When Chowking started in 1985, it was not the greatest time to start a new business. This was a turbulent time during the Marcos era and any conservative businessman would have waited a few more years until the economy stabilized before getting into a new venture. But evidently this is the stuff success stories are made of, because 25 years after Chowking risked putting up its flagship store in Makati, it has grown to be the top quick-service Chinese restaurant in the country.

Today, the company has 400 local branches, 30 more overseas, and with plans in the pipeline to further expand its reach in the Middle East. “When we opened our first store in Doha last November, the results have been extremely good,” says Erwin Elechicon, president of Chowking Food Corporation. “The economy in Qatar is fairly strong and there are still a lot of places in the Middle East where there’s clearly going to be a lot of demand for Chowking.”

While its international branches are primarily catered to Filipino expatriates, Elechicon says that Chowking is also beginning to understand how to address the needs of the other cultural groups of their overseas branches. “In Dubai, we’re beginning to see Arabs, Indians and Europeans trying our cuisine,” he shares. “As they do that, we begin to see what to do about the food to make it more appealing to them, so that’s why in Dubai we have the Chicken Manchuria which appeals more to the Indian palate. We adapt some of our dishes, but most of our effort is still focused on the OFW and so far, we’ve been successful.”

Going Celebrity

Chowking’s success formula is fairly simple, says Elechicon. “It starts with the basics of food—it must be delicious, served at the right temperature, and consistent. It also means continuously coming up with great food that satisfies the Filipino palate.”

Apart from introducing new items like the OH!some OH!range Chicken into its menu this year, the company has joined the bandwagon of brands employing celebrity endorsers. “The mission of Chowking is really to spice up the working man’s life, giving constant surprises to regular meals,” says Brand Group Manager Chris Monteron. “We feel this is manifested in Jericho Rosales, who has been one of the surprising talents surfacing in recent years.”

A side benefit to using Rosales, adds Managing Director Edward Arandia, is that it helps highlight Chowking’s new target market, which are 25- to 35-year-old working adults. “Contrary to the perception that we are only attracting the older market, using Jericho will make it more clear that our focus is on people who’ve begun their careers, starting their families, and are moving up in the world.”

Keeping the Standard

Increasing marketing efforts is predicted to further drive Chowking’s success, a company that never lacks for franchisees. With 60 to 63 percent of its local business run by franchisees and with current franchisees applying for more stores, Elechicon says that quality control is vital. “The QSR (quick service restaurant) industry is constantly evolving so there’s always a need for improvement. We put a lot of attention in terms of quality management. From the supplier to the commissary, to the logistics system, to the warehouse and the store, we try to make sure that it follows all the standards necessary for food to be safe and hygienic.”

A large part of Chowking’s business is also spending time and money into training its manpower.

“The people who really make the biggest difference to our business are the people in the stores,” says Elechicon. “We have a training program that’s very intensive. It covers service, food preparation, how to handle and properly serve the customers, how to keep the stores clean—it’s a very thorough program and that’s what our employees start with. Training continues in the course of their jobs.”

Moving Forward

Chowking’s recipe for success clearly works as 2009 proved to be a record-breaking year in terms of sales and profits. This 2010, Elechicon says the company is capitalizing on providing its consumers more value. “In the food service business, how customers perceive things when they are in the store is extremely important to their overall experience. That’s why we’re constantly upgrading—you’ll notice in the newer stores, we have softer seats and new elements in the store’s designs. Small things, like building little hooks at the bottom of the table where women can hang their bags—little things like that show we pay attention to what the customer wants.”

Capital expenditures will also be spent tapping into the international market. It’s a pretty straightforward choice because even before Jollibee acquired Chowking in 2000, the company already had three branches abroad. “The last few years have made it apparent that the Filipino population outside the country is growing,” says Elechicon. “More OFWs are looking for familiar food that gives them a taste of home. If you think about the food we sell, there’s a huge amount of opportunity abroad. And if we want to become a global company, a success beyond the Philippines, we need to pay attention to these opportunities. We’ve been successful so far, and hopefully that success will carry on 25 years from now and beyond.”

Published in Manila Bulletin, Business Agenda section, 12 April 2010