By Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat
The Razons are known for their love of cooking and eating. All family occasions are centered around food for there is nothing like food that brings family together.
This passion has made them concoct the most famous Filipino favorite dessert: Halo-halo. It comes in a different package, but offers an amazing refreshment that delights all senses making the other more decorated halo-halo look overstated. The secret lies in its simplicity.
Jose Razon, executive vice president of Razons Food Corporation (RFC), tells of the company’s continuing journey after their humble beginnings decades ago from Guagua, Pampanga, the birth of authentic Tagalog cuisine.
A wholly-owned corporation, RFC established the first Razon’s of Guagua in Metro Manila on July 8, 2003 in the Food Court of Robinsons Galleria. Now, there are 74 branches in Mega Manila and Cebu.
The Razon’s of Guagua is the other side of the Razon clan who are based in Manila. That explains why most of their stores are in Metro Manila and the only outlets in the north are in the Cabanatuan and Bulacan.
Their business is anchored on the tested halo-halo recipe of their aunts Elena, Severina and Virginia, whose store Razon’s Refreshment Parlor was originally located at the K and M Park Subdivision in Guagua. Customers sought the small place for their fix of pancit luglug, halo-halo, French fries and hamburger, despite its inaccessibility just to have a taste of the famous concoctions.
The Razon sisters, who remained single, were said to be married to their passion of cooking.
“Unfortunately, the store is no longer there although the old ancestral house is still there,” he adds.
The aunts personally trained Razon’s sister Zenaida of their recipe. Zenaida pursued her aunts’ passion. With the permission of their aunts, the Razons brought to Manila their famous halo-halo under the brand Razon’s of Guagua, which is now a famous hub for authentic Filipino desserts. Razon’s of Guagua has become a distinct brand.
“Zeny was also very active that when she was finally given permission by our aunts to open in Robinson’s Galleria, they were cooking in my Ate Zeny’s house in Villa Verde,” he adds.
“They love cooking and they all know how to cook,” says Razon of the Razon women. While all of their food products were a hit, their halo-halo was a standout.
Unlike most halo-halo, the Razons of Guagua’s halo-halo consists of only 3 main ingredients: Leche flan, Macapuno and Saging na Saba. With the creamy milk and finely shaved ice, many consider this to be the best halo-halo in the Philippines. Simplicity at its best.
“When it comes to Filipino merienda or light snacks, the very first to come to mind is our very own halo-halo,” says Razon. While there are lots of halo-halo brands, there is one distinct halo-halo that has stood the test of time – Razon’s of Guagua.
But the trade secret is a closely guarded one that there have been tales about this amazing halo-halo. Two of these tales are that it is made more succulent with carabao’s milk and is using buko juice to achieve such creaminess.
Carabao’s milk has always been a good source of protein and may be perfect for halo-halo, but Razon said their halo-halo is not using carabao’s milk. They have a supplier of cow’s milk, but they prepared it in such a way that has become the standard of the Razon’s.
“We make sure the milk is compatible for our halo-halo so we did test tastes to come up with the perfect aging process and just enough stickiness,” he adds.
Also, cooking of macapuno and bananas take longer than usual.
Its halo-halo is cooked with no preservatives because desserts should be served as “healthy as a dessert can be.” The macapuno is not store bought but just the real one. The leche flan is cooked to perfection.
In fact, Razon said that all their ingredients are cooked manually. The ingredients go through non-stopped stirring to ensure the sugar is not burnt. It takes two to three hours to cook the bananas using a made-to-order pressure cooker because the regular steamer cannot produce the same consistency they want.
When all the ingredients are done, the combination with milk makes it a sweet delight.
“If you ask the secret, I think it is in the way they are mixed together,” says Razon.
Its halo-halo has become so famous that it now accounts for 40 percent of total sales.
“We are very strong during summer time,” says Razon, noting that sales during the colder months are easily doubled during the summer season.
Razon has admitted there is stiff competition, but its halo-halo has bested all other competition.
The halo-halo is almost comparable to eating ice cream because of the creamy mixture and very soft ice.
“If people say, ‘Mag Razon’s tayo’ that means ‘Let’s eat halo-halo’ and halo-halo has become synonymous to Razon,” says Razon.
According to the standards of Razon’s of Guagua, a halo-halo must have finely shaved ice, sweet macapuno, yummy bananas, perfect leche flan, and creamy milk.
Not just halo-halo
The Razon family has kept a low profile despite the popularity of its brand. But the company has also realized that now is the time to bolster its image. So, they decided to tell their story.
In the first place, Razon’s of Guagua has more to offer than just the famous halo-halo.
“We’ve been known for halo-halo, but we have other dishes also and products that comprise the whole set up,” he adds. For instance, Razon’s of Guagua also offers pancit luglug and meals like sizzling sisig.
Pancit Luglug with its naturally blended red sauce with baby shrimps, egg slices and finely crumbled chicharon is a perfect partner to the halo-halo for merienda.
These very good authentic Filipino dishes have very good potential to contribute to the overall revenues of RFC.
“We feel we can deliver these meals because we have really enjoyable common meals,” he says noting of its other meals such as Bistek Tagalog, caldereta and pork adobo. Other famous authentic Kapampangan delicacy include Lechon Kawali.
According to Razon, these dishes are just as good and as distinct as that of its halo-halo but have been eclipsed by the popularity of its dessert.
“We’re developing other dishes sooner,” he adds.
All these efforts are in preparation for its plan to go to other places. The company also tried to grant franchises 5 years ago. There are now five franchises that they granted to close friends, but they have not really pursued this business model.
“We’ve decided to stop franchising since we’re not really that serious,” he adds. They have also realized that food business is something that one needs close supervision.
RFC believes that food quality is something that needs to be sustained. They fear that quality cannot be sustained as there might be short cut in the way food is prepared or processed that will only tarnish their good reputation. This is just so risky on their part that they decided to limit the granting of franchises to five despite the many inquiries.
Having an already diverse menu, Razon’s of Guagua is constantly attracting customers intrigued by its new offerings.
Filipino restaurants abound and the industry continues to attract new food concepts, but there are only very few that really comes to mind for their sheer authenticity and simple delights.
RFC will continue to expand on its own by renovating old branches and building new ones.
RFC is expanding overseas initially in the Middle East with its first foreign venture seen in Dubai by the third quarter this year at the earliest. They are just waiting for the registration papers for the Dubai branch, which is a 60-40 joint venture in favor of the Dubai group Edris Alrafi and Walid Abdullah and Razons Middle East LLC.
It will be majority-owned by the Dubai partner but Razon Middle East LLC will handle total management and operations. Dubai, which main industry is tourism, is just the first stop in its Middle East expansion.
“We will do some new products for Dubai that are not pork-based,” says Razon.
The plan is to build 3 to 4 stores in Dubai over a period of one to two years to serve the growing number of overseas Filipino workers. There are Filipino restaurants also in Dubai but these are not owned by Filipinos, some are even owned by Koreans and operated by Indians. Razon’s of Guagua will be the first Filipino restaurant in Dubai to be managed by Filipinos.
“It will be an all-Filipino crew full dine-in restaurant, not a food cart,” he adds.
The Dubai foray has a very good potential because of the huge Filipino community and its warm climate. There are estimated 600,000 registered Filipinos in Dubai, including nurses, medical professions, among others. There is also a new wave of Filipinos with top corporate positions in Dubai.
“Of course, our primary market will be our kababayans who are surely missing home-cooked food. But there is also good potential for secondary market because our food is not just for Filipinos but we want to cater to the mainstream market also,” says Razon.
“We feel, we ought to give in to their craving for authentic Filipino food, like grilled products,” he adds.
Locally, RFC will construct four new outlets, two to be located in malls by early next month in Alabang South Park and in Pasig. The Tagaytay branch is expected to open in June. The MOA branch has just been reopened. It has also started in Cebu. Razon said the expansion is a calculated one.
“We want to take it slowly because there are enough branches to take care of with direct involvement of the whole family,” says Razon. The expansion also comes with the improvement of its menu.
Razon’s of Guagua has not been considered a fastfood or quick service restaurant, but with this transition, the restaurant will become a full service casual dining. It will also have a bigger space. A new outlet will cost between P7 million to P8 million.
RFC will also be selective in terms of location. At present, 33 of its branches are located in SM stores in Luzon. They have started in Cebu but is still trying to iron out some kinks in its logistics.
RFC will go to Mindanao after they will develop Cebu. There are plans to go to Cagayan de Oro, Iloilo and Bacolod in the next five years.
Razon noted that some people just sacrifice taste for cheaper priced food. Razon’s offers solo and to-share servings at very affordable prices, ranging from P130 to P150 for solo and P260 for salo order, which is good for 3 persons already. Average meal ticket is P200 to P250 per person. It is something decent, with no extenders. Other restaurants have average meal ticket of P300 to P450 per person.
“We are in the middle in terms of price, but you enjoy authentic Filipino food. That is something we are proud of ourselves,” says Razon.
RFC is also the number one taxpayer in Pasig and is considered a large taxpayer, which is a category for companies with assets of P100 million and above.
For 2016, sales grew 5 to 7 percent over 2015. Most of its earnings have been reinvested.
“We want to hit higher growth than that we’re hitting because we are increasing our branches,” he adds.
As a family corporation, it is difficult not to have differences at times, but Razon said that as long as they respect each other’s opinion there is no problem.
“We talked about it and we compromise,” says Razon even as he stressed that as a family they are not pre-occupied with money. The company’s chairman is his older sister Salome and Edwina is president. Socorro and Zenaida are directors.
“We do a lot of things together,” says Razon. Most of the time they eat together because what binds them together is their love for food. Their love for food has produced a delightful mixture of goodness tagged as “halo- halong sarap.”
In fact, its halo-halo obviously comes from ingredients passionately prepared to perfection. And to think that its halo-halo has the simplest ingredients than most halo-halo products.
“We pride ourselves the old way of cooking – slow cooking,” he says. Its sisig is cooked differently from the most common sisig we know of. The bulalo is also cooked longer that its tender meat comes off naturally from slow cooking.
This makes its kitchen continuously churning out foods on a two to three shift operation at its commissary and warehouse in Pasig. To serve its customers, strategically located branches also deliver products to customers.
This passion did not elude recognition bodies. Razon’s of Guagua has been awarded “best in desserts” and other recognition for its well-loved halo-halo.
“People would become cognizant but this is exactly what we represent the Razon’s of Guagua. We never thought that the food we serve on our table at home is the same food we bring to yours,” adds Razon.
Razon has also remained pragmatic. He knows that shooting for a fine dining restaurant is not yet feasible at this time but maybe by next generation.
The company is also professionalizing their operation that from time to time they sought the help of experts. They also take in scholars as part of their community involvement.
Competition is also getting very stiff that even if there is a good growth, the industry is getting crowded. The growth years happened in 2012-2013 which saw RFC’s rapid expansion from 5 to 60 branches. Last year, the company opened 13 restaurants from an average of 6 to 8 openings in a year.
So far, RFC employs 700-800 people but they have not been spared also from poaching by other restaurants.
Conscious that quality and safety are the best features of a restaurant, RFC has strived to ensure its restaurants maintain standards of cleanliness and food safety.
“We have all gadgets against fire and make sure they are safe and the dining areas are kept clean and tidy,” says Razon, who says he maintains fairness in dealing with workers and addresses issues quickly to minimize problems.
Razon said that business has to keep in touch with the time because customers’ tastes are changing. Lifestyle also affect the way people eat. They have been active in social media also.
No doubt, Razon’s of Guagua has proven itself to be the best halo-halo in town. It won’t be long before its other food offerings become a buzzword.
It is their hope to bring its food products to the entire country and let people see that something simple can bring a group of people together, that the simple joy of dining amongst family and friends is what defines the Filipino culture.