INTERVIEW BY RENE S. BISQUERA
“Tapsilog”, the staple Filipino breakfast food of fried beef strips, egg and rice is the star dish of Rufo’s Famous Tapa. This restaurant, which started out as a small “carinderia-type tapsihan,” now has 22 branches and has become the favorite “go-to” place of many young Filipino office workers and students. Meet the man who reinvigorated the brand and now has the daunting task of making it world-class.
Paul Izon Reyes grew up loving Rufo’s because the original store was located right in front of his school in Kalayaan Ave., Makati. In 2003, upon his return from living abroad after college, Paul purchased the business from its owners and immediately worked on upgrading its image, systems and operations, fueled solely by his love and passion for the brand.
In a recent interview, the Rufo’s President, the boyish and handsome bachelor, talks about his journey with Rufo’s, from the lowly “tapsi” eatery to today’s chain of Filipino restaurants and its exciting future.
Women’s Journal (WJ): How streamlined are the current operations of Rufo’s?
Paul Izon Reyes (PIR): We have a central commissary, where everything in the menu is marinated, prepared, packed, vacuum-sealed and blast-frozen to keep fresh for delivery to all the branches. As we have 22 branches now, we do not allow too much preparation in the stores to maintain product quality and consistency.
The challenge is when we expand to the different islands. Iligan City is our first Visayas branch, although we are in talks now with possible franchisees in Cebu and Iloilo. The logistics of sending our stocks to these areas is always the biggest challenge.
WJ: You said you won’t open company-owned store in far locations outside Metro Manila. Anything to do with your ‘franchise’ requirements?
PIR: Yes, we have some stringent requirements, foremost of which is a good location. We want hands-on franchisees, who are passionate and diligent about their business. Rufo’s mission is to build and give value. We offer delicious, affordable food and excellent service and because of our customers keep coming back. When they come back, our business earns. It is a “give first and you shall receive” kind of mission.
In general, the biggest toughest part of growing business is hiring the right people and managing the expansion. This includes all stores, the commissary and all the different head office departments. I have owned the business for 13 years but it has been around for 32 years. It was only in the last few years that we had aggressive growth through franchising.
WJ: You have problems with human resource?
PIR: In any business, the employees are your number one asset. Managing people, inspiring them, bringing out their best and keeping them are challenges that we face daily.
And early on, I realized that if I am going to lead my people, I should know all the facets of my business. At the start, I delivered the food, I helped clean the store, I did graphic design for our menus and flyers. It was just me and a handful of employees. As we grew bigger and as revenue increased, we hired additional personnel.
WJ: The person at the HR department is your direct connection to all your other employees.
PIR: Yes, they hire, they counsel, coach and instill company culture. This is vital for any organization as the people make-up the core of your business.
In 2003, it was just me talking to my people. We had 16 employees. It was not easy operating Rufo’s in the first years because there were no systems in place. No real standards, no computers, no managers, not even uniforms.
Today, we have a Code of Conduct. We have rules to follow. And we follow them strictly but with compassion. Rufo’s is now corporate, professional and we have a strong HR Department which greatly helps us in our expansion by having the right people at the right time. Once Human Resources was set, this allowed for the setting up of other departments such as Operations, Commissary, Purchasing, Logistics and Warehouse Accounting and others.
WJ: How big is Rufo’s family now?
PIR: We now have a chain of twenty-two 24/7 restaurants in Metro Manila and provinces. I personally own 11, the rest have individual owners, or franchisees. We have nearly 300 employees for the 11 stores including the Corporate Head Office. I am confident of opening many more branches in the immediate future.
WJ: How would you rate how successful is Rufo’s now?
PIR: We define “success” in line with our mission and vision. The mission of “Building and Giving Value” and the vision of “Nationwide and Worldwide Expansion to bring Filipino cuisine to other countires.” I believe we have been successful because we have touched many lives by providing them a nice comfortable place to eat, with delicious food they can afford 24 hours a day, even during storms and calamities.
In terms of employment, we used to have one store with 16 employees. Today, we have 22 stores and hundreds of employees. In effect, we are successful 22 times over – if that is one way of measuring success.
As to number of customers we have served, I have no statistics. But here are the facts: In 2003, we had one store in Makati (which could serve the entire city) and now we have three – A.Venue in 2013, Paseo Center which we opened in 2014, and Pasong Tamo this 2016. We have multiple branches in Quezon City, Las Pinas, Mandaluyong, Pasig, Taguig and other parts of the country. Because of this, thousands more will be served.
Our Mckinley Hill branch is one of our most successful branches, as the franchisee got his money back in just 10 months of operations. We are in a continuous process of expansion, multiplying stores, multiplying our people, products and services to stay true to our mission.
In 2013, we won 2 awards. Entrepreneur magazine’s “Best in Franchise Support” and “Fastest Growing Franchise”. Rufo’s also won in 2016’s Blosomex “Favorite After Drinking Recovery Restaurant”. If these awards are indicators of success, then we are successful.
WJ: Customers give you feedback with their comments. What’s the most striking one you’ve received?
PIR: We do get a lot of feedback in our stores’ customer evaluation and from online platforms. People love the brand, and that means a lot to us. Love is a strong word. But this is true. Rufo’s started with a cult-following in Makati in 1984. Die-hard “Rufo’s Fans” have wonderful memories like wedding proposals, career milestones and “coming of age” expeiences which all took place in Rufo’s. Today, these long-time patrons bring their kids to our branches because they really love the food!
And so evolved our spiel: “Thank you for loving Rufo’s!” When you come in, you are greeted with “Thank you for loving Rufo’s” and when you leave, you are bade with “Thank you for loving Rufo’s!” We truly believe that once you try our food, you will love us. Gratitude is always good and we verbalize it as often as we can.
Rufo’s has been around for more than three decades, through four Presidents, Martial Law, coup attempts, People Power and this longevity is a testament to our customer’s love for the brand. How many companies can make that same claim?
WJ: Rufo’s was there since 1984 and it’s still here. Now, where’s Rufo’s going from here?
PIR: We are on a perpetual quest to improve our products and services. The commissary is continuously on Research and Development mode. We try to keep our menu fresh and exciting. Recently, we launched Rufo’s SisigSilog with the following variants: Bangus Sisig, Chicken Sisig, Beef Sisig and the favorite Pork Sisig – all with with egg and rice – because there is a clamor for new and affordable menu items.
Our people, especially our service crew, are trained and re-trained constantly to make our service at par with fine-dining restaurants.
From a simple “hole in the-wall carinderia, to a chain of Pinoy restaurants nationwide our ultimate goal is to expand abroad. We want foreigners to know what Filipino food is all about. Our goal is to make Filipino cuisine internationally respected just like Japanese or Chinese food. With hard work, patience, a good team, an amazing product and a well-loved brand, we know we will get there.