Filipino-Chinese-Australian restaurateur John-Michael Hilton is a guy who never sleeps. Friends of the Visum Ventures founder and CEO often kid him about it. Since his company was established three years ago, he’s launched one of the fastest growing beverage brands in the country—Australian yogurt drink brand Koomi, which now has over 70 stores nationwide. That number is slated to hit 140 by end of 2022. Visum also runs the specialty tea shop T2 Tea, Mediterranean restaurant Oh My Greek!, and salads and juices store Zig.
We met Mike during the launch of Visum’s two homegrown restaurants Meraki and Santé, both located just outside the mammoth IKEA store in SM Mall of Asia. The guy is lively and energetic, giving a glimpse of just how passionate he is about what he does. He talks fast too—and we wonder how his staff keeps up with him.
Over lunch, we talk about his businesses. With more Filipinos wanting to stay healthier especially during the pandemic, he decided to make healthy food accessible to more Filipinos. Thus, Zig was born. Oh My Greek!, on the other hand, is his way of bringing a little bit of Greece to Pinoys aching to travel. But the flavors were designed to cater more to the Filipino palate, hence it substitutes chicken and beef with pork.
The restaurants thrived because of delivery service. But when Covid restrictions eased, Mike’s team observed an uptick in in-house dining especially during weekends. So the launch of Meraki and Santé came at an opportune time. “Filipinos love to share experiences,” he says. The two restaurants are actually located in just one spot, so one can order from both depending on the day’s cravings.
The 35-year-old Mike was born in Zamboanga but was raised in the beaches of Sydney since he was six months old. His mother, Zamboanga native Edna Sebastian, married an Australian who eventually adopted him, hence the last name Hilton. Mike’s biological father is Lepeng Wee, presidential adviser for Western Mindanao Economic Affairs during the time of President Joseph Estrada.
Five years into their marriage, Mrs. Hilton’s Australian husband died of a heart attack so she had to single-handedly raise Mike and his siblings. Mrs. Hilton would have her sisters and mother from Zamboanga take turns visiting Sydney to take care of the kids. “She’s a hardworking and loving mother that always did her best to provide myself and my siblings a solid upbringing as an investment to our future,” Mike tells us.
Eager to help provide for the family at an early age and make something of himself, he started to work at age 13. “My first job was working in an Italian function and events venue,” he shares. “I washed plates, waited tables, cooked, and even cleaned.” He grew up to become very independent, and moved out of home at 16.
Mike spent most weekends and special occasions working he considered work “my home away from home.” He enjoyed his work immensely. While a self-confessed shy kid, he liked the fast-paced environment of his job which pushed him to interact and hold conversations with people which in turn built his confidence.
Mike tried cooking for three years, but he later realized that what he really wanted to do was interact with people. “In Australia, the biggest event I’ve ever managed was 40,000 people during the APEC Summit. The biggest wedding I’ve managed was 2,000 people. I used to do wedding operations for a big part of my career. I deal with Italians, Greeks, Macedonians, Arabic, Lebanese—so I was exposed to all that beautiful food,” he says.
In 2016, Mike moved to the Philippines to take over his father’s seaweed export, real estate, medical distribution and sardines manufacturing businesses. But that only made him realize what he really wanted in life—to work in the food and beverage industry.
A visit to Sydney in 2019 introduced him to the growing phenomenon that is Koomi. He and his friend Ahtisa Manalo got hooked in the yogurt drink after a few sips and decided to bring the brand to the Philippines.
Mike says his mother Edna has been most influential in his life. He inherited her focus and compassion—two things that have served him well in life and in business. “The key [to success]is focus, and somewhat an obsession, commitment and love in what you do!” Compassion, on the other hand, helps him understand and manage his employees, who are the frontliners of his businesses.
Mrs. Hilton, now 57, couldn’t be prouder of Mike’s achievements. “She was here to support my first Koomi opening back in Nov 2019. I’m looking forward to having her visit Philippines by June and stay here for a month. We’ll get to spend time together and she will get to visit the numerous stores and brands we have opened since she was last here nearly three years ago.”