How the Tan Caktiongs built the Jollibee empire

by Kathleen A. Martin,

Posted at Mar 09 2013 11:14 AM | Updated as of Mar 11 2013 08:41 PM

Grace and Tony Tan Caktiong

MANILA, Philippines - "We had to do everything by ourselves in the beginning! Pati janitorial services--I even cleaned the toilet," quipped Grace Ang Tan Caktiong, co-founder of the biggest Filipino fast-food chain Jollibee and current head of the Jollibee Foundation.

Whoever said saving a few pesos will come a long way knew what he was talking about. For Grace, saving every peso they could was her and husband Tony's mindset during the early days of Jollibee -- then a lone store in Cubao.

"There's a Chinese saying that says it's easier for you to save than to earn. So if you have something and you can save it. Don't waste it because to earn money, it takes a lot of hard work," Grace told Ces Drilon on ANC's Pipol.

Grace and Tony Tan Caktiong put up an ice cream parlor two months after graduating from college. That ice cream parlor eventually offered sandwiches to patrons until the couple decided on adding the store's popular Yum burger and Chicken Joy to the menu.

"When there's no cashier, you do the cashier, if there's no cook, you do the burger, if there's no janitor, you clean the toilet. It's like your neighborhood mom-and-pop store," Grace candidly said, sharing thoughts on how they operated their first store.

"We also served the customers (as waiter and waitress), and then at night, we do the accounting by ourselves," Grace added.

The then newly-graduated engineering students spent P150,000 for their store which opened its doors to customers in 1975. The couple got the idea of putting up an ice cream parlor after visiting a Magnolia shop which had a notice saying a franchise for a store is available.

But the idea of expanding the store's menu came from the store's patrons, Grace said.

"From early on, we were already listening to our customers... At first, it was actually chicken sandwich, and hotdog, and cheese--those were the three sandwiches we started with," Grace recalled. "They were very simple but good."

Then the couple embarked on a "research" stage, looking for the right hamburger they can add to the growing menu.

"We went out almost everyday to all the hamburger stores in town. We bought [burgers] and we dissected them... we tried to see what each was made of," Grace shared.

"We kept on eating until one day, we said, 'this is good'. Before we came out with the burger, it was, I think, over a year. So we were eating burgers everyday for over a year," she said with a soft laugh.

Despite the perseverance the two put into the business back then, Grace said she never thought it would grow into the country's biggest fast-food chain, even beating American fast-food giant McDonald's

"We wanted to grow the business but to be at this scale, not exactly [what I had in mind]," Grace said.

"But Tony is a guy who always dreams big. He really wanted to grow the business to make more stores," she stressed.

Aside from the famous Jollibee store, Jollibee Foods Corp. also operates Chowking, Greenwich, Mang Inasal, Red Ribbon Bakeshop, Burger King, Yonghe King, Hong Zhuang Yuan, San Pin Wang, and Chow Fun.

JFC, in which Tony sits as chairman and chief executive officer, also has presence in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

As of end-2012, JFC has 2,074 stores in the Philippines across brands, and 554 stores abroad. The firm opened 223 stores in 2012 alone.

The Tan Caktiongs' frugality and hard work has paid off handsomely. They were named the 9th richest in the Philippines with an estimated net worth of $1.4 billion, according to Forbes magazine.