JAKARTA -- After building 373 branches, Chowking is finding the Philippines a little too cramped for comfort.
Even as the country?s leading quick-service Chinese- food chain continues to expand its Philippine network by around 30 stores a year, it knew as early as 2003 that it was quickly reaching saturation point.
This forced Chowking to look outside the Philippines? borders to ensure its continued growth, and it found new homes in Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates and the United States.
Today, Chowking has five branches in Indonesia and seven in the United Arab Emirates -- four in Dubai and one each in Sharjah, Ajman and the capital Abu Dhabi.
Chowking also has 12 outlets in the United States -- 11 in California and one in Las Vegas, Nevada.
But it took a lot of soul searching and frequent visits to the drawing board before Chowking felt truly welcome in these countries.
Eduardo Paredes Jr., who heads Chowking?s international operations, told the Inquirer that in Indonesia, for instance, Chowking saw its sales slowly slip away in early 2006 when the novelty of having a new brand like Chowking wore off in Jakarta after about 10 months of operation.
When Chowking took a long, hard look at its operations, it realized that while it was in Indonesia, it was not doing what the Indonesians do.
A turnaround plan was called for and Paredes said it entailed truly understanding the Indonesian market and taste because simply transporting the Philippine menu and way of doing things was clearly not working.
?One of the first things we did was to hire a local chef for us to really understand the Indonesian taste. That really opened our eyes,? Paredes said.
The differences between the Filipino and Indonesian tastes and preferences were many.
Indonesians love their sambal sauce on their chicken, not the gravy that Filipinos prefer. They do not like fish sauce (?patis?) or vinegar and have a higher tolerance for spicy food than Filipinos.
They also want two distinct tastes in their food, like sweet and sour or salty and peppery.
Chowking in Indonesia thus put in place a product board, composed mostly of locals, to test menu offerings before they are introduced in the outlets, just to make sure that the taste will appeal to Indonesians, though not necessarily Filipinos.
This has led to the introduction of Chowking dishes sold solely in Indonesia, like the best-selling Chicken Char Shiu (?asado? chicken), sweet ?bakpao? (?siopao? dumpling filled with ube or lotus) and fish fillet with tausi.
Chowking also realized that the Indonesians do not like different kinds of food together in one plate, unlike Filipinos who are fine with having noodles, rice, two types of viand and even dessert in one plate as in the Chowking lauriat.
Even the menu boards were changed because Indonesians were not familiar with terms such as chow mien to refer to the noodles, so the menu simply states noodles with chicken or beef with noodles.
And of course the English menu has to be translated into Bahasa.
The store design was modified as well to cater to the Indonesians? preference for more subdued lighting and more comfortable seating.
Paredes explained that in Indonesia, Chowking is positioned more as a casual dining place, instead of a fast food outlet like in the Philippines.
The changes came fast and furious, and they paid off as evidenced by the spike in sales.
Paredes said that six months after the modifications were made, sales of the three outlets grew by as much as 20-30 percent, which encouraged Chowking to expand the network by two more this year to bring the network to five, with one more to be put up possibly by the end of the year.
?The confidence is there that we are now able to connect and understand our customers better,? Paredes said, noting that four of five customers who come through Chowking?s stores in Indonesia are locals -- not Filipinos -- most of whom are students and professionals.
The opposite is true in the United Arab Emirates, where nine of 10 Chowking customers are Filipinos owing to the huge Filipino expatriate community in the UAE, particularly in Dubai.
But even then, sweeping changes also had to be implemented.
Like in Indonesia, the four-year-old Chowking chain in the UAE is more of a casual dining restaurant chain, which explains why there are waiters who go around taking orders while guests choose from a menu. No menu boards here.
Filipinos come in groups, especially during the weekends here (which are Friday and Saturday), to catch up with each other or to celebrate special occasions, like christenings, birthdays and even wedding receptions.
This explains why a number of the Chowking restaurants in UAE have function rooms, unlike in the Philippines.
Bunny Malik, business manager of the Chowking Orient Restaurant chain in the UAE, explained in an interview in Dubai that because Filipinos in the UAE long for a taste of home, the Chowking menu in the UAE is quite different.
Aside from the traditional Chowking offerings of rice meals and noodle dishes, Chowking in the UAE also sells Filipino favorites such as ?kare-kare,? sweet and sour fish, ?bulalo,? ?daing na bangus? and ?pinakbet.?
These signature Filipino dishes account for 30 percent of Chowking UAE?s sales, and even non-Filipinos -- mainly Indians and some Arabs -- are developing a taste for them.
?What we offer are neat and clean restaurants for Filipinos to come together and feel at home,? Malik said. ?Chowking has become a home away from home for many Filipinos here.?
Ahmed Lafir, managing director of Tradeline LLC, which owns the Chowking franchise in the UAE, said growth has been encouraging, and plans are in place to expand to at least 10 stores by next year.
To think that in 2003, when Tradeline got the Chowking franchise from another firm, Lafir was worried about the prospects of putting up a second store.
Help from head office
Today, he has seven with two more under construction, thanks in part to the continued growth in the UAE economy.
?We really got a lot of help from Chowking in Manila. They really helped us with the operations, especially the commissary,? Lafir said.
Filipinos currently head the operation of the commissary in Dubai of about 10,000 square feet that can support up to 10 stores.
But next year, Chowking in the UAE will move to another area four times bigger than the current commissary, which can support as many as 30 stores, not just in the UAE but also in neighboring countries with big Filipino communities like Qatar and Bahrain.
Lafir said Chowking would expand as fast as it can find suitable places, closer to the Filipino communities.
He, however, said that changes continue to be implemented to also reach out to the other nationalities.
?We will also want to tap non-Filipino clients. It is not good to rely on just one nationality, although Filipinos will remain the heart and soul of Chowking,? Lafir said.
Chowking president Rafael dela Rosa told the Inquirer that at the rate Chowking is expanding, it is possible that international operations will eventually account for half of its total sales due to the presence of Filipinos abroad.
And where Filipinos go, Chowking will be sure to follow.