The French Baker’s Johnlu Koa: “We have stuck to our core competence, which is to bake French and European bakery products suitable to the Filipino palate.”
It seems a bit of a paradox that the man behind the French Baker brand is actually Filipino — or Chinese-Filipino, to be more precise.
“Many continue to ask why I called my store The French Baker, considering that I’m a Chinoy and not French,” agrees Johnlu Koa, founder and CEO of the popular chain of bakery-cafes. “I say, why not, if it can convey an image of culinary excellence and can offer a unique experience?”
Starting from his first bakery-café that sold European breads and pastries in 1989, and then to the brand’s first dine-in store in 1991, The French Baker has grown to a chain of 51 branches located throughout the country. Koa’s business acumen has been recognized so that he has earned awards including the AGORA award for marketing excellence, TOYM for Entrepreneurship and Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2006.
The inspiration to put up a French-inspired patisserie first came to Koa during a backpacking trip throughout Europe in 1985. “I fell in love with Paris and her baked goodies,” he recalls. “Since then I dreamed of doing the same so that I could impart a similar experience to our kababayans in the Philippines.”
He explains the choice of name:” I found the brand The French Baker so appropriate because the products that I could create could be so different from what other bakeries were selling then. I realized that at the time, only five-star hotels could do French-style baking.”
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But what is the secret of The French Baker’s success? “We have stuck to our core competence, which is to bake French and European bakery products suitable to the Filipino palate,” says Koa. “We have been able to impart the proper skills, techniques and methods of French baking and pastry- making to our bakers.”
Just as importantly, Koa counts himself fortunate to be given a chance to expand his business along with the SM Malls. The first outlet was located at SM North Edsa, and the number of The French Baker outlets concomitantly grew as SM built more malls throughout the country.
“I continue to cherish my relationship with Mr. Henry ‘Tatang’ Sy Sr.,” says Koa, and his respect and affection for that icon of Philippine business is apparent and genuine. “It was upon his advice that we ventured into dine-in food service.” He has fond recollections of the venerable old man visiting his store. “Every time I saw Tatang, I would tell him, ‘Let me shake your hand so that the wisdom and good fortune can rub off on me.” He smilingly recalls that Tatang had a particular liking for root beer and over glasses of that favorite drink, could be persuaded to stay a bit longer. It was during these instances when the older man unselfishly dispensed valuable nuggets of business advice. “I remember Tatang saying, ‘Alam mo, Johnlu, just do your work well and success will follow. Look at me.”
He took the advice to heart so that recently, The French Baker opened its 51st branch in SM Lanang, Davao. “Davao has always been elusive for French Baker in the past,” Koa says. He relates that although the initial plan was to set up an outlet in the SM Ecoland complex in 2000, he opted to rethink the option. “I decided to pull back because I believed that we first had to strengthen our operations in Manila and Cebu. This was the time when several new French Baker look-alikes started to mushroom all over the place, and we spent time on improving ourselves and growing our number of stores to overwhelm competition.”
However, he feels that the time is right to open a store in Mindanao. “There are several reasons why we decided to build in Mindanao: an upgraded airport, a first-rate SM Supermall, and a modern Park Inn Hotel by Radisson,” says Koa. “Davao City has emerged as a premier tourist destination with a booming domestic travel market, with visitors demanding the same high-quality products that they are used to back home. There is a strong local government that focuses on domestic security, peace and order. And most especially, the growing sophistication of Davao locals means that they demand the best quality.”
What makes the SM Lanang outlet distinct is that new features have been added to the store concept. These include the Patisserie, where customers can watch the cakes and pastries being assembled, and Salon de The (tea salon) with tea selections from some of the best tealeaf estates from around the world. Moreover, the 380-square-meter space is just right for the city’s laidback lifestyle, where customers are wont to linger over their meals, or even their pastries and tea.
“I am an advocate of the free-enterprise system, agribusiness and entrepreneurship,” says Koa. “ I work towards the accomplishment of such goals by being a speaker in numerous public discussions and forums, I am a supporter of GO-Negosyo of the Philippine Center for Entrepreneurship established by Joey Concepcion.” Investing in Mindanao speaks clearly of his confidence that the region is ripe for progress.