The three-hectare estate of Palacio de Memoria provided the perfect backdrop to this handsome pair of successful entrepreneurs, while the sunlit clouds drifting across a clear blue sky enhanced the scene. It was a relatively warm morning. The day’s dignified personages, Rikki and Beng Dee, visionaries behind Foodee Global Concepts, begin by inviting the entire Lifestyle Asia team to join them in a fantastic brunch feast set up by their catering team. On the buffet menu, was a variety of appetizing textures and flavors—among many things, a local take on paella that makes use of adobo rice, fried egg, and tapa; succulent steamed fish; huge servings of prawn thermidor; and a selection of sophisticated Pinoy delicacies for dessert. Inside the gentrified pre-war mansion amongst rare and exquisite antiquities, paintings, and objets d’arts, the conversation started over everyone’s growing fear of that morning’s biggest newsmaker, the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). The previous evening, tensions rose as the government prepared for a lockdown. Beng expresses her genuine sympathies to those who will be deeply affected by the huge impact of the necessary mandate. “A lot of employees [from many local businesses] reside outside Manila,” she states. Rikki shares his wife’s sentiments, explaining the ominous repercussions of such a move to the national economy and the general welfare of the country’s citizens. Every now and then, you’d see the couple talking to their team, checking on their situation and offering sound advice. Even with a large empire such as theirs, the sense of belonging and the sincere compassion to the plight of the workforce gives the impression that the two regard their massive team as integral parts of their family.
Earlier on, as each of the crew members of the day’s shoot arrived, instead of handshakes were one-meter distant air kisses, with handy bottles of alcohol and sanitizers on everyone’s pocket used after touching any surface. The waiters wore masks and gloves while serving, and the term social distancing was frequently injected in many a conversation throughout the entire duration of the day. But not to dampen the mood and never to waste a great opportunity, and with us enraptured by the lovely weather outside and surrounded by poetic beauty that harkens from a by-gone era, we push through with the focal piece of the month’s much-awaited issue.
While the crew dotes on Beng and her graceful ways, keeping her busy with multiple layouts, she indulges the team with shot after shot of well-angled poses. Like his wife, Rikki proves to be trained in front of the camera. A natural, as we call him. As soon as his turn ends, I sit across him to discuss their journey with food. Every now and then, Beng arrives with an anecdote or two, agreeing with her husband’s stories.
THE EPICURES’ ORIGINS
Rikki and Beng both come from a family of entrepreneurs. One can easily surmise that the business-minded luminaries learned the basics, of traversing a difficult path in the ever-changing business landscape of the Philippines, from their parents. But technical skills and practical knowledge aside, honing one’s craftstems from a deep understanding and natural desire for food and the experiences that come along with it. Throughout this dialogue, Rikki’s admirable confidence and sharp as a tack wit complemented by Beng’s thoughtful insights and genuine enthusiasm, leave a good impression. The couple surely knows a lot about food.
“If people have to live by eating, I live to eat. I just love eating. I like exploring. So, I live to eat,” Rikki shares, when asked about their relationship with food. Beng confirms, “Food is inherent in our lives. Food for us is life. ” Like many epicurean enthusiasts, the concept of food goes far beyond mere sustenance for the two. Rikki admits that he doesn’t have the same kitchen skills as his wife, who he completely adores. Proudly sharing that while she knows the basics, she has also learned a great deal from her mother and her mother-in-law—inheriting recipes of family specialties passed on from generation to generation.
Enchanting us with fascinating tales of his younger years, Rikki lets us in the Dee household from decades ago. “We stayed at our grandparents early on,” he recalls. “We always have feasts in the house, because we're a big family with seven siblings, my grandparents, and my parents. We have a lot of recipes passed on for generations, and you don't see those in restaurants. So I guess the family's influence on the taste bud was what drove me to get into the food business.”
Though with an ardent love for gastronomic experiences, Rikki’s decades long career in the industry kicked off differently. “After college, I went to every sort of business training. I worked for my dad in construction. Eventually, I found my cup of tea, which I think is food. Today I still dabble in construction—I have a real estate company. So my business now is half food, half real estate,” he explains.
It is a tall order for a man to helm two diverse industries, yet Rikki makes it seem so effortless, proven by his impressive track of achievements and an uncanny skill for scouting opportunities. His enterprising mind has bridged two completely different worlds together with his construction know-how serving as fundamentals in establishing his dining concepts, effectively landing the company a comfortable place among the best multi-faceted food operators in the country. “We do about 20 to 30 restaurants a year. And the challenge has always been how to meet the deadlines,” enlightening us on what seems to be a tough balancing act. “My ‘food side’ is MWF. I stick to my schedule, meeting with different business units. My Tuesdays and Thursdays are mostly for real estate and my meetings outside the office.”
COOKING UP A STORM
“When we started, we were never into franchising. Everything was our own concept. It takes us months to come up with a concept—the menu planning, the tasting, and the pricing.” Rikki tells me. Fastidious in conceptualizing all their outlets, Rikki and Beng ensure that everything that comes out of their kitchens is of good quality. “For about thirty years, we’ve been doing that all along with multiple brands,” he says. With a fast-growing dining scene, Manila continues to offer new concepts month after month. Hence, the task of putting out something fresh and different gets more difficult and challenging as time goes by.
Rikki gamely reveals some tricks up his sleeve, “For local brands, we try to look at the gaps and availability in the market. That is hard to find. We used to do whatever we feel like doing. But after those years that we've done that, today, we try to find a niche—a gap in the market. Our Product Development Group constantly meets every month and we try to study the bestsellers in the industry now and what the trends are. Hard to do, but we try to fix it.” His formula became a surefire success for their then-budding company. By bringing in never-seen-before ideas, Foodee Global Concepts became a benchmark of success in the industry—setting trends instead of following them.
In the recent years, Foodee Global Concepts brought in several international brands to the country as a response to rapid globalization. But there is no single factor in their choices. The Dees are quite meticulous. Rikki explains, I’m going to franchise, even if you have a Michelin star and even if you’re good, I won’t do it— because we can also do it. We now franchise only when there’s brand recollection. Brand recall is very powerful.”
I ask Rikki if he considers himself a workaholic. He ponders for a brief moment. “I think so,” he then says, laughing. “My regular office hours are up to 8:30pm. I’m also trying to avoid the traffic, so that's the best time to leave the office. And you have to remember we're open till 10pm.” Acknowledging the fact that their choice of industry is quite demanding, work somehow manages its way even into their weekends. He assures however, that even if they operate 24/7, weekends are reserved for family time at home. “Luckily, we’re happy to be in the food business because it’s a business we are really passionate about. It’s not work for us,” Beng shares happily.
A TEST OF TASTE
One might wonder if the food barons enjoy lavish banquets of their products on a daily basis. Rikki is quick to reply, “Sometimes I ask them to bring it to the office for food tasting, but the quality is different. So most of the food tasting is not done in the office, it's in the store.” And as the job calls for a trained tongue, Rikki and Beng constantly travel to check the dining scene not just locally, but in other countries as well. “We explore a lot of cuisines, especially since we travel a lot,” Rikki reveals. “Because we feed our eyes—not just the eyes, but the palate as well. We love traveling to get the feel and the experience of eating in other restaurants as well as other cuisines—what's new, what's classic, and what's traditional.”
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