Demand for your product may outstrip supply, but it is never a good idea to expand beyond your production capacity. Take it from Chef Tony Elepaño: “As we grew, we focused so much on moving forward that our basic infrastructure was left behind.” Faced with commissary and factory problems, Elepaño in February 2009 put a suspended expansion, until after he rebuilt the factory and trained more people. “Restaurants don’t run on machines. They run on chefs, restaurant managers, and staff. I should’ve seen where I was going and trained leaders and built my infrastructure correspondingly,” he says.
The brains behind the now hugely popular (and addicting) Chef Tony’s Popcorn is proud that, in terms of stores, his team, and his assets, they have definitely grown. Indeed, Chef Tony’s is a perfect example of a “Why didn’t I think of that?” business concept. Elepaño says, “Popcorn was only the venue for the idea of having an excellent snack. I think we were able to communicate that.” That’s an understatement.
After a rough patch creating a restaurant called Cajun Burgers and Ribs in 2002, Elepaño found himself in eight-figure debt that forced him to start all over again, this time with popcorn. From one kiosk with starting capital of only P20,000 in 2006, Chef Tony’s Popcorn has now popped into 52 company-owned outlets all over the Philippines. Its success has allowed Elepaño to reincarnate his restaurant, now called Cajun Red Rock—and it has grown to three outlets now. All of this happened in just under a decade. Sweet.
From being an entrepreneur to being a chef
“I have always been an entrepreneur first,” says the 43-year-old restaurateur, “then I eventually studied to become a chef. However, I think the principles and values that I learned while I was building the first Cajun restaurant or the first Chef Tony’s outlet never changed. There’s no difference, (it’s) just a bigger company.”
By “bigger” he means the people he now employs (over 200), the strong brands he has created, and the wider reach of his popcorn creations. From Chef Tony’s kiosk outlets, “we have started to enter into supermarkets which, way back then, I didn’t consider. I used to believe that the product will not be ready for the supermarket shelves. Now we believe we have enough brand recognition that when customers see us on the shelves, the brand will always be in their minds. We built that over time.”
Over time also, Elepaño discovered something he wishes he knew then. “Had I gotten to know my target market earlier, then I would not have wasted a lot of marketing efforts on other things and we could’ve started to wow them earlier,” he says.
“If we defined these things earlier then maybe we’d have focused our resources to building bigger stores. We thought it was a cart and counter business. That’s not how it turned out to be.”
In addition to defining his market, Elepaño had to get a different kind of backbone. “As we grew, we focused so much on moving forward that our basic infrastructure was left behind.” They had commissary issues for the restaurant and factory problems for the popcorn, which, in the end, “made us miss some opportunities to grow abroad or have the products exported.”
To resolve that concern, the business had to stop expanding. “I saw the issue and I started to rebuild my factory and started to train more people,” says the chef. “Restaurants don’t run on machines. They run on chefs, restaurant managers, and staff. I should’ve seen where I was going and trained leaders and built my infrastructure correspondingly.” With those problems resolved, Elepaño soon found himself exporting to countries like Guam, Taiwan, and Singapore.
As simple a product popcorn may be, it takes an entrepreneur to make it, well, pop. Chef Tony knows it. “I think the success of Chef Tony’s is because consumers believe that now they can have a venue for something really good for them, with not only an excellent and well-thought out product, but something that can wow them at the end of the day.” That’s something to chew on.
This is an updated article.