Jean Paul Manuud’s experience in the quick service restaurant (QSR) industry dates back to college, when he had a part-time job working in Shakey’s, a popular pizza and pasta franchise across the Philippines. Initially drawn to the restaurant by the job security it offered, he ended up staying there for several years in different capacities. “I spent a fair piece of my working life at Shakey’s,” he recalls.

An even greater part of his career has been spent at The Bistro Group, where he has now worked for 21 years. The group manages 17 franchise restaurants in the Philippines, each an international QSR brand with a focus on tasty, unpretentious food, a casual, welcoming atmosphere and warm, caring service.

Jean Paul joined in 1997 as a management trainee and has progressed through posts as manager, general manager, director of operations and finally vice-president for operations. In 2012, he was appointed to his current role as President and COO of the Group, which now has dozens of franchises and sub-franchises across the island nation.

Many of the group’s restaurants offer a quintessentially American heartland vibe, like TGI Fridays, Texas Roadhouse and Buffalo Wild Wings. Other restaurants in the group make a homey atmosphere their prime selling point. For example, Modern Shanghai aims to bring the kind of cooking rarely found outside Chinese family homes to a mass audience.

As Jean Paul tells it, there is a fine balance between capturing what made the franchises so broadly appealing in the first place and ensuring their product lines work for The Bistro Group’s largely local customer base.

Jean Paul Manuud President & COO of The Bistro Group
Jean Paul Manuud, President & COO of The Bistro Group

Changing the menu

Changing menus that are often beloved, iconic and strictly regulated requires clear communication between The Bistro Group and the various restaurant parent companies. “Before we introduce any item, we make it clear to the franchisors that we have to tweak the recipe with them. We let them know that we need to make this change to compete in the local market.”

These changes may include adding spices, adjusting the salt or sugar content and introducing local ingredients. Such alterations are important, but are not implemented broadly across the menu. Similarly, Jean Paul says new or localised additions never comprise more than 20% of a restaurant’s menu. “That’s the number we work on. With everything we do here in Manila, we have an eye on that number.”

Ensuring quality

Fine-tuning the menus ties in with another important element of the Group’s business model, which is its strong customer focus. It employs a network of mystery shoppers to visit each restaurant regularly to ensure the franchisees are maintaining high standards covering food, speed and friendliness of service. The Group also ensures customers have visual reminders that they are open to comment through its real-time feedback system, where customer complaints go all the way to the company’s marketing manager, vice-president and Jean Paul himself.

Internal auditors visit each restaurant at least once a month and report back on quality of service and food as well as the overall atmosphere of each location. The latter is vital; not only does each franchise need to consistently serve good comfort food, they need to warmly welcome each visitor.

Tasks such as welcoming visitors do not just fall to junior staff, as management and executive level staff are expected to be visible and highly energetic. The Bistro Group maintains a culture where everybody is asked to pitch in and no staff is allowed to eat during rush hour, while there are still customers who may need their attention.

Jean Paul has often stressed the importance of soft skills such as emotional intelligence for those working across the Group. “We feel that you have to possess this quality. It is much more important than intellectual intelligence in what we do. The nature of the job is that every day there will be customers coming into the restaurant in different moods. They may be happy, lonely or sad. We should be able to respond to them emotionally and make them feel connected.”

Every day there will be customers coming into the restaurant in different moods… We should be able to respond to them emotionally.

High levels of emotional intelligence may be indicated by a well-developed sense of empathy, self-awareness, motivation and self-control. Jean Paul says the company recruits with an eye to these qualities, and those who can display these characteristics have done well in The Bistro Group. “In Manila, I’ve seen a lot of our people progress in management. I’ve seen a lot of operational success and that comes from the people we have, who are very strong in terms of emotional intelligence.”

Jean Paul Manuud President & COO of The Bistro Group

Staffing the restaurants with people who can easily establish rapport with customers is key to the group’s insistence that customers should be instantly made to feel at home. “The most important thing is the first impression. We are always finding ways to » ensure that the brand experience as a whole – the people, the public experience and the atmosphere – is excellent. We like our customers to always be happy and smiling.”

Keeping it friendly: recognising good work

On the company’s part, Jean Paul believes it is important to provide recognition of good work, both in terms of positive feedback and financial incentives for strong performance. He believes that all staff should be treated as owners of the company and has put the ‘ownership theory’ into practice, meaning that any staff member is free to put forward their ideas, confident that they will be listened to.

While some competitors in the QSR space put marketing strategies at the centre of their business model, The Bistro Group has different priorities. “Our approach is not to spend much money on advertising,” Jean Paul notes. “In fact, only about one per cent of our total revenue is spent on marketing. Our main form of advertising is through the testimony and experience of our customers. New customers get to know us from the recommendations of our existing customers.”

We have brands that are complementing one another, rather than directly competing.

Jean Paul says the Group has determined its clientele is almost entirely domestic and 75 per cent of patrons at its various franchises are repeat customers. Such patrons are golden for restaurant chains because they inevitably recommend the places they patronise to friends and family. “We find it’s a more powerful and effective way of marketing,” Jean Paul says of word-of-mouth endorsements. “There was a time when we used to spend a lot of money on advertising, about 8% of our sales went to different modes of advertising. But we weren’t entirely sure that it worked.”

The Bistro Group intends to keep adding to its portfolio of restaurants, but it puts a
lot of time and analysis into selecting these establishments. An acquisition can easily take two years to complete and must be done with a carefully formed strategy in place.

“We have brands that are complementing one another, rather than directly competing. We want to ensure that we use these brands to leverage growth in our company. However, we are ready for expansion and are confident that our knowledge of this sector represents
a significant competitive advantage.”

While there is an element of the unknown any time a new restaurant is brought on board, Jean Paul is satisfied the group can face any challenges. “We look forward to it. We don’t mind competition or anything that makes us try harder to create a better customer experience.”

Bringing an American icon to the Pacific

One of the most iconic QSR chains Jean Paul and colleagues have brought into the group is Denny’s, which began in California in the 50s and now has more than 1,700 outlets internationally. More than that, however, the 24-hour roadside diner has become part of the fabric of contemporary American culture.

Jean Paul told local media he didn’t want to bring a local knock-off, but the genuine item: “We’re bringing not just the feel, but 90% of Denny’s menu here.” The Bistro Group staff trained for four months to perfect both the food preparation and service style.

The menu has a comfort food focus and includes coffee, steaks, ‘hand-smashed burgers' and a ‘Grand Slamwich’ with pancakes, bacon, sausages and eggs among other hearty fare. There are also some Filipino dishes like Arroz Caldo (chicken rice porridge) and Bistek Tagalog (salt and pepper sirloin).

The group chose Bonifacio Global City, a bustling financial district in Manila, as its first Denny’s location. There are plans to open at least another nine outlets.