By Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat
Young entrepreneur Beejay D. Burog entered the food business while still in college and left the business to her sister while he migrated to the US. Once again, his entrepreneurial spirit led him back to Manila to pursue the business hands-on.
Upscaled Foods, Inc., the mother firm, is among the pioneers in the Shawarma food business and one of the few that remain among the many specializing in the Mediterranean cuisine. They offer more Mediterranean food products now as they open new concepts and expand the business via franchising to share business opportunities to others.
According to Beejay, he went into business while still in third year college at UP Diliman where he was taking up hotel and restaurant management to augment her mother’s sari-sari store income.
Beejay was looking for an alternative to burgers and hotdogs, which were popularized by the two major fastfood chains, when he saw the emerging trend for Shawarma, a Mediterranean cuisine. Beejay decided to join the fray.
Beejay started his Khaleb Shawarma food cart in 2003 with his sister Marlene Varquez with P150,000 borrowed from his grandmother. Beejay serves as chairman and general manager while Marlene is president and CEO.
Beejay believes in the marketability of Shawarma because of the sheer number of Filipinos working in the Middle East and are familiar with the Mediterranean food. Besides, Shawarma is a complete meal with vegetables, meat and bread and it is for the individuals in a hurry.
“You don’t need to sit down, it is grab and go and suitable for students and working individuals,” says Beejay.
“Shawarma was like a mushroom at that time,” recalls Beejay. Shawarma became the town’s craze. They were among the pioneers, but most of their peers have scaled down while Beejay expanded his business nationwide.
As soon as Beejay was able to pay for the first outlet in Metro Manila, he expanded into his second outlet, until he came up with multiple stores. He also hired his professor to help run the business.
“It was tough but it was good because it helped when my mother was diagnosed with cancer,” says Beejay stressing that his mother’s illness has made them more determined to make the business work and grow.
Beejay, however, left for the US in 2008 to join his wife Mary Lyn. While there, he joined the corporate world and even ventured into a food business in LA and at times dabbled as Uber driver, but the business back in Manila beckoned. After spending eight years in the US, they finally decided to come back to Manila in 2015 because the expanding business needs his full attention.
They are back for good and Beejay is determined to establish himself in the business. They reorganized and created five corporations each working independently, but with specific functions to help the business grow under the parent company Upscaled Foods, Inc. One of these entities is Dynamic Entrepreneurs, Inc., the franchising arm of the group.
“We wanted to focus on the distribution, marketing and manufacturing so we went out of the box,” says Beejay.
Now, they have 60 branches in various formats – cart, kiosk, pop-up, in-line, counter, restaurant – and now a good mix of company and franchise-owned outlets.
The company, too, has expanded into various cuisines to Kebab and garlic sauces to offer variety but still in line with the Mediterranean food. They opened bigger stalls and space, evolving into its full menu dining restaurant called Khaleb Resto in 2017. Now, they have five Khaleb Resto in strategic locations in the metropolis.
“There is a good market here because it not hard to educate the people with so many OFWs working in the Middle East and Filipinos are already exposed and tried different kinds of cuisine,” says Beejay, who treats every food establishment as their competitors.
“We are doing great,” declares Beejay.
“Growth in sales last year already hit triple-digit,” adds Beejay.
The company has franchise inquiries from abroad, but Beejay said they cannot entertain them yet because they have to focus in the Philippines where they have more room for growth especially in the Visayas and Mindanao before they jump into a different world.
From the current 60 Khaleb outlets and 5 Khaleb Resto, they plan to reach 100 by March this year and as much as 200 by yearend as they opened more franchises in the south and Mindanao. A turnkey franchise range from P850,000 to P3.2 million.
Perhaps, Beejay said, in the next five years they may start to go international with Asia as the next sight.
This means most of the expansion will be through the franchises. These means also that they have to be selective in granting franchises.
Franchising is necessary and more practical especially for the far away sites. They also found out that franchises are able to post higher sales. This makes them more determined to offer sites to interested enterprises so they can concentrate as volume supplier for the requirements of their franchises.
But the couple sees franchising as more of sharing their blessings to others. “It is different to start a franchise because you help entrepreneurs roll out a business. We have the network, system and are all connected so we’ve opened a different world so they can grow,” he adds.
Franchising is tried and tested business model so this provides certainty to investors that they will grow as well.
“The direction is franchise as the key for our expansion,” says Beejay, who now employs 150 people.
To further improve the business, the company also got the services of Francorp Philippines, the country’s franchising authority, to perfect its franchise system, which made them all the more confident of sustained growth.
To further promote the business, the couple got the celebrity sisters Tony and Alex as brand ambassadors, who go out of their way beyond what the contract specifies to promote the brand.
To preserve its quality, they are more picky when it comes to supplies. They only use quality imported meat from Australia and Brazil and some spices overseas because they want to ensure they come up with the traditional Arabic flavor masala by using authentic spices.
In fact, he said, foreigners who have tried their products always thought of them as foreign brand or foreign owned. OFWs also said their food tastes like the Dubai shawarma. But Beejay also tweaks the taste a little bit to suit to the Filipino taste buds for salt with a hint of sweetness.
“That makes us different from other players,” he adds.
Beejay is not stopping from improving their services. “We will be launching our delivery service in February initially in Quezon City,” he adds as they have to perfect its system in partnerships with some logistics provider. The next target is Makati and Ortigas. With the delivery service, they may not need to open more outlets.
But there have been challenges along the way in the business, like the increases in food prices. To avoid this, Beejay said they have to ensure sufficient supplies good for six months to maintain stable cost for their franchises and ensure quality of products.
Thus, despite the rise in prices, they have maintained their own. They have P59 product as they also have P600 roasted chicken.
They also ventured into farming so they have steady vegetable supply at much better farmgate prices. They consumed a lot of carrots, tomatoes, onions and cucumber. Soon, they may venture into rice farming in partnership with some farmers as their food offerings come with rice.
Beejay said that this backward integration is going to shield them from inflation upticks as increase in prices can be alienating.
They also continue to train staff, especially that people get to move on in their careers although they have retained some of their employees, who started with them 15 years ago.
“Our mission has become to share our blessing to other entrepreneurs via franchising, we are creating employment even involving farmers. In a way, we are helping the government in terms of taxes and jobs creation,” says Beejay.
Having a business of their own also allows Beejay to spend more quality time with family and their three kids.
In addition, “We can now help more people,” says Beejay as they collaborate with charitable organizations where they provide food. They supported a recent concert that raised funds for cancer patients.
“It is easier to reach out if you have your own business,” says Beejay.
The couple has learned a lot since coming home because the business has taught them beyond monetary rewards.
The couple has also become more agile and flexible as they deal with different kinds of people in their franchising business. They share the fears of risks of first-time franchises even as they try to explain and manage the expectations of the more excited and aggressive ones. Now, most of their franchises have multiple outlets.
“I think I learned a lot more than in my previous job. I learned about dealing with people, self-control, time management, and family relations,” says Mary Lyn.
For Beejay, “I’ve overcome being shy and how to deal with different types of people.” He learned the art of negotiating professionally, not outsmarting the other party but appropriately, by becoming more accommodating and being able to reach out easily.
“I’ve learned to be more adoptive whoever you may be because all inputs count. However small input that maybe but very specific input that means a lot because it could change our whole system,” says Beejay citing surprisingly very good inputs from their employees.
“We are very open to ideas, it is like am the eldest but even if I am the ‘kuya’ I still have to give way to suggestions,” he adds.
“Being in a family corporation, we are not just after profit for ourselves but we share with Filipinos our systems and thoughts and everything is a learning process. So, we are continuously improving not just for our own benefit but for everyone,” said Mary Lyn.
Business has become part and parcel of their family activities that even if they go malling or watch movie, it is automatic for them to drop by their outlets with the kids in tow.
“We’re working 24/7 as we answer emails and side calls even if we’re out of town to maximize time,” adds Mary Lyn.
Beejay has also learned that it is different when you are hands-on with your business. He has also learned to do the work of other people in the organization so that when an employee is absent, he can do the chore himself.
It has become a family ownership as family members come to help run the business aside from the professionals that they hired.
It has been four years since they came home from the US.
“We miss the weather and the environment but overall we are doing great. The opportunity does not come often so we have to grab this,” says Mary Lyn, who is now acting as the company’s official food technologist.
So far, so good, no regrets.
The Shawarma business has turned beyond profit.