, a neighborhood bakeshop. Today, Ben's Halo-Halo now has 28 franchises all over Luzon
And it did get popular. When he first opened the store in San Pablo in March 2014, Pasco shared he was able to sell up to 50 glasses of halo-halo in a day. Today, that number has reached 500. The original halo-halo was sold for only Php29 back then, and now it’s sold at Php75 per glass.
Pasco shared they also have their own commissary located near the San Pablo branch. This is where they produce their own gelato, milk and other ingredients, which they use in all their products and supply to all their franchisees.
Aside from halo-halo, they also offer sandwiches, pasta, rice meals and snacks. It is also quite famous for its adventurous take on food, such as its spicy halo-halo, salted egg halo-halo and burgetti (a hamburger bun filled with spaghetti).
In 2014, Pasco already got a franchising inquiry from a loyal customer. But it wasn’t until 2015 when the first franchise was opened in General Trias, Cavite, because he had to firm up his franchising manual first, which took one year.
Of the 29 branches Ben’s Halo-Halo has today, only one is company-owned—the first and original branch in San Pablo. Since 2015, the brand has been growing at an impressive pace with an average of six branches opening each year. In the first half of 2018 alone, Ben’s Halo-Halo has already opened six new branches and secured reservation contracts for two more stores.
Of course, not all Ben’s Halo-Halo branch has thrived. There have been a few that closed. “Meron kami sa Tanauan, Calamba, Los Baños, Kalihan. Ang mga kadalasang nagiging problema noon, matigas ang ulo. Mahirap kausap ‘yung may-ari, kasi ayaw niyang i-address ‘yung issue (We have closed stores in Tanauan, Calamba, Los Banos, Kalihan. The usual reason is because the owners don’t comply with the manual. They are even hard to talk to, because they do not want to address the issue),” Pasco explained.
Still, Ben’s Halo-Halo is open for franchisees today. According to Pasco, the branding would cost around Php25,000 while the complete package of a store with about 50-seating capacity would amount to more or less Php1 million.
Despite all the achievements of Ben’s Halo-Halo, Pasco still does not want to rest on his laurels. He is set to open the new one-hectare commissary later this year to cater to the needs of his growing business, which is located two towns away from the existing one. He also makes sure all the franchisees are doing well by routinely making trips around each and one of them, from the closest ones in the Laguna area to the farthest in Tarlac and Cabanatuan.
More than that, he also aims to inspire his fellow OFWs to come home and put up a business on their own.
“Maraming taga-ibang bansa nga ang nag-iinvest dito, naisip ko bakit hindi tayong mga Pilipino ang mag-invest at magnegosyo dito? (I thought, if the Philippines has a lot of foreign investors, why don’t we fellow Filipinos invest and put up businesses here ourselves instead?),” he said.
Pauline Macaraeg is Entrepreneur PH's data journalist. Follow her on Twitter @paulinemacaraeg