Given his background, one would never guess Lester Pimentel Ong sells food for a living.
The course he finished in college was Philosophy but he was also a track and field athlete at De La Salle University. He later got into wushu and joined the national team, winning gold in world championship tournaments, among them the Southeast Asian Games.
Lester’s background in martial arts led him to TV and movies, working as a stuntman, action choreographer, and later director for fight scenes. In 2005, he worked as an action choreographer for the "Panday" TV series starring Jericho Rosales. In recent years, he was promoted to TV directing. He was already working with popular love teams Daniel Padilla and Kathryn Bernardo in “La Luna Sangre” and Enrique Gil and Liza Soberano in “Bagani.”
So what inspired him to become a food entrep? “Mahilig akong kumain,” the 47-year-old Chinoy says, smiling. He may not be a good cook or know anything about the food biz when he started but he did a lot of eating while training and competing as an athlete. Time spent in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and Thailand exposed him big time to street food culture. “Although food was provided by the training center where we were housed in, during days off we’d always look for affordable food choices,” he shares to ANCX. “Since street food in Asian countries were amazing, we usually eat those.”
But even before he became a food entrepreneur, Lester’s first career was as a stockbroker. He was starting a family then and building a professional career, so wushu had to be put aside. “Back in ’96, the stock market was at an all-time high,” he recalls. Thinking he had a bright future in the field, he dove into it full-time—until the Asian financial crisis hit in 1997. He had no choice then but to return to his martial arts skills and work as a stuntman to support his growing family.
The racket was doing well for a while, until piracy came into the picture, which led to a crisis in the local movie industry. It was time to look elsewhere again for better opportunity. With the P80,000 he saved, Lester and his wife Rossettee decided to start a food cart business. They called it RBX Rice in a Box, which offers a variety of fried rice and rice toppings in convenient takeout boxes.
“It started out as a mom-and-pop operation. Ang wife ko ang gumagawa ng mga recipes namin,” he says. Now RBX Rice in a Box has a total of 200 food stores in the country, and they also just celebrated their 20th year in the biz. They’ve also opened other food concepts—Wangfu Chinese Café in 2012 and Kyukyu Ramen 99 in 2018, under a company he called the Binondo Food Group. Last year, those two concepts hit 10 branches each.
Like many business owners, Lester was just as scared when the pandemic hit last year. “After 20 years, I thought I was able to set up the foundation of the company very well— infrastructure, financials, brand building,” he says. “But when the lockdowns were implemented in March, establishments were closed, that was very, very scary for us.”
What gave him optimism and fighting spirit was the fact that they had already experienced crises before. They knew how to roll with the punches. “Kakayanin natin ito,” he remembers telling his wife. “Natuto tayo dyan. Sanay tayo sa stress, sanay tayo sa pagod, sa hirap.” He said the same to his employees.
This optimism translated to an ability to constantly look for solutions. He was a true blue action man, after all. Quick to the punches and ready to strike when the moment calls for it—with the goal of always landing on his toes.
Like a fighter worth his salt, he knew he needed a strategy. Once stores were allowed to operate, he opened only a few of their stores. “Ang ginawa namin, we stopped the production in the commissary. Then inilabas namin ang mga perishables via our stores,” he shares. Since they were able to immediately open some stores, they had very minimal expired goods.
Transportation also posed a huge challenge, especially in the beginning of the pandemic. Lester’s solution: he sourced bicycles from Taiwan (remember there was shortage of bikes in the Philippines) and gave them to his employees. This allowed their staff—those who are willing to come to work and those who live near their branches—to continue working.
The father of five knew times are hard so he didn’t want to let go of any one of his workers. Instead of downsizing, he reassigned people to do different tasks, and have them on work on rotation. “Yung mga kusinero or waiter na marunong mag-motor o magbisikleta, we asked kung gusto maging rider. We developed an in-house delivery system,” he shares.
This also meant he had to lessen the number of days they go to work. “Kung dati pumapasok sila 6 days a week, naging 4 days a week na lang,” he says. Many opted to stay while some decided to take a leave from work or resign and go back to their respective provinces.
What Lester knew from experience was that they always need to be sensitive to the behavior of the market. “Dati, mabili kami sa eskwelahan, sa mga outpatients ng ospital, sa MRT—nawala lahat yun,” he said. Then he observed that many are lining up at fast food drive-thrus. But there were very few people dining in. So he thought of trying out different trade areas. “I started opening the Rice in the Box in gasoline stations,” Lester recalls. “Nakakatuwa kasi yung pusta namin tumama. Malakas ang sales sa mga branches na iyon.”
This means too that they have to be able to offer even their ramen for takeout. “Dahil sa crisis, hindi mo pwedeng alisin yung opportunity sa delivery. So what we did was we had our R&D team find a solution on how to make our ramen masarap kahit na sa bahay kakainin ng consumers,” he says.
The biggest game-changer for their company, says Lester, is heavily investing on social media marketing. “Before the pandemic, we had our social media marketing in place already. What we did was we ramped up our advertising budgets for each of the brands,” he says.
It also helped that they were already active in Grabfood and Food Panda prior to the pandemic. Lester shares that food delivery service apps are responsible for 50-60% of their sales. “Yung maagang pivot namin, nag-pay-off talaga,” he says.
It was a great help, too, that their lessors—SM, Ayala Malls and Puregold—were generous enough to allow them to operate without having to pay their actual rental fees. At SM and Ayala, they only had to pay 5% of their revenues. Puregold allowed them to operate at zero rental fees for a while. “Ang laking tulong ng mga malalaking kumpanya na iyon, and we’re lucky to be with them. So most of our stores were saved,” he says.
Were they able to generate the sales they used to earn pre-pandemic? “Definitely not,” he admits. “When we opened, we’re down by 70 percent. It took us a while [to recover]. Naging down na lang by 60 percent then naging 50 percent.”
But through hard work, optimism, and being quick on their toes, the Binondo Food Group was able to survive the storm. They have since opened 140 of their 200 RBX Rice in a Box stores. From 10 KyuKyu Ramen stores, they will have a total of 17 come December. Best of all, most of their employees are already back at work.
Covid is a tough enemy but it seems action man Lester is always quick to the draw. “Mula sa pagkakasadsad, umaakyat na ulit kami,” says the stunt director slash food biz boss with a hopeful smile. “We are starting to grow again.”
[All photos courtesy of Lester Pimentel Ong]