Being a Chinoy does not automatically mean you are business-minded. There are some who’s lifelong dream is to become a successful entrepreneur, while there are others who would rather find a different career path, but for the Dee family, being entrepreneurial seems to run in their blood.
“My dad was an entrepreneur. I am an entrepreneur. My kids are entrepreneurs. Not as expected, but if you grew up with it, you got to have a link with whatever it is,” says Rikki Dee.
Rikki Dee is the founder and CEO of Foodee Global Concepts. He might have come from a family of entrepreneurs, but his family’s line of business was actually quite different from his own. His parents and grandparents had a sawmill business, so he practically grew up in a lumber yard in Quezon province. His family eventually relocated to Manila to seek better opportunities, to which Rikki was thankful for, since it became a platform for him and his siblings to start their own businesses.
“My dad [was] actually semi-retired when we moved to Manila. He decided that he will be with us [to guide us], and my eldest brother was just starting to settle down and come up with his new business. So that particular moment, I saw [that] my dad was more than willing to give us the chance [and] change his lifestyle to semi-retired just to be able to be with us and guide us.”
In addition to providing guidance, Rikki’s father also played a role in inspiring Rikki’s future business endeavors. “My dad’s greatest influence on me was appreciating good food. I used to tag along with my dad when he goes to the provinces out of town for sales pitch or collection. And he makes it a point to find the best cuisine of each and every town for lunch or for dinner.”
At that time, Rikki was helping out with his father’s construction business, but he felt a stronger calling to open a restaurant. He eventually decided to explore this business venture on his own, and even though his family was supportive, they understandably had apprehensions given Rikki’s lack of experience in the restaurant industry. But since Rikki had a passion for food and an entrepreneurial upbringing, he believed he could achieve it.
The first restaurant he opened specialized in serving fish heads, and it was niche and unique to the point where it attracted a lot of attention. “We were getting a lot of good reviews from Gourmets, from Tycoons, Taipans, and one of them was the late taipan Henry Sy. He loves fish head, [and] he wanted a different variation of the fish head in soups, to the extent that he was visiting us almost every week. He gave me my biggest break and opportunity to put up my first fast food stall in his SM North Edsa. It was very hard to get this space in that particular mall because it was the first integrated mall in Manila.”
Rikki’s business basically grew alongside SM, and among his roster of restaurants are Tim Ho Wan, Kam’s Roast, Hawker Chan, Tsuta Ramen, and Davide Oldani, all of which are Michelin Star restaurants. He’s also the owner of the beloved Filipino grill restaurant, Mesa.
“So I always brag that I have five [Michelin] stars, and people say ‘you’re crazy, nobody has a five star!’ So I said, ‘I have five one star Michelin, a total of five Michelin star restaurants in the Philippines,’” Rikki jokes.
“We’ve [also] been asked why we are bringing [in] foreign brands And, I guess [there are] opportunities there. In fact, we are also now going to bring out our brands abroad. Our Mesa is opening most likely by the end of the year. It was deferred during the pandemic, but we’re hoping to open one in the Middle East and one in the United States, so it’s reciprocity. We try to bring in new concepts, we learn from them, and as we go on, we will bring out our local brands as well.”
Despite the success of his family business, Rikki still ensures that his children experience what it’s like to work and stay humble. “All my kids have to work during their summer break. We call it immersion. You have to do [the dirty work] while you’re still young, because I don’t expect you to do dirty work once you’ve graduated. So the best time to do that is today. All my kids went through that process. The intention was to make them feel [like] nobody and just [be] part of a team. If you will be able to ask them to do that and to be part of a team, they will grow,” Rikki advises.
“Being a father is one of the hardest parts in my life. You have to lead by example. You have to lead by example because the foundation for your kids relies on what they see in you. I guess my influence on my kid is not telling them what to do, but telling them to explore what their strength would be. Because if I would be very influential on what they have to do, they would be all in the restaurant and real estate business. But what happened was, my eldest son, Eric, helped me run the food business. My second son, Enrico Jr., runs Sunnies Group. My eldest daughter, Erica, runs our finances. My youngest daughter, Bea, is now into pre-owned, pre-loved sustainable wardrobe sales online.”
“I always tell them during the earlier years that you have to be better than me because their success is my success. That’s, I think, what every parent wants [for their children.]”
Eric Thomas Dee
Eric Thomas Dee is the COO of Foodee Global Concepts as well as the co-founder of the cloud kitchen, Kraver’s Canteen. He is also the eldest son of Rikki Dee. He is immediately candid about growing up as the child of the CEO. Even though his father ensured that he experienced what it’s like to work from the bottom up, Eric still had to go through lengths to prove himself to other people .
“My father was pretty young when we were born, so he was really hard at work. Everything that he showed us was really about living a life that revolved around working and making sure that we are set up for the future. So growing up, my dad would always bring us to job sites, would always bring us to the restaurants.”
“I always joke that I was born pretty much in the kitchen because [in] the first restaurant of my parents, I was literally hanging out with the waiters, with the kitchen people in the back. Up until being a teenager, my first job was [as] a dishwasher in my dad’s restaurant. So the dishwasher story, to be honest, it wasn’t something that I asked for. My dad just put me in that position and I just had to live with it.”
“And I think as an entrepreneur, that’s what we realized. Like those small things that make you realize that you [take what you get] and deal with it. Just to not toot my own horn, I was only a dishwasher for seven days because after, I had to go back to my dad and tell him that my fingers are all pruning. But I think the lesson was already taught, and my dad made me move on to the cold kitchen where I was preparing salads, eventually to the hot kitchen, where I was cooking with the grill and woks,” Eric shares.
“And eventually [after] graduation, I became the waiter. But a funny story was the restaurant had a lifesize picture of me on the wall, so I’d be serving people as a waiter, and they’d be asking me, ‘Excuse me, is that you in the picture on the wall?’ And I would smile and say, ‘yes, I own the restaurant’. You know, working as a dishwasher, working in fast foods, and learning from the bottom up has really helped me develop as a person. Growing up, I’ve always worked with people, where I really had to prove myself and say that I didn’t come to this position just because I’m the son of the owner. I came from the ranks. I came from the slowest job up until the highest point, and I experienced everything. And because of that, I’m able to relate with my employees and [I’m] able to explain to them the journey that took me to where I am today.”
Eric did manage to prove he is more than just the COO or “Child Of Owner.” In 2020, he co-founded the cloud kitchen Kraver’s Canteen, which became the fastest growing cloud kitchen in the Philippines. “This came about because of the pandemic. Back in 2019, I think we [opened] 24 restaurants, and 2020 was supposed to be our banner year like everyone else. But come March 16, everything shattered and went into a stop. I was really down. I did not know what I was gonna do. I was crying every morning, just feeling stuck. You know, our banner year where we were supposed to grow exponentially, suddenly [came] to a halt, [but] I didn’t think [to let] it stop me. In fact, I let that push me to do better. I decided that I wanted to stand up for the industry. I wanted to speak for the industry, fight for getting consumer confidence back so that people can come back and dine again in the restaurants.”
“We decided that because deliveries are the only way that people are getting their food, we entered this new category of the F&B space called Cloud Kitchens, where we build ‘ghost kitchens’, so to speak and come up with online brands that are meant for delivery. We’ve been working on this since 2020 and we’re looking at expanding into regional aspects as well. This was a business that came out of the pandemic and is still the future of what we see in the delivery space.”
At the end of the day, Eric says that his success is still owed to the hard work of his father. “There’s a Chinese saying that the first generation builds the business, the second generation grows the business, and the third generation spends it. And a lot of the Chinese families’ intention is to go beyond that third generation. I, being the second generation, am tasked to grow their business beyond what my father has done for us, and hopefully be able to pass that on to my children and build a legacy that my father has built. We have to understand that what I’m doing today is in respect of what my father has built for us, and moving forward, what I give to my children will be a homage to what I’ve done and what my father has done and the legacy of the Dee family.”
“I think that’s one crucial thing as a traditional Chinese living in the modern world. Never forget to respect your elders, respect your family, be prudent, be frugal, save for a rainy day. [It’s] easier said than done, but at the end of the day, everything that we’re doing is for our family and everything comes secondary.”
Tune in this Sunday, June 19, 8PM to know more about Rikki and Eric Dee’s, as well as HTCG Premium Food Concept CFO, Annabelle Chua’s stories on CNN Philippines (Free TV Channel 9, Sky Cable Channel 14, Cignal Channel 10).