Despite bombing, French Baker opens biggest branch in Davao
DAVAO CITY -- Just days after blasts hit two Davao cinemas injuring several people, local restaurant chain The French Baker pushed through with the official opening of its first full-size restaurant in Mindanao at the SM Lanang Premiere mall on Thursday night as founder and CEO Johnlu Koa remained optimistic about business prospects in the troubled region.
"In spite of what happened, it's still very much the party goes on, business as usual," Koa said in his speech, referring to Tuesday's explosions at SM City Davao and Gaisano malls.
The veteran entrepreneur recalled that The French Baker initially had plans to enter the Davao market 13 years ago at SM City Ecoland in 2000 but had to back out because of the security situation in the city at the time. Koa said it was his mother who dissuaded him then from opening. "She asked me, 'Why do want to go that far to make so little?'"
"I realized that it was not yet time because there was so much competition in Metro Manila and I decided to stay there muna," he said, noting that SM was in full expansion mode during that period, which also meant more opportunities for The French Baker to open in new locations.
Koa has been very vocal about his loyalty to mall tycoon Henry Sy Sr., whom he fondly calls "Tatang."
The French Baker opened its first outlet 24 years ago at the then newly built SM City North EDSA in 1989. It was also Sy who advised Koa to expand The French Baker from a bakery selling European-style breads and pastries into a casual restaurant with dine-in food services.
The French Baker in SM Lanang is the 51st branch of the chain.
"Our coming here is due to the fact that I continue to cherish my relationship with Mr. Tatang Sy, Sr. Many years ago, he tried to convince me to go to SM City Cebu and when I said no, he said, 'Please come, ride in my jet and I will show the future of Cebu,'" Koa recalled.
So when SM opened its new SM Lanang mall in Davao, which includes the first Park Inn by Radisson hotel in the Philippines and an SMX Convention Center, Koa decided that it was time to finally enter the Mindanao market.
Last December, The French Baker opened a small bakery cafe at the mall's atrium, along with the bubble tea shop Chatime, which Koa also owns.
The atrium store, Koa admitted, is a concession he asked from SM for him to open a 380-sq.m. restaurant -- the biggest French Baker branch so far -- fronting the mall's Fountain Area, which includes other successful chains such as Bulgogi Brothers, Sumo Sam and soon Viking buffet restaurant.
"It's time to come in now; otherwise, someone will take the market share away from me," Koa explained.
He also recalled the advise Sy gave him at the time when several coup attempts were mounted against the government of then President Corazon Aquino. "He told me, 'Just do your job well, have faith in the market and all of these will pass. Look at me,'" Koa narrated.
"So I thought about that. Ngayon pa when I already have 50 stores, ngayon pa when I'm more mature, nagyon pa will I say no when I have so much knowledge about the market, about the product, about people's habits because we're already in this business for 24 years."
Koa added that it was Sy who also told him back in 1992 that tourism is the hope for the Philippines. Many years later, Koa came to realize the implications of the current boom of domestic tourism on business.
"We don't really have to go to China, to Vietnam, to whatever, to expand. Dito pa lang, we have 100 million Filipino customers," Koa said.
"And people here (in Davao) are starting to demand for more and they're getting to be sophisticated. They know what is good and what is better. So I guess by staying in Davao, we will be in the position to explore the other opportunities of Mindanao. That's the basis for my optimism" he added.