Tuesday, October 21, 2008


In the late 70’s when fast food was virtually unheard of in the provinces, Felipe Dy Eng Chong pioneered the fast food industry[1] with Graceland. Graceland is now a far cry from the original “garage operation” started in 1976 but just like most local businesses (in Naga); it had a very humble beginning.

pe and Felicidad Dy entered the food business with the primary objective to meet the ever growing needs of an ever-growing family. It was then the only source of livelihood for the family. Way back then, Tyo Peping (as Mr Felipe prefers to be addressed) undeterred by lack of formal education, knew in his heart that all he wanted was to provide for his family and give his children better futures. However, at the back of his mind, he wanted to grow big… he knew he can grow big.

Tyo Peping started earning his keep at a very young age. Born to poor Chinese immigrants, he was already working odd jobs in Divisoria – as kargador, tindero, anything that meant a few centavos – at 11 years old. Many years later, he would find himself transplanted to Naga City with a young wife and a fast growing family. The couple had precious few options. Both didn’t finish schooling. Tyo Peping was just a high school graduate, while his wife, Fely reached only elementary.

But they had one thing going for them, and that was their willingness to try anything. They were instinctively creative. What they lacked in academic knowledge, they more than made up for in resourcefulness and great desire to learn. While Tyo Peping, for instance was working as a sales clerk for a small hardware supply store, Fely taught herself how to make ice candy and ice drops and sold them to augment the family income.

Still, their pooled efforts weren’t enough to support an unusually large family. In 1976, with 10,000 in borrowed money, the Dy couple opened a four-table corner turo-turo in a rented garage. The “garage operation” was the original Graceland.

It was a micro operation. The number of employees can be counted in one hand as the couple could not afford to pay salaries to more employees. The labor supply mostly came from the nine children. The children were assigned to help out in the business doing sorts of work like cashiering, washing dirty dishes, taking orders and assisted in the cooking work. Tyo Peping, himself was washer, cashier and waiter rolled into one, while Fely was the cook. They weren’t even expert cooks, so to remedy that, the couple read cookbooks, sampled other eateries’ fare and even took pictures of actual food samples to teach themselves how to make ice cream, halo-halo, pancit guisado, cakes and sandwiches – whatever their hungry customers asked them to serve. Their improvisatory approach to the menu became the prototype for Graceland which today serves highly diverse product lines that goes beyond the burger-fries-spaghetti staples of other fastfood chains. Unstructured, it was easy to act fast to quickly respond to the ever changing tastes and preferences of its customers.

The business grew as a result of the commitment, hard work, cooperation and dynamism of the family. From the four-table small eatery place at Elias Angeles St. (the location where Naga Optical is now), outlets of GFII or Graceland Food Industries Incorporated is now found in 3 of the 6 provinces in Bicol Region. Now, it has 5 kinds of restaurants to suit and cater to the different palates of the market

The first born, GRACELAND, was the product of the ever changing trend and innovation in the food business during the 70’s and 80’s era. The 4-table eatery which used to serve “made to order” meals like pancit guisado, chopsuey, fried chicken and many similar items later on incorporated the ice cream parlor concept which was the trend in the early 80’s. Soon after, the fast-paced lifestyle of people prompted it to offer the “turo-turo” concept where people can just point the food items they want from a wide array of display of “ready to eat” viands.

The mid to late 80’s was the proliferation of hamburger chains in Naga. Most of the players then were local restaurant. Graceland too joined the bandwagon and opened a hamburger store in 1986 (along General Luna St in Naga City). It became an instant hit as it soon became the favorite hang-out place of teenagers. Even then, the company was into a lot of food introductions. It even introduced pizza way ahead of its time. Variety had always been GRACELAND’s strength.

The bakeshop concept had always been incorporated in Graceland’s operation even when it was just starting. The family used to buy chiffon cakes from a cousin and sell it in the store. Slowly, they learned the trade and started producing their own breads and cakes. Soon after, they gained loyal patronage. The sales of the bakeshop section showed a lot of promise. This encouraged them to innovate and introduce more variety of quality breads and cakes.

The bakeshop market was growing and was becoming more discriminating. The family saw a window of opportunity in it. Thus, it gave birth to another baby, Baker’s Plaza. It was the first of its kind in Naga City. Baker’s Plaza introduced and whipped up a delectable array of specialty refrigerated cakes, pastries, croissants, breads which were then only available in Metro Manila. The store lay-out, the lightings, color motif, fixtures, equipments were also comparable to the ones seen in Metro Manila. Many first time buyers even thought that the food stuffs were brought in from Manila. In fact, every single one of them was homemade – a product of the entire Dy family’s endless taste tests and experimentations. But they made sure that the prices of the products were affordable to the Nagueño market.

Opportunities to open Graceland outlets in the neighboring provinces came. Franchising inquiries poured in. Prime properties were offered for possible Graceland location. Graceland became synonymous to quality, variety and affordable foods products.

The stiffest competition came in the 90’s when the big players entered the Bicol Region specifically in Naga City. It shook the local food industry so badly and Graceland was not spared from it. The semi-complacent years of Graceland were over. The company thought it could not compete. However, instead of giving up, it fought. It focused! As a result, Geewan was born.

Graceland and Geewan were separated into two distinct restaurant divisions. Graceland offered the fastfood burger-fries-chicken-spaghetti staples but added distinctively unique products to its menu such as pinangat, pork cordon bleu, sizzling products and other delectable dishes. Later on, true to its thrust of offering variety, meal items were expanded to include Baby Back Ribs, Lechon Bicol Express, Sizzling Sisig to name a few. Merienda items on the other hand include Fresh and Fried Lumpia, Lomi, Pancit and Bihon Guisado.

Graceland also retained the original set up of having a bakeshop section thus, almost all Graceland restaurants have a twin Baker’s Plaza outlet that on its own, sells varied breads, specialty refrigerated cakes, wedding and birthday cakes, pastries and rolls that are certified freshly baked daily.
On the other hand, Geewan inherited the old “turo-turo” concept where viands are available for choosing along the counter. Geewan was slowly positioned also as the first Bicolano must-go restaurant for tourists, transients and even Nagueños for a taste of authentic Bicolano cooking. A visit in Bicol and in Naga City in particular is not complete without a taste of Geewan’s sumptuous dishes. It even offers Bicolano “pasalubong” food items such as (frozen) pinangat and Bicol express.

With the refocusing, it was able to analyze and understand its problems better. Specific solutions on products, manpower, marketing, store lay-out and motif, packaging, and other major concerns were made.The competition also compelled the company to look for other profitable avenues. It challenged the company to move beyond its comfort zone and explore uncharted territories. Thus, in 1996, two Graceland outlets were opened one after another in the city of Legazpi. Sorsogon was next to be explored in 1998 while Tabaco in 2001. With the opening of Pacific Mall in Legazpi City, Graceland also opened its very first outlet inside a mall in 2002.

Rather than view competition negatively, the entry of the giants paved the way for the company to use them as benchmarks. Instead of looking at competitors as rivals, they saw them as mentors and they learned a lot from them. The excellent service, superb food and the cheery ambiance they provide are now within their arms reach for studying and learning.

Another unexplored area was a pizza parlor. In an area where pizza was an exotic novelty, Benjamin Dy has dreamt of offering light, fancy and affordable pizza to the Bicolanos. In 1999, the dream became a reality. It was aptly named Benjo’s (after Ben’s name). This baby came as a response to the growing pizza and pasta market. It was the first of its kind to be opened in the region and it offered diverse but complementary menu, including chicken (long before the competitor of its kind did). Benjo’s offers a different twist in pizza, pasta and chicken dining experience, something really deliciously different. Benjo’s caters to the hip group who was fast developing a fancy taste for affordable and flavorful pizza.

Lastly, the youngest baby born to GFII was in March 2004 right in the heart of Naga. The Naguenos have now acquired a taste for fine foods. Steaks, chops and ribs were now becoming a byword. More and more people were becoming coffee drinkers! However, most of the restaurants who offer these menu lines are located in Magsaysay Ave and can only be reached by cars. The company thought of bringing the same concept to Centro. As they say, “If Mohammad cannot go to the mountain, then let’s bring the mountain to Mohammad”. Thus, Red Platter was born.

Red Platter is another breakthrough in the established menu, a fusion of the best Asian and western dishes. It is a haven that will stimulate not just the sense of taste but all the other senses for a complete and satisfactory dining experience. The original idea for the concept of Red Platter was to “experience the delectable difference”.

These days, visiting Naga’s centro is being witness to the remarkable business ascendancy of the Dy family. Along P Burgos St., at the back of Plaza Quezon, one can easily find Red Platter, Geewan and Baker’s Plaza all in the same row. A stone throw away, along Barlin St., is the huge spic-and-span bakehouse and commissary where restaurant and bakeshop supplies and food products are prepared round the clock.

With the 10 different outlets and still expanding, one would think that the unassuming family patriarch would already take it easy. But Tyo Peping will have none of that. He still visits his stores everyday or when he can. His always word of advice “Don’t lose hope and you have to know what you want. You cannot reach your destination if you don’t know where you want to go’.

Truly remarkable of a man who have already received the prestigious Rokyaw award by the Ibalong committee (1998) where he was honored for – as Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Josephine Darang write it – (having) moved from being a vendor, waiter and sales clerk to owning the famous Graceland Food Industries. Numerous citations for Graceland Food Industries, Inc include the Model Establishment Award (1992) accorded by the Department of Trade and Industry and the Consumer Council of Naga City, Outstanding SME Entrepreneur for Services handed out by the DTI Cam Sur and PSMEDC in 2003 and the Special Mayoral Award 2005 from the Naga City Government in June 2005. The Graceland Central Processing Area, garnered Regional 1st Place “AA” Meat Processing Plant (commissary group category) by the National Meat Inspection Service (NMIS) for 2 straight years (2005 & 2006)

In February 2006, the prestigious Philippine Marketing Excellence Awards Institute has accorded Graceland the Best Food Chain (Luzon Category).

[1] As reported in the F&B (Food & Beverage) magazine, July-August 2003 issue.