Johnlu Koa does not have a crystal ball, but he certainly has an eye to the future when it comes to The French Baker, the 27-year-old bakery-café chain he founded.
The brand remained fresh because Koa—a serial entrepreneur who also counts “Chatime” and high-end fashion label “Escada” among his brands—made it a habit to look to the future and anticipate what needed to be done for the brand. “I’ve always been ahead of the crowd, because I already predicted my decline,” he said.
If a business is not careful, he warned, it will become passé. So what should it do? “Is it people training, is it a makeover, is it product revamp, is it thinking of something, someone, or a market segment that you have not served?” French Baker did all of the above.
Koa looked at French Baker’s customers, their changing needs, the offerings from competing food concepts—and came up with French Baker Salon de Thé, which he launched in 2014 at SM Megamall as his answer to the ongoing coffee craze.
In Salon de Thé, Koa created a new environment for customers to enjoy the same goodies served at French Baker, but at a fancier setting.
He targeted the mature market—people who grew up or are familiar with French Baker, but now have more money to spend and are looking for a more relaxed environment where they enjoy their food, their coffee, or tea.
When Koa was thinking of the concept, he asked himself, “What is a nicer experience in a mall? This is the kind where ‘I want some comfort, I want some privacy, I want some class, I want a different kind of dining or lounging environment, where I can connect [to the Internet], where I can have coffee and I can enjoy food. In other words, it’s a bistro in the mall.”
To differentiate the new concept, he decided to offer 36 varieties of teas at the store. He also made sure the “lush” setting differs from the bakery-café setting of his flagship brand, with the interiors looking more formal and upscale, with a distinct Parisian feel, complete with chandeliers. He also put thought into the details, from the placemats to the wall décor, which were all chosen with social media-ready photographs in mind.
Reinvention and going into unexplored territory is not anything new for Koa. When French Baker first opened in SM North Edsa in 1989, Koa was the first to introduce European-style breads and pastries to Filipino consumers. Koa said that very early on he knew the concept would take off.
“After just three months, we were super, super, super, super in demand. There were long lines in our store,” he recalled. What contributed to its success? “It was first to market. Second, we had very novel products. And, third, the guy who’s behind it is a UP grad who’s teaching an MBA program,” he said.
“It was a very well-studied entry. Before that, I had a bakeshop called Honey Bread.... So I went through the hardships, the rigorous production process, so I knew what it took to make a second brand [a success].”
He concedes thinking like a startup is easier for a mature company given the resources at its disposal. “Restarting up is the same process, but now you have a broader view, a more comprehensive view, with wisdom, experience, and mistakes learned from the past.”
Company: The French Baker Inc.
Startup year: 1989
Startup cost: P1,000,000 ($21,709.27)
Outlets: 36 (per information from website)
Employees: 10-25 per branch
Maricris is the former managing editor of Entrepreneur Philippines magazine.
This article was originally published in the February 2015 issue of Entrepreneur Philippines magazine.