From poker to food businesses

By Rose Dela Cruz

Back when he was studying management accountancy at the University of Santo Tomas, Francis Harren Maneja, was playing poker professionally and earning big for a poker place in Metro Manila, since he was sharp in both numbers and memory.

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But unlike others who get hooked in poker (for entertainment or outright gambling), his was a job that enabled him to earn substantial money that he, months later used in financing his first “ihaw ihaw and pares” business in 2014 called Som’s in Barangay Kapitolyo, Pasig City.

He said while still at UST he often ate and even partnered with one pares pares along Espana but it was closed down. He vowed to put up his own after schooling. He is the youngest of three brothers from a mother who is an executive of a construction firm. His dad died in 2014.

“None of us in the family was good at cooking nor is anyone into any business but after three months of working at a BPO (as accountant clerk) I decided that employment was not my cup of tea. I always wanted to run my life and how I could earn, from a business,” Maneja told Business Agenda. tcvph_food_img_4

A hefty looking 25-year old, Maneja put up Som’s in 2014 and recouped his investments within four months. Then he thought of a second food concept, Hiyas, a Filipino comfort food with dishes presented in avant garde fashion but still faithful to the original taste. He operated this but decided to make a complete renovation of both the store and the menu with his restless chef-consultant, 25 year old Justine Barreto, who trained in Australia and worked with quite a number of restaurants before partnering with Maneja.

Soon after, he saw another spot in Kapitolyo along 1st Street where he intended to put up the Surf N Turf—but because of steaks and seafoods being expensive and therefore not within affordability of most consumers- he decided against it. Then he wanted to put up a sizzling place and then sushi and burrito but with a different twist.

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He then named the place Nori—a Japanese term for seaweeds being used to wrap the Mexican-inspired but a fusion of Korean, Japanese, Filipino and Mexican ingredients. When customers asked him why he named it Nori when he was using soy wrapper and even pita bread ingredient as wrapper, he decided to be loyal to the name and used seaweeds for the burrito. The result was an astonishing acceptance for its novelty.

His Nori restaurant can sit 25 to 30 people, Hiyas 30 to 35 people and Som’s just a little below 20 people.  All three food concepts have to compete with a constantly growing number of restaurants in Kapitolyo, now at 70 and growing.

Future directions

Beginning next year he is thinking of expanding the reach of each of these food concepts through a food truck that would go around Metro Manila’s business districts or BPOs so that more people can enjoy his dishes.

Another, though five years or more later, is franchising them. “But we are perfecting the system now so that both product and service won’t suffer when we expand through franchising,” he said.

Maneja said his main objective in putting up different food concepts is to give the Filipino diner a more diverse gastronomic experience at a more affordable price.

Proof that he is less concerned with ambience, than food service and food quality is that Nori’s interiors are less aesthetic using mostly re-waxed tiles, old newspapers as wallpaper, used GI roofing sheets for dividers and table tops and a very simple toilet.

“We intend to excite our customers with our fusion foods, our unique iced tea and unique food offerings,” he explained.

For instance, Nori offers a fusion of Korean, Japanese, Filipino and Mexican in each of the food offer, the dips and sauces that are customized by chef Barreto. He has a commissary in his family’s house in Pasig.

What gratifies him at a young age is that he is able to provide employment for his provincemates in Bulacan—now over 20 of them—and the more he grows the outlets, the more people he has to hire.

Nori is open from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. the following day because a lot of people drink—some of them even bring their own drinks in the restaurant—as they try dish after dish of Nori. A lot of its customers late at night and before dawn are employees of call centers in Pasig City.

The difficult parking space and congested roads have forced patrons to walk or commute short distances since most of them come from condominiums in Pasig and Mandaluyong.

More than profits, he said, his real “bottom line” is giving great customer service and make people happy with their dining experience.

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