MANILA - He was millions of pesos deep in debt, but the man behind Chef Tony's Popcorn did not give up on his dream to be a successful entrepreneur.
Tony Elepano, the founder and owner of Chef Tony's Popcorn, always had an eye out for business ventures since he was in college, starting with a clothing line business.
“Mahilig ako magnegosyo, college pa lang ako, nagne-negosyo na ako. Lahat pinasok ko, ‘yung una kong negosyo was sa school, damit. My first venture was doing clothes na parang environmental,” he told "My Puhunan."
Elepano also helped manage his family's pawnshop business, until he was able to raise half a million pesos to fund a restaurant business with a friend.
The restaurant, now known as Cajun Red Rock, started off great, and was able to expand into several branches in Metro Manila.
Blessings kept pouring in for Elepano at that time, as he was also picked as a scholar in a culinary school in Singapore.
But while his business grew, Elepano was taking a hit financially because of his habit of being a big spender.
“Kunyari ang kita ko sa isang araw P1,000, ang gastos ko P1,500. Credit card companies would willingly give me these cards. So gastos ako ng gastos. Tapos mahilig ako sa mga sasakyan, so bili ako ng bili kahit di ko naman kailangan. Hindi ko tinitignan ‘yung impact niya sa negosyo,” he said.
When his restaurants suffered due to the financial crisis in mid-2000, he was forced to close several branches, which only resulted in more debt.
Just like that, Elepano found himself buried with a debt of up to P15 million.
With his father's guidance, Elepano sold all his luxury vehicles and started from the bottom, earning P1,500 per week as a manager in the restaurant now run by his father.
Elepano was able to save P20,000, and an idea popped in his head: he wanted to start a gourmet popcorn stand.
“Dati mahilig akong bumiyahe so nakita ko ‘yan, sabi ko maganda siguro ito pero kailangan mayroon akong idea kung anong gusto ko gawin sa kanya. Pinag-aralan ko siya ng mabuti,” he said.
There's a Chef Tony's Popcorn in many convenience stores and malls in Metro Manila, but it started in a place where Elepano wouldn't even think of if not for his father's suggestion: a cemetery.
On November 1, 2005, Elepano sold bowls of caramel popcorn at P25 each. He ended up selling around 400 to 500, making P100,000.
After perfecting the popcorn, the first branch of Chef Tony's Popcorn opened right outside Cajun. But why did he use his name for his new business?
“Gusto ko, habang kinakain nila ‘yun, maisip nila na mayroong talagang isang tao o isang mahusay na manlilikha na gumawa ng produkto. Hindi ‘yun for vanity,” he explained.
Elepano has committed to producing quality popcorn with natural ingredients.
"Lahat ng effort, gawin mo para maging magaling ‘yung produkto na iyon, doon ka magsisimula, ‘yun ang magiging puhunan mo,” he said.
Today, Chef Tony's Popcorn is sold across the country and overseas, particularly in Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Australia, China, Japan, Costa Rica, and Saudi Arabia.
To succeed in entrepreneurship, Elepano advised aspiring entrepreneurs to maximize their natural talents and skills.
“Lahat tayo pwede magnegosyo, doon ako naniniwala. Mayroon ka nang regalo, kung ano man ‘yung gusto mong gawin, kung ano man ‘yung skills o talent mo,” he said.