If you listen to Diana Tan and her younger sister Donna you’d think it wasn’t hard to bring Sariwon, acclaimed as one of South Korea’s best Korean restaurants, to the Philippines via franchising. Of course, the whole process was not easy, but starting it was—they just sent the owners an e-mail asking if they could franchise the brand.
“We e-mailed them and expressed our intent, asking if they could give us a chance,” says Diana, who, with Donna, contacted the third generation of the clan now managing the restaurant founded by Bun-Im Koo in North Korea. The restaurant was named after the capital town of a province there.
Curiously, Sariwon, which has four outlets in Seoul and elsewhere in South Korea, has never franchised—even within its own country. But after a few months of talks, Diana says the owners asked for their business background and feasibility studies. That paved the way for the restaurant to open its first international outlet at the Bonifacio High Street in Taguig City.
The Tan sisters certainly have business pedigree: their family was the original group behind the local franchise of the Delifrance coffee shop chain. Their father William Tan Untiong is also the vice president for real estate of fast food giant Jollibee, which had bought the Delifrance franchise from the Tans but sold it to CafeFrance Corp. in 2010 for P100 million. Donna and Diana likewise cut their teeth in business working in Delifrance’s marketing department.
‘We like beef’
But with Delifrance effectively sold to another family, the sisters needed to start their own enterprise. The inspiration came on a family trip to Seoul, and a stop at Sariwon, which is renowned for its bulgogi (beef barbecue) and galbi (beef short ribs).
“We like beef,” says Donna, “and when we thought of visiting Korea, Sariwon was a necessary stop. It’s just a love of their food that convinced us to bring them here. To put up the restaurant here, the sisters pooled their resources with several cousins (all members of the second generation of Jollibee’s owners, Donna reveals) amounting to an eight-figure sum in pesos. Several discussions with Sariwon’s Korean principals—Yoo Chang, the granddaughter of the founder Mrs. Koo, and her husband Sung Rah—led to the Tans gaining a 10- year franchise agreement with an option to renew, both remarkable points for a first-time international franchisee.
Weighing in the sisters’ favor, says Diana, was that both Mr. and Mrs. Rah were educated in the United States—and that the Tans reminded the Korean couple of their own pair of daughters, giving them a lot of goodwill during negotiations.
“We really aimed at franchising their brand, and when they granted us the franchise, the franchise fee they charged was really within industry standards, which was good for us,” adds Donna, who handles Sariwon Philippines’ finances while Diana takes care of operations. Both act as managing partners of the company they put up with their cousins for the franchise.
Not unfamiliar to Pinoys
Sariwon formally opened at Bonifacio High Street’s newest strip on April 30 this year, just in time for the Mother’s Day weekend, and seats a maximum of 80 customers. It immediately gained a strong following from both locals and Koreans in the Philippines, in part because the Tans made sure to stay faithful to the ingredients, ambience, and pocket-friendly prices of the original restaurant in Seoul, which first opened in 1938.
“Korean food is not unfamiliar to Pinoys,” says Diana, underscoring one reason why she believes Sariwon will succeed locally. “We really studied the cultural nuances of preparing and serving the food, and we always serve quality in that our beef is from USDA choice cuts and has to be approved by our Korean head chef. We also import most of the Korean spices and ingredients we use here.”