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Taking on the giants

How can small businesses still thrive when the big boys set up shop? One entrepreneur shares how.
By Alex Grant |

Within the past year, SM and Ayala—two of the country’s biggest retail operators and developers—have placed their stakes in Olongapo City and the Subic Bay Freeport Zone in Zambales. A huge number of businesses and big crowds are flocking to SM Olongapo and Harbor Point Mall. Before that, Ayala opened the Marquee Mall near Clark Field, Pampanga, while SM malls and supermarkets continue to open in other cities around the country.


Residents may rejoice at the influx of new jobs and destinations, but local businesses are understandably worried about their prospects of survival. Justly or not, these major players are perceived as significant threats to homegrown enterprises that don’t have the same presence or financial ability. But for some small-business owners like Oscar Santos, staying competitive and profitable is still feasible, if you make the right moves.


The 61-year-old entrepreneur owns some of the city’s well-loved establishments, including Wimpy’s Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor. Named for the burger-chomping character from the cartoon series Popeye the Sailor, Wimpy’s opened in 1982 to serve customers from the nearby naval base. Serving American classics like pork chops and Filipino favorites like pancit, the restaurant expanded to two more outlets in 1984. There are now three outlets in Olongapo proper, while one is located inside the Subic Bay area.



How has it lasted this long in the food business, which sees ventures open and close at a breathtaking pace? One secret is its strong relationship with its patrons. “Our business has grown mostly through word of mouth from satisfied customers,” says Santos. “Our employees have developed a friendly relationship with our regular customers and giveaways are given annually to loyal customers as tokens of appreciation.”


Another secret is diversification. By 2005, Santos grew his business by opening Coco Lime, a mid-scale restaurant that offers Filipino and Asian cuisine, and bakery-café Bread Time Coffee Shop inside Subic Bay Freeport Zone. “We decided to expand into Subic because it has become a favorite tourist destination,” he explains. Both establishments have also become popular hangouts for locals.


While he’s quite positive about the company’s prospects, Santos is also aware that SM and Ayala’s new malls will have a big impact. “It was inevitable that these big players would come to Subic. With the opening of malls, our sales have been affected to some extent,” he adds.



Santos, however, knows that his establishments have an advantage that the big players don’t: customer loyalty. “We’re confident that our customers would continue to visit us like they have been doing for so many years. They are friends that would come for friendly conversation while enjoying their favorite food,” he shares with a smile.  



Oscar Santos knew it was futile to fight the presence of the big boys, so to speak. He took a different tack: instead of just sticking to his homegrown businesses, he also looked into franchising and opened a franchise of Filipino chicken house Max’s Restaurant in Olongapo in 1999. In addition, he recently put up a second Max’s outlet inside Ayala’s Harbor Point Mall.


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