In a country where any style of chicken is a staple, but where sweet is the dominant taste and frying a favorite method, Manang's Chicken may have stood out and found a niche all its own.
Manang's Chicken started as a humble stall in the Mercato Centrale weekend market in November 2010, but its beginnings go as far back as the days when a certain Manang Linda was preparing the store's now-signature dish.
"Manang Linda was our cook for around 10 to 15 years," Jill Borja, president and CEO of Giabella Foods Corporation, Manang's owner and operator, explained in an interview. The name is thus a tribute to the woman who served the sweet soy garlic chicken upon the family dining table as Ms. Borja grew up.
Still, the official handle is more a hasty afterthought than a carefully planned name. "There was no more time, and I had to come up with a name right away [for the market]," said Ms. Borja. "I thought I could change it midstream, but I didn't expect it to catch on so quickly."
The unassuming name soon found its way to the blogosphere, a big boost to the venture, as various reviews only whetted the appetite of the market for Manang's offerings. "A lot of the marketing is really word-of-mouth," said Ms. Borja.
The organizers of Mercato Centrale also played a huge part in securing Manang's place in the local food community. "They really did a good job in promoting us and choosing us as one of the main brands they wanted to feature," said Ms. Borja. "Until now, they still support us. We're really very grateful for all the work that they put."
Marketing the business may have been a breeze, but the operations side was a different matter altogether. While the recognizably sweet-and-salty chicken is actually Ms. Borja's mother's recipe, Ms. Borja still visited Manang Linda herself to ask whether she wanted to help out in running the eponymous venture. To Ms. Borja's surprise, Manang Linda politely turned down the offer.
Having recently given birth at the time she decided to join the weekend market, Ms. Borja was also breastfeeding her one-month-old baby in between all the tasks—on top of a full-time job that required her full attention.
"For the first few weeks, we were still tweaking everything; the whole weekend was a 24-hour shift," she said. "If not for the immediate success and favorable responses after that, I think most people would have stopped."
A lawyer and accountant by profession, Ms. Borja also had to prepare herself to go from the weekend market to a fully-fledged fast food business by enrolling in a one-day seminar that taught her the nitty-gritty of running a restaurant. "Other than eating, I had no concept of how to run a restaurant," she said.
She also had to ask her sister, Jen Gerodias-Slagle, then a US-based chef, for some much-needed assistance when the former found a 35-square-meter space in Ortigas as a potential spot for the first store. "When I found the space I was a bit apprehensive, because the kitchen is a different monster already," said Ms. Borja. "I told my sister, 'I'm only going to get this if you come home and help me.'"
Ms. Slagle, with her family, soon packed her bags for Manang's. Now the operations manager of the commissary, she gives the business necessary professional guidance in its operations.
Ms. Borja was also lucky to meet Gerry Lugapo, now Manang's operations manager, while looking for a store space. Mr. Lugapo had prior experience with the Ministop and McDonald's chains and was a tremendous help on the supplier side of the business. "Without him, I wouldn't know what would have happened," said Ms. Borja.
Manang's Chicken has added sesame beef stew, pork garlic liempo, and fried pancit, among other Pinoy favorites, to its growing menu. It also now has stores at Ortigas Center, Katipunan Ave., Mandaluyong City, Taft Ave., SM North EDSA, and Glorietta 4.
But, Manang"s hasn't abandoned its weekend market roots. The business still has a stall in Mercato Centrale, as well as in Midnight Mercato, the Legazpi Sunday Market, and Soderno @ Molito.
"We're a young brand, so our customers are also young people," Ms. Borja also said. "We have yet to tap the older ones."
The business seems to be growing almost too fast, but Manang's is in no rush to get ahead. While Ms. Borja began receiving inquiries about franchising even when the business was just finding its legs, she is prudent enough to know that franchising lies on the strength of the brand.
"We want to do franchising right and be here for the long haul," she said. "Only when I am confident that we are ready [will we] start offering it. We will also be very, very meticulous."
One crucial step to that big goal was setting up Manang's own commissary in Laguna. "Before, it was just in my basement; our house smelled like chicken," she said. "Right now, we're just handling the systems and controls so if ever we do offer [franchising], everything will go smoothly."
As Manang's increased in popularity, Ms. Borja's mother, Marissa Gerodias, even joked that her daughter could well have named the business after her, considering it was her original recipe, after all.
But, Ms. Borja decided to stick with Manang's and its fun, familiar, and Filipino vibe. The business, too, has ridden on the hype. "We haven't been able to catch up with ourselves."
To learn more about Manang's, visit www.manangschicken.com.
Raul L. Locsin Building I
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New Manila, Quezon City,
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Email: New Media Group