Photo by Lorena D. MondragonTHEY SAY that the recipe for success comes in different packages.

For Rommel Juan, it started with a dash of brotherly chat, a pinch of childhood memories, some free time, and a craving for fun.

With his youth and his brain overflowing with possibilities, Rommel talked his brother, Raffy, into putting up their own business—breaking away from the family’s fairly successful one.

Binalot Fiesta Food Inc., the restaurant born out of the brothers’ casual discussion, is now one of the up-and-coming Filipino food franchises, with 40 branches across the metro. And for Rommel, its chief executive officer (CEO), Binalot’s journey to being “the number one Filipino fast food” is still ongoing.

A family affair

The business-like attitude easily rubbed off on Rommel, who was raised in “a very entrepreneurial” family who owns an automotive business and a school. Encouraged by their parents at a young age, he and his siblings took little business-minded steps.

“Even when we were little, we were already encouraged to venture into business,” he recalled. “My brother and I used to go to school early so that we could sell toys to the kids there.”

Young Rommel carried this mindset when he studied at UST High School, coming up with different items to sell to his schoolmates. He almost strayed from the business path when he considered taking up Architecture in UST. But his father, Bienvenido, pushed him to take a Marketing and Management degree instead, prompting his move to De La Salle University, Manila.

With a degree in hand, Rommel briefly worked for Toyota and Honda Philippines, two well-known car companies, where he learned about car parts and sales. After that, he made a “homecoming” by joining MD Juan Enterprises, Inc., the family’s automotive business established by his grandfather.

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Rommel, however, couldn’t settle down and felt lost in its system.

“When I was already in MD Juan, I didn’t know where to place myself. That was when it hit me that I had to set up my own business,” he said.

Shifting gears

Rommel tapped his brother, who shared the same off-track feeling, and discussed his plans. With their love for eating, the two thought of investing on food and approached their friends for help.

Wanting to be different, they thought of serving food in banana leaves, the way their mother, Charito, used to do for their family trips to Cavite. They also perked up the menu by giving meals creative names like “Tapa Rap Sarap” and “Bistek Walastik.”

The endeavor started as a delivery service in 1996 and gained the patronage of office workers and condominium residents in Makati. The business’ rise, however, almost came to a screeching halt when the economy crashed the next year, which led to companies closing down and Binalot losing its customers.

Rommel and his partners were ready to face their own closure when Shangri-la Plaza offered them a space in the food court.

“At first, we didn’t want to entertain them,” he said. “I knew that a spot in a mall would be expensive, but then I thought, ‘Why don’t we try?’ So we went for broke.”

Leaping forward

With its first outlet installed, Binalot was received warmly by a new group of customers, who got interested not only in the menu the restaurant presented, but also in their unique packaging. Inspired by the people who lined up to get a taste of their food, Rommel and his partners decided to open three more branches.

Teaching and learning in a foreign land

But it took a few more years, a “very persistent franchise applicant,” and a Master’s in Entrepreneurship to convince Rommel to open the door for franchising in 2004. While adjusting to newfound difficulties, he and his team managed to expand their franchise across the metro.

Over the years, the company has developed its brand not only through food. Its branches have murals showing Filipino traits and traditions, such as customary family meals and wide smiles, which only increases the company’s pull to its market.

Binalot is also getting recognized for its breakthrough in the fast food industry. Recently, the company received the Best Homegrown Franchise Award from Entrepreneur Magazine.

Through banana leaves

As the business grew, the company also had trouble finding a supplier of banana leaves. The problem, Rommel thought, worsened when typhoon Milenyo came in 2006 and destroyed banana plantations in Luzon.

Fortunately, Binalot was able to find a reliable supplier of its packaging material while helping a community in the process.

“We started to look for a community that we could commission and—from there—have a steady supply of banana leaves. That was when we found Nagcarlan, Laguna,” he said.

This was the beginning of Binalot’s corporate social responsibility from which its program, Dangal At Hanapbuhay para sa Nayon (Dahon), sprouted. The program currently helps 30 families earn a living. Aside from harvesting, cleaning, and trimming the leaves, these people have been taught how to make banana chips and ketchup, which Binalot sells.

In 2007, Binalot received a Centennial Award and US$10, 000 from the United Parcel Service, Inc. (UPS) for its Best “Out-of-the-Box” Small Business Contest. Dahon is also on its way to being a foundation.

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Rommel sees these recognitions as blessings that bounce back a thousand-fold, which, to the company, came back “ten-thousand-fold and in dollars.”

There is no stopping the 38-year-old CEO, who proves that his surname, Juan, is a reflection of the hardworking Filipino. With his experience of the continuous rise and fall in business, Rommel advises would-be and wannabe entrepreneurs to seize the moment.

“If you can do it now, do it now,” he said. “Don’t wait for the perfect time because there really is no perfect time.” Alma Maria L. Sarmiento


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