Monday, June 24, 2013

The branded bibingka

Real-life partners continue Ferino's legacy

by Adelle Chua
published MST Sunday - Business, June 23, 2013


The Francisco family – Sonny Emmanuel, Anne Marie and their children aged nine, seven and three – spends December 24 and December 31 in a rather different way. They don’t have your usual midnight feast, clan reunion or “exchange gift”.  Instead they work and visit their Ferino’s Bibingka stores to monitor if customer’s demands are met.

“December and January are our peak months,” according to Anne, 35.

This is not to say that everything falls into a lull the rest of the year. On the contrary, gone are the days when bibingka was seen only during the Christmas season.  Now that the native rice cake has become mainstream, running a family venture with it as the star product has become a business challenge, especially for the couple who find themselves at the intersection of past and future.

Who started it all
Ferino was Sonny’s grandfather.

Says the Web site: “Ferino’s Bibingka started in October of 1938 at Juan Luna Street in Tondo, Manila. Husband and wife, Ceferino (Mang Ferino) and Cristina (Aling Tinay) Francisco started cooking bibingka with three clay stoves on a 1-meter bench and two small tables.”

After the war, the business grew and the couple opened their first branch at the Acacia Lane of Manila Hotel. Yet another branch was opened at the Fiesta Carnival in Cubao.

Legend has it that the Ferino’s used to be the favorite of the Marcoses that they would close the restaurant when they were there just so they could enjoy the rice cake in privacy. The American actor, Charlton Heston was also said to be a fan.

As a young boy, Sonny was the appointed usher of the Manila Hotel store. He would point the guests to the washroom and lead them back to the restaurant. He observed his grandfather – Koko, he called him – up close, and soon saw just how passionate the old man was about his product and business. Ferino would tirelessly go to the market and get dirty in the kitchen, cooking recipes from his restaurant menu, even when he was already a successful businessman running several stores including a big resto in the then famous 
Araneta Center beside Fiesta Carnival..

Ferino’s death in 1975 also led to the gradual end of the business’ glory days.


Growing into the business

Alfredo, Sonny’s father, was one of Ferino and Tinay’s 10 children. He was a certified public accountant and was, for a long time, an accounting professor at the University of the East.

In 1981, Alfredo decided to revive his father’s legacy by opening a humble bibingka stall in Baclaran. At that time, Sonny was in college.  Dutiful son that he was, he saw how difficult it was for his father to constantly stir the large amounts of bibingka mixture – called galapong -- and so he offered to help out.

“My college days were not spent going to discos or having a good time,” Sonny reminisces.  “I developed strong muscles just by manually mixing the galapong.” Among Alfredo and Noemi’s seven children, Sonny showed great interest in the business, and thus proceeded to see the young man as his father’s partner in formulating the perfect mix – and in charge of the production of galapong for all his stores.

When Alfredo himself passed on in 2001, Sonny – an architect by training and profession -- was convinced he was at crossroads.

Two loves meet

It was at church when Sonny first saw the Anne, 15 years his junior and a member of the choir.  He had been praying to meet somebody special and knew it was her the first time he laid eyes on her.

Anne was no businesswoman.  In fact, she was a Public Administration cum laude graduate from UP who was into social science research and who was then working at the House of Representatives.

And with the same diligence he had exhibited over the years learning the bibingka trade from his father and grandfather, Sonny pursued Anne. This culminated in their 2002 wedding – and her eventual decision to help him run their business, or at least that branch of Ferino’s that falls under Sonny’s Francisco Food Specialties. (His other siblings, here and abroad, also have their own stores.)

“My friends joke that I am the ultimate sellout, crossing over to the business side of things,” she shares.   She seems to have no regrets. The flexibility of the time required of her in the business enables her to spend more time with her children Caleb, Mercy and Hopee and provide fresh perspective and sound advice to her husband.
 
Sonny and Anne Marie at their Gilmore store
Modern mom-and-pop

Just like any couple starting out, Sonny and Anne did everything on their own in the beginning, especially in their first owned store in Robinsons Metroeast.  “I was the one who went to market to buy raw materials, Sonny was in charge of mixing the galapong, delivery, collection, and store visits.” Anne shares.

Over the years, they were able to open more stores and eventually offered franchises. They were generally successful in getting trusted store assistants whose skills they developed in time.  In peak seasons, they hire additional hands.

Through it all, Sonny and Anne have learned that a hands-on approach makes it possible to ensure that their people adhere to the highest sanitary and ethical standards. “We’ve had a few unfortunate episodes, but we count them as lessons essential to learning how to run a business,” according to Sonny. 

The arrangement also makes it impossible for them to completely separate business from family concerns.  “We can’t take vacations for an extended period of time,” she says. “Our thoughts are always in our stores, whether everything’s going well.”

The couple works so well together that their roles in the business are delineated.  Sonny takes care of strategizing and managing finances, while Anne is in charge of operations and quality control.

The challenges are plenty. Commercial space rentals in Metro Manila and the prices of ingredients are high. Competition is becoming fierce. Human resource issues are a constant test. “But we get by,” the Franciscos say.  

The timeless bibingka

Ferino’s offers other products, but the star of the show is the bibingka, available in Extra Super, Super and Special, the difference among which are in the ingredients and toppings even as the galapong mix is constant.

“We employ the native way of cooking and we use only the premium ingredients.    I guess this is why after people have tasted all the new brands emerging, with their aggressive advertising, they look for Ferino’s and conclude that nothing beats the original,” says Sonny.

“We’re blessed to have that goodwill from the Ferino’s name,” adds Anne. “We don’t have to resort to gimmickry to make people aware of us. We are able to focus on keeping our advantage, which is the quality of our product.”

Sonny’s sights are now set on expanding their reach to the many Filipinos abroad who miss the rice cake among other thoughts of home. He is pondering whether Pinoys in many different places would be willing to have authentic bibingka – the frozen, microwavable kind, with a shelf life of up to one year.”

Sonny remembers the late food writer Doreen Fernandez interviewing his father and asking the latter  how big he wanted Ferino’s to be. “Hanggang makakaya ko, (as big as I can manage to),”Alfredo said.  “And now, asked the same question, I am saying I don’t know – it’s up to the Lord,” Sonny says.  “He always has the best plans.”

For now, Sonny and Anne are happy to be together, teach their kids the value of hard work, let the Ferino’s brand live and enjoy everything in its own good time.

(Franchising and other inquiries may be directed to 2161028 or 09178313477, email at ferinos_bibingka1938@yahoo.com, www.ferinosbibingka.com.ph, #4 Granada Street Quezon City.)


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