A corny story

Aug 20, 2016

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.

For inquiries and comments (email) sunshine.television@yahoo.com

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About the Author

Ray Butch Gamboa graduated from the College of Arts and Letters of the University of Sto. Tomas. It was a course that should have been preparatory to a law degree, but the call of broadcasting aborted his plans.

At the age of 16, while still a student, Butch tried his hand at disc jockeying, landing a job at Mareco Broadcasting Network's AM stations DZBM and DZLM. From there, Butch moved on with his illustrious career as a popular disc jockey, riding the airwaves of Bob Stewart's middle-of-the-road music at DZXX, and ending his disc jockeying career at ABS-CBN's DZYL and DZQL.

From there, he stayed on with ABS-CBN, covering live the proceedings at the Manila Stock Exchange and eventually entered into the world of television sales as an account manager for the premier channel of ABS-CBN Channel 2.

In the early 70's, at the outbreak of Martial Law, Butch was one of the thousands of professionals who woke up jobless when then President Marcos declared the new status of the nation. With the closure of ABS-CBN, Butch ventured into different fields outside of broadcast. He tried his hand and with ease and success at export (Costume jewelry), real estate (brokerage), and restaurants (fast food).

In 1987, after the revolution, with the broadcast industry back to its free state, and with its irresistible call ringing in his ears, Butch made his inevitable comeback and pioneered in a local motoring show, producing Motoring Today on Channel 4 and co-hosting with local motor sports' living legend Pocholo Ramirez.

After 4 years, he ventured into another pioneering format by producing and hosting Business & Leisure, which was originally aired on ABS-CBN's Channel 2. The format eventually espoused similar ones in other different channels. But the clones in due course faded away leaving the original staying on airing on Channel 4 and eventually on Shop TV on Sky Cable's Channel 13.

The following year, the pioneering spirit in Butch spurred him to produce another TV show, Race Weekend, also on Channel 4, covering circuit racing at the Subic International Raceway after the motor sport's hiatus of 17 years. But when similar shows with duplicated formats sprouted, he decided to give way and ended the program after a year, although still enjoying unparalleled viewership.

In 1998, when the local automotive industry was in a slump, Butch contributed his share to help the ailing industry by producing another popular motoring-related show, this time exclusive to the automobile and its industry—Auto Focus, which became a vehicle for local automotive assemblers and importers to showcase their products and dwell on the industry's latest technological developments.

In 2003, Butch teamed up with his brother, Rey Gamboa who was a former Shell executive and presently one Philippine Star's business columnist to co-produce and co-host the TV show Breaking Barriers on Channel 13. It is a talk show that features guests who are in the news and in the middle of controversies. The program ventures to draw deeper insights into current issues to learn how they impact to our daily lives.

Today, Motoring Today on its 28th year of service to the general motoring public still enjoys its unprecedented loyal vierwership nationwide while Auto Focus, after 16 years has firmly established its niche viewership among automobile enthusiasts and on the other hand Business & Leisure is on its 24th year dishing out current business issues and lifestyle features.

Today, aside from writing weekly columns for the Philippine Star (Motoring Today on Wednesdays and Business & Leisure on Saturdays) and executive producer / host of weekly TV shows (Motoring Today, airs Sundays on Solar Sports Channel 70, Business & Leisure, airs Tuesdays on Shop TV, Sky Cable Channel 13 and Auto Focus airs Thursdays on Shop TV, Sky Cable Channel 13, Ray Butch Gamboa is currently the Chairman and CEO of Sunshine Television Production and Marketing Services Corp., President of Gamcor Management and Development Corp., Chairman of Asia-Pacific Realty Corporation, President and Chairman of Socio-Communication Foundation for Asia and Founding Chairman of the Society of Phil. Motoring Journalists (SPMJ)