California Pizza Kitchen, an iconic and innovative pizza parlor that originated in Beverly Hills, California. Morelli’s, a London-based gelato company that has been serving its famed ice cream for over 100 years. Gyu-Kaku, one of Asia’s most popular yakiniku hubs that fuses Japanese and Korean flavors. P.F. Chang’s, another celebrated destination for authentic Chinese cuisine in different parts of the world. And IHOP (International House of Pancakes), known as the American authority for breakfast fare, found in 1,600 restaurants around the globe.
These make up the impressive roster of international restaurant brands that Archie Rodriguez, founder and president of Global Restaurant Concepts Inc., has brought to the Philippines since 1998.
Indeed a remarkable feat for a man who is only in his 40s, this entrepreneur’s success story is made more interesting by the fact that his passion for food alone propelled him to the top of the country’s restaurant industry. With a background in information technology (IT), he tells The Sunday Times Magazine how he made it all happen in one wonderful—and utterly delicious—journey.
From techie to foodie
Before becoming one of the youngest and most successful restaurateurs in the country, Rodriguez had actually worked as an IT professional.
“I worked in the US for almost five years for a computer gaming company called Sega,” he recalled, adding that he was doing quite well working abroad, again, considering his young age.
Nevertheless, he had always been exposed to good food since his father, Jack Rodriguez Sr. is the big boss of the Bistro Group, which first brought in successful restaurant chains like TGI Fridays and Italianni’s, among others, to the Philippines.
“I’m the youngest of four boys, and even though my father and brothers were encouraging me to come back home, I never really thought of joining the family business. I said to myself that when I come back, I want to start my own business,” continued the driven Rodriguez.
And so, when he returned to the Philippines in 1996, he started a computer company armed with his work experience from the US. But because he trained his employees all too well for his very first business venture, he soon had to close it down because his staff had been pirated by bigger companies one after the other.
It was then that fate stepped in and lured him to the food business when he and several friends decided to invest in an original resto-bar concept called Tequila Joe’s in February 1998.
“My partner, Jean Henri [Lluilher], said he has this property in Makati Avenue. So instead of us always trashing each other’s home every time we have a party, we thought why not turn the spot into our own resto-bar? And so we did!” Rodriguez laughed.
What was supposed to be a small-time project among friends became such a hit that they ended up running a restaurant chain. Tequila Joe’s had a highly successful run until 2004.
The CPK idea
Still bent on setting up his own company, while acknowledging the fact that he did have his father’s entrepreneurial genes for the food business, Rodriguez again went back to his American sojourn for ideas.
He recalled two things, the success of his father’s TGI Friday’s franchise that had an endless stream of diners waiting to get a table, and a restaurant in the US called CPK, which had the exact same scene at its front door.
“Immediately, a light bulb went on in my head,” Rodriquez enthused. “If TGI Fridays was doing so good in the Philippines, what more if we had a CPK? Because the one I saw in the States was right across a TGI Fridays that hardly had any diners.”
He was certainly on the right track with his idea because today, CPK is regarded as one of the most popular pizza destinations in the country with nine branches in Metro Manila, and a lone out-of-town location in Subic.
But according to Rodriguez, it took CPK’s principals a lot of convincing before the American brand agreed to set up business in the Philippines.
“As early as 1994, I wrote a business plan and I sent it to them. It was rejected. But every six months, I’d update the business plan and send it to them again. I always got the same response that they don’t franchise.”
Persistence, however, as Rodriguez realized, pays off in business.
“And after almost two years of making them kulit—and that’s the right term for what I did—they finally decided to sit down with me, but of course, I had just gotten back to the Philippines,” he laughed
Ever determined, he flew back to the US as expected and after a week of meetings and visits to CPK’s headquarters, the budding entrepreneur finally struck a deal with his new American partners.
“I was lucky to be communicating with them at the right time when CPK was being sold back to the original founders, Rick [Rosenfeld] and Larry [Flax] by Pepsi Co. It was during that transition that they decided to look at opportunities outside of the US for franchising. And since I seemed to be the guy who was aggressively pursuing the brand the most, they gave it to me after close to five years of patience.”
Rodriguez is proud to say that while he achieved his goal of franchising the restaurant chain in the Philippines, he also opened the doors for CPK’s international expansion since the company began in 1985.
Today, the California-based company has partners in more than 10 countries around the globe with the Philippines remaining as its most important market as proven by the recently concluded the California Pizza Kitchen International Summit. (See sidebar story)
After successfully building the CPK brand in the Philippines, Rodriguez finally accepted that he was destined to be in the food business.
He admitted, “It seems almost natural for me to get into this business because my father has been involved in restaurants either as an investor or owner. Even as a kid, I was already a part of that world. I guess in a way even though my background had nothing to do with restaurants, destiny found its way to bring food to me. I ended up here because I had always been here.”
But more than becoming part of what his father had already started, Rodriguez determinedly established his own company, and in the couple of years, went full blast in growing his own group of restaurants as well.
Since 2012, GRCI has aggressively franchised five other global restaurant brands including PF Chang’s, Morelli’s, IHOP, Gyu-Kaku, and Mad for Garlic, which it also operates in Korea.
In deciding on these restaurants, Rodriguez said he was guided by what Filipinos loved from abroad so that the market was already familiar with the brands when he brought them in.
“My partners and I all have a personal attachment to these brands because we believe that we should be able to enjoy the restaurant ourselves,” he added.
As such, GRCI always makes sure to go with iconic and established brands like IHOP and Morelli’s. “These companies have a number of restaurants in the US and around the globe, but until we brought them in, the Philippines was left behind,” he noted.
His next venture in 2015 is another global brand in Applebees, which happens to be a sister company of IHOP.
“Applebees is the largest franchise in the world with over 2,000 restaurants,” Rodriguez informed The Sunday Times Magazine. “The brand already has two of its major competitors in the Philippines but I promise that by opening Applebees, it won’t just be another American bar and grill. We are going to do something cutting-edge and fresh, both in design and menu offerings, which I hope Filipinos will appreciate.”
Indeed, the local food industry is booming today with many homegrown and foreign concepts opening within Metro Manila alone. Having been in the business for 17 years already, Rodriguez is well aware of this.
Asked to describe the current landscape of the industry, he replied, “There is definitely a trend toward chef-based concepts, or restaurants that are ran or branded by the top chefs, as well as boutique operators and local concepts. These are all doing well.
“But there will always be room for casual and family dining like the ones we continue to bring in to the country. Because the larger part of the market are the families, and hopefully, they continue to enjoy our present and future restaurants,” he added.
He said he respects the industry’s trendsetters as he enjoys their food as well. Some of his current favorites are the brands under the Moment Food Group, and Chef Colin Mackay of Blackbird restaurant in Makati.
Admittedly, Rodriguez is someone who eats a lot and not just because it is part of his job but also because it is an innate characteristic of Filipinos. Proof of this is his ultimate favorite dish, the lechon kawali.
“I really am a Filipino at heart,” he exclaimed.
And what better time of the year to indulge in eating than the holidays? What then will a top restaurateur and his family have for Noche Buena? Rodriguez is married to noted bag designer Bea Valdes with whom he has three beautiful daughters aged 14, seven and two.
“My wife usually has it catered by another food group,” he laughed. “I’m sure she’ll go for Gaita [Fores, the renowned chef behind Cibo] this year. And I’m sure it’ll be delicious.”