Food is more than just a day to day necessity. It’s often the centerpiece of family gatherings and friendly get-togethers. It can be a source of memories and nostalgia, and for some, it can also be a passion.
Annabelle Chua did not exactly have a food background. She did not grow up wanting to be a chef, and she was not exposed to the food industry either since her family business centered around the importation of spare parts. Still, she eventually found her way into the food scene and became the founder and CFO of HTCG Premium Food Concept.
Despite being unrelated to her current career path, she learned some valuable lessons both from her family business and from the dynamics of her household, which helped her arrive at where she is today. “Growing up, my dad would always tell us that so long as you work hard, you will always be successful. The success is not measurable by how much you earn, it’s really [about the] journey of doing what you like, [and] overcoming all the hardship.”
“My parents [have] a small business [involving the] importation of spare parts, and I remember, where we live is also where the offices [are]. So we live on the third floor. The first floor is where the retail store is, and the second floor is sort of like the bodega. So I can say that we have really witnessed how my parents work very hard. They work basically 24/7, and anytime a customer would call and need something, [ they were] always there,” Chua recalls.
“Not every time [is] always smooth and easy, but my dad is the type to just continue on. He’s a cool guy, so he doesn’t really stress himself out. I think [that] complements the family dynamic because my mom is a bit more strict, more meticulous. My mom is [also] a very good cook, so in hindsight, I think I got the influence of both my parents; my dad being a businessman and my mom being a good cook. I think I combined both of those to do what I am doing today.”
The start of Lugang Cafe
Chua never thought she would be involved in a service-oriented business. She always had a love for numbers, so she took up Finance in De La Salle University. After she graduated, she started her own retail business of importing food products from Hong Kong and rice from Thailand and China. Chua describes her routine as simple while she was doing wholesaling and importation. She only had to make a few calls every morning, and then she would be done for the day by the afternoon. Because of this, she felt like there was something missing in her life, and it wasn’t until she traveled to Shanghai did she realize what it was.
“My husband loves tennis, so we went to Shanghai to watch a masters tennis game and we came across this restaurant, which is called Bellagio in Shanghai. We immediately fell in love with it. We also used to go to Taiwan a lot, and we love the Taiwanese food. But in Manila, unfortunately, we don’t have [anything] like the Taiwanese food format–normally it’s a hole in the wall. And so when we came across this brand in Shanghai, we immediately thought ‘oh, this is something we should have in the Philippines.’”
“We didn’t even think [of] bringing it in or operating it. We just visited the restaurant maybe four times during that trip, so when we came back, we kept on saying, ‘we should have this, we should have this. My husband is very determined, so he kept on calling them, and finally, we got invited to meet them, so in three days of discussion they gave the brand to us to open in the Philippines.”
“So that was a big surprise and the biggest challenge that I personally had to face. And it is something we are very proud of because we are the first and the only one that they granted [an] international franchise [to]. They actually focused their business in China and never really intended to even bring their brand outside.”
They had to rename Bellagio into Lugang Cafe in the Philippines due to some licensing issues, and in the beginning, Chua describes how challenging it was to operate a restaurant that wasn’t prepared for international franchising. “We had to bring in 10 Chinese, and we had to have all the Filipino chefs shadow them, because they don’t have any English manuals or recipes. We had to slowly document everything they do and train our Filipino chefs. And as of today, [in] every store we have, we still have one or two Chinese chefs, but most of our Filipinos are already trained.”
“I can say it started [out as] a hobby but became [our] work and passion. So I guess that’s also ingredients [to] the success of Lugang, with all the hardship that we had to do, like we had to create our own training manuals, we had to do [it] all our own.”
“The most important value that I have learned from my husband is that, for every problem, for every challenge, there is something that you will learn. So I think we try to take challenges as a blessing because without those, you will never move forward, you’ll never learn, you’ll never step up, “ Chua says.
She and her husband later took on another challenge. “Canada is also our second home, so we found this restaurant in Canada, and we really loved the concept. And so we kind of joined with them and they were able to share with us their concept, but then we had [to] create our own brand. So from the design to the branding to the [creation] of the menu, we did everything on our own. I think this is one of the challenges that we really took [upon ourselves because] we wanted to do something that we can call [our] own.”
“This is where we started Tuan Tuan Chinese Brasserie. It started with a very big format–a full service, and then we served Hong Kong comfort food with a tweak of the Canadian concept, like fish noodle soup[ and] halibut fish noodle soup, to be specific. So after opening full service concepts, we are now focused on doing the Tuan Tuan Kitchen. This is a quick service, but we also deliver the same quality of food [at] a more affordable price.”
Lugang Cafe, Tuan Tuan Chinese Brasserie, and Tuan Tuan Kitchen are all under the brand HTCG. It has reached many milestones, with Lugang Cafe opening a franchise in Davao and Tuan Tuan expanding to Australia. Of course, this success also comes with its own set of challenges, as Chua and her husband would often bring their work everywhere, even during vacations, but Chua says they enjoy the work that they do and are proud of what they have achieved so far.
“[It’s] basically choosing your passion. I think I would still choose the one that I’m passionate about because [even though] there’s no guarantee for success, at least when you do something you’re passionate about, there will be no regrets. You owe it to yourself to do what you love. I think being successful is already a bonus at that point, but I think the most difficult thing in a person’s life is to be able to find what you love to do. To be able to find that and be able to do that is already a success itself.”
“I would encourage the new generation to come in and to join the industry, so long as you have the passion and the perseverance. For me, a modern chinoy is someone who has instilled in their minds the good attributes of chinoy, which is discipline, hard work, perseverance, and integrity. I think these are all instilled in their minds already, and being modern [means] that you are also open to new challenges [and] change,” Chua adds.
Catch 1CH1NOY: Chinese by Blood, Filipino by Heart only on CNN Philippines via Free TV Channel 9, Sky Cable Channel 14, Cignal Channel 10. It will also simultaneously air on CNN Philippines’ webpage www.cnnphilippines.com. Find out more on Chinoy TV’s official website: www.chinoy.tv