One of the local brands we can proudly take to the shelves of supermarkets in other countries is a simple snack called Chef Tony’s Popcorn. The packaging is attractive, be it the familiar tub or the tear-up plastic bags that the different variants come. It is obvious that much planning and research came with the final design that Chef Tony has adopted for his brand.
The man behind this snack brand is Tony Elepanio who is actually a real chef. He has a 15-year track record in the restaurant business when he ran three restos, two of them specializing in American dining: Cajun Red Rhum American Bistro; Fuel (fast food style burgers); Hokkaido (Japanese street food). It was in 1997-98, the time of the Asian economic crisis when Tony felt the pinch. Many restaurants were barely able to survive and his restaurant was just one of the many that couldn’t cope. Tony had to come up with something to augment his income, and that was how the popcorn business came to life.
He experimented with the quintessential snack food loved by everyone, popcorn, and cooked wherever he could—in his garage, in an old warehouse, in the small kitchen of his restaurant during off-hours. His kitchen staff was idle, he had the kitchen facilities. His clients in the restaurant were his taste-test audience, and he solicited feedbacks from them which he took seriously in his experiments.
His first flavour was something that he enjoyed tremendously in cakes when he was younger – caramel butterscotch, and the first tub of Chef Tony’s Popcorn had that distinct flavour. It clicked well with his customers and he felt he was ready to open his first store but he didn’t have the resources. Tony’s parents are in real estate, and his Dad in particular was in the business of memorial parks. Nov. 1 was fast approaching, and his Dad had a brilliant idea to maximize All Souls Day, a big family day for Filipinos. The family helped Tony set up a pop-up store right in the memorial park where he sold his popcorn tubs for P25.00. It came with American style lemonade and the store was sold out before sundown. He went home with over P100,000.00 in sales, but the downside was his relatives were too busy helping him out that they complained they were not able to visit the tombs of their dead loved ones.
He was successful in wooing his test market, and that was when he decided to open his very first store in N.S. Amorante St. in Quezon City, right across his restaurant. Soon after, he was able to penetrate S&R, the membership store, and then the SM chain. Chef Tony’s Popcorn is now a stable brand and widely accepted in numerous outlets. From selling 10 tubs a day, they were now selling 10,000 tubs/day.
Being a professional chef, he could play with flavors and come up with winners, but he also came up with duds that were promptly deleted from the acceptable list of flavors. Examples of these were the cinnamon and pesto flavors. His cheese variants, his chocolate variants and others like the peppery flavour for instance are now in the mainstream of his product flavors and have a strong demand.
With a stable domestic market, he next looked farther— to export. He joined DTI’s trade missions abroad to see if his product could make it. Although he acknowledges wholeheartedly the support of DTI to start-ups like him, he felt that this wasn’t the route for his product. Many Filipino products, he says, are exported mainly with the OFWs in mind as market but he feels that we should export what is globally acceptable in the market. When he approached a foreign grocery, for instance, he was told that his popcorn was going to be displayed alongside other Filipino products. He politely declined and said he was willing to wait until they recognized that his brand can stand alongside other global brands. Eventually, it did.
Today, you can see Chef Tony’s Popcorn in Singapore, Indonesia, Taiwan, Vietnam and Thailand. Theirs is not a multinational company, it is strictly a Filipino company, but he is slowly conquering foreign markets with moderate success. He is also open to homogenizing the flavours according to the palate of the market he is entering. Indonesia, for instance, has different flavours of Chef Tony’s Popcorn available only in their country.
Although the packaging design of his products is good, Tony says some well-meaning friends have questioned him. Why plastic? it’s harmful to the environment. For his part, Tony says his tubs are completely re-usable and for those that can no longer be re-used, they can be buried and these will biodegrade in time. He is also starting on a pro-active project for these plastic containers – customers can return these tubs which Tony’s company will up-cycle into school chairs or sinks to be donated to underprivileged families.
Tony also tried to go into franchising but soon realized that this too was not going to be his route. His popcorn is still cooked by hand, not by machines, so consistent quality control is still his priority.
With over forty stores now under this brand, Tony feels that he still cannot afford to relax. Aside from the original Chef Tony’s Popcorn, he now has Pop Corners and a third brand, Fully Kettle Corn is set to be launched soon.
Tony’s persistence has paid off handsomely, but it was a long and difficult journey. He says that today’s youth tend to give up fast. The secret is, one has to enjoy the journey, no matter how long and difficult. His second advice to young entrepreneurs is to have a value added to your product. For him, sharing a tub of popcorn with family and friends constitutes simple happiness in bonding. Giving joy, no matter how small, to an increasingly joyless world is added value. After all, his tag line for Chef Tony’s Popcorn is My Tub of Happiness.
Mabuhay!!! Be proud to be a Filipino.
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