By Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat
SERENITEA was started by two sisters, Juliet and Jen. But it was Juliet’s husband Peter, a Taiwanese, who gave her the idea to go into business. Their team has brought us a variety of refreshing milk teas and thirst-quenching drinks.
What they pioneered 10 years ago has started a milk tea craze in town. Serenitea has mushroomed to a total of 62 outlets with ongoing expansions here and abroad.
The milk tea company started when Juliet’s then boyfriend and now husband Peter asked her if she would like to go into business. Without thinking, she answered in the affirmative. Her husband, being a Taiwanese, has a good background of the tea culture.
The Philippines, known for being a coffee-drinking country, has no milk tea store yet 10 years ago.
Unlike most businesses, Serenitea was not given much thought by its founders. There was no market study, no food traffic and no location consideration. But, jumping on their hunch, they decided to introduce the tea culture to the Filipinos.
According to Juliet, the name Serenitea just came about because she wanted their brand name to end with the word tea. They agreed on Serenitea, which was incorporated in December 2008, with initial capitalization of P500,000 only.
The first location was located in Little Baguio in San Juan. They just happened to be in the area in San Juan and found the place, which they thought as good enough. It still stands up to this time.
Serenitea pioneered in the brewing of tea using an espresso machine with the added option of customizing the drinks in terms of sweetness level and sinkers.
Serenitea introduced tea drinking in the framework of the coffee industry matching the cozy settings of coffee shops with a well-designed and radiant tea shop ambiance.
What started as a three-man milk tea shop including Peter, who assists in mixing the drinks plus two employees, Serenitea has grown to 62 all company-owned branches with 500 employees.
With a growing business, Juliet went back to school to learn more. She took up her MA to hone her further and to be able to handle the business better.
“From there, I learned what I needed to do – that I also need to improve myself,” adds Juliet.
Unlike other companies that rushed into franchising after establishing a few outlets in a short period of time, Serenitea chose to maintain and own all of its outlets.
This does not mean they will not franchise later on, but the group is not just ready for it yet. “Not now,” says the younger Juliet.
The sisters hope to further build its network to 70 stores by end of this year. They continue to offer new drinks that their concoctions have grown so many that they decided to trim it to 50.
Drinks are a matter of trend and they follow the Taiwanese then bring the new drink here with a twist to appeal to the Filipino palate.
“You need to get the right taste for your local market because the Taiwanese taste is different. They are a bit strong, but Filipinos have sweet tooth,” says Juliet.
Jen says Filipinos like the rich and tasty flavor.
The sisters have different favorites, too. Jen loves the Okinawa milk tea, which is one of their popular drinks, and cranberry. Juliet prefers the Okinawa Espresso, which has a coffee content, and the Brown Sugar which can also serve as a desert because of its heaviness.
“It actually depends on the mood,” says Juliet, who likes to indulge with Brown Sugar drinks when she is tired. “Emotions get their way in the menu, too,” says Juliet.
There are times, especially during warmer days, when milk tea drink can only make you thirst some more. On those days, customers would rather opt for something light, like fruit juice.
“These are the days when you just want to be refreshed,” says Juliet.
Juliet would like to see Serenitea becoming the market leader one day. But they also see themselves in other arena.
Serenitea has presence in the southern part of the archipelago but is still constantly looking forward to expanding to more provincial areas in the country. Moreover, plans are on the way to open its first international branch.
“There are lots of opportunities,” says Juliet noting that starting January this year Serenitea Express is being offered in Cebu Pacific’s in-flight menu using a 3-in-1 milk tea for easy preparation by the flight attendants. These are opportunities they did not think would come.
If there is one thing why Serenitea is going on smoothly, it is the bond between the sisters, whose maiden name was Herrera.
Juliet, the younger sister, could not remember having a major fight with her Ate Jen, who finished AB Behavioral Science and BS in Marketing Management at De La Salle University.
Jen said that friction has been avoided because they have a division of labor in managing the growing number of stores. Jen is in charge of the branches located in the southern part of Metro Manila and Juliet, the north.
This way, Serenitea benefited from their efforts. With that, they are able to secure their place even with the entry of more milk tea shops in the country. The division of labor also allows them to respond quickly to the demands of the market, making them ahead of competition and trends.
On its 10th anniversary last year, Serenitea decided to give back to society by partnering with a charity organization. They decided to work with Bahay Aruga, a home for kids from the provinces battling cancer diseases and are getting treatment at the Philippine General Hospital (PGH).
Jen recalled that she gave some suggestions of possible charities, but one night Juliet came across about Bahay Aruga.
Juliet said her choice was not among those presented to her, but that God showed her the Bahay Aruga. It is a half way home for cancer patient children because the house provides them temporary shelter while getting treatment at PGH.
“PGH is a government hospital catering largely to the not so fortunate in life,” says Jen. They met the founder Mayette Bonilla, who was very open to collaboration.
From there, Serenitea came up with a product that they think will hit because they wanted their contributions to Bahay Aruga significant enough. They chose the Brown Sugar series where 15 percent of sales from October to December last year will go to Bahay Aruga.
It was a very successful campaign. Jen did not divulge the amount contributed from the sales of Brown Sugar series in the last quarter of 2018, except to say that it was seven digits and according to the shelter owner it would last them for more than a year.
The amount is being used for the kids’ chemotherapy sessions and laboratories also.
Jen noted that while the Bahay Aruga was just originally a shelter for the kids from the provinces suffering from cancer, the help has been extended to their medical needs and food.
Bahay Aruga also needs to fund its basic utilities like electricity and water. The parents’ kids would rather use their money for medicines and when they run out of money, they would go to the Bahay Aruga owners for assistance.
“So, we gave Bahay Aruga the allowance and with that we improve the capacity of the center to provide for the sick children, who come and go,” says Juliet.
In addition, Serenitea came up with hashtag “Moments” such as #momentsofgratitude for Mother’s Day and #momentsoflove or Valentine’s Day.
For this effort, they involved their staff and customers as well. “We encourage them to buy the Brown Sugar drink series because 15 percent of the sales will go to Bahay Aruga as our way of giving back,” says Jen.
As a leader, Juliet is not the strict type but she makes sure that when she is out the staff will continue to do their job properly and if she asks for results, they can produce it.
She looks up to two successful business leaders. Foremost, she looks up to Hapee toothpaste founder Cecilio Pedro for his programs to help the deaf and mute by employing them at his factory.
“Mr. Pedro is a very God-fearing man. I heard him speak and he always praises God and he inspires a lot of people,” says Juliet, who was all the more inspired to give back.
She also admires businessman John Gokongwei for being family man, who sees to it that he goes home to have dinner with family.
“Based on the article that I’ve read, Gokongwei does not give expensive gifts to his kids, but he spends quality time, travel and the best education. I admire him for that,” says Juliet.
According to Juliet, the Gokongwei patriarch also put emphasis on choosing the right life partner because a spouse is someone who should help the partner succeed.
“That is why I can say that my husband was right in choosing me as his partner,” Juliet says as a joke, but said that Gokongwei’s wisdom is indeed true.
For Jen, she admires Dr. Aivee Aguilar Teo for his dedication for both her profession and as a mother. To be able to be with her kids, Dr. Aivee tags along her kids to the clinic. She is also running a successful business.
The business has taught them valuable lessons.
“Foremost, you cannot give up easily. The hardships and challenges are part of the business. It builds character. And that’s what I tell our team always,” says Jen stressing that “hardships make us creative in handling a situation.”
Juliet, who finished business administration at the College of St. Benilde and a Master in Entrepreneurship at the Ateneo Graduate School, may not be aware of this but when she is angry at her staff, she makes it a point to focus on the positive side.
For Jen, she does it through humor. These traits can only be possible for women because they lead with their hearts and they know how to care better than men.
In coming up with decisions, the sisters would always consider how would this affect their people, customers, and operations. They also send their R & D team frequently to Taiwan to watch out for trends.
It is not that since Jen is older, she will always be followed. There is no younger or older between the two. Other than being blood relatives, Jen and Juliet are just like the best of friends, who always compliment each other genuinely.
“Sisters in business must know how to separate the personal stuff,” says Jen adding “it is not also good to be so sensitive.”
The sisters travel with their families together. When outside of the country, they make sure to try milk tea drinks to learn and compare.
For sisters wanting to go into business, Jen has this advice: “Always support each other. As much as possible, do not envy. Always be fair because at the end of the day you will benefit if you lift each other up.”
Juliet for her part has emphasized: “Maintain an open communication because good ideas can easily be collaborated when shared. Two heads are better than one.”
Most of all, Jen said, “Respect each other’s ideas.”