If there’s one notable restaurant in the Cerritos area that pioneered in the fast-food business, Pinoy-Pinay Filipino Fastfood comes to the fore. It was established in mid-1991 on South St. corner Pioneer Blvd. in the upscale City of Cerritos when it was still thinly populated by Filipinos.With the Filipino population steadily growing across the community, this fast-food store is flourishing whether the economy is up or down.
With the Filipino population steadily growing across the community, this fast-food store is flourishing whether the economy is up or down.
As years went by, customers still defer to Pinoy Pinay as the undisputed leader of the fast food eatery. From a one-door fast-food restaurant, Pinoy-Pinay has expanded to a larger size, two-door 3,400 sq. ft. when it took over the adjacent vacant door – to accommodate it’s loyal and growing customers from near and far.
To prove that his recipe, menu and food presentation are delectable in taste and sight to be savored in other parts of Greater Los Angeles, the principal owner had put up another branch in West Covina. The man behind this popular restaurant is J. Marlo Cruz, a marketing-executive-turned-restaurateur non-pareil.
At present, there are already three Pinoy-Pinay Filipino Fastfood restaurants in Greater Los Angeles (Cerritos, Panorama, and West Covina) and one in Las Vegas, Nevada. Two of them which are now owned and managed independently by his original partner Ismael Trinidad. Marlo however, maintains creative control of the menu and recipe to keep a high-level standard.
Pinoy-Pinay Filipino Fastfood was conceived in early 1991 and was opened in middle part of that year. It was offered to Marlo by a family friend, Ismael Trinidad who eventually became his partner.
During its inception, Ismael asked Marlo’s opinion about the possibility of introducing a Filipino restaurant in the Cerritos area of which he was a resident at that time. During the mid-1980s to early 1990s, there was a limited option where to eat or buy food especially after work or weekends right after attending Mass. “In fact, there was only one Oriental store and two Filipino restaurants at that time that provided mediocre food and service,” he recalled. “I thought we deserved better than those available food stores, that’s why I welcomed the idea of putting one up with Ismael Trinidad,” Marlo recalled.
When asked if he plans to provide franchising to interested entrepreneurs someday, Marlo left open the possibilities. “I’ll give franchising a little bit of thought and still considering and studying the possibility of it,” was his terse reply.
If fine dining and fast-food restaurants are both lucrative business, what would be the preference of customers or immediate return of investments? Marlo shared that in fine dining, the bottom line is you can charge your customers more money for the same amount or quality of food but you’ll expect to see your customers a minimum of once a week or only during special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries.
“Whereas in fast-food style,” he reasoned out, “you want to see your customers between two to three times a week. “You don’t make a lot of money but by increasing the number of times they visit your restaurant, it helps the business in the long run. You know that saying, ‘Mura na, Masarap pa.’” he opined in jest.
Why does Pinoy-Pinay group of fast-food restaurants being patronized? The common response is: “With a reasonable price for one combo order, the serving is aplenty and the customer who usually cannot consume it in one sitting, the tendency is to bring the leftovers home.”
For one, he injects innovations to make his food more appealing to his customers. In one instance, he bought several pieces of equipment that caught his fancy in Manila for cooking the mouth-watering bibingka. Those who opt for catering on special occasions or home parties, he serves assorted platter trays at reasonable prices and delivers them for free complete with chaffing warmers.
In addition, the genial Marlo personally greets his customers who call them by their first names. These patrons have been around since he opened the restaurant over 20 years ago.
“All of the other restaurants you see nowadays were in one way imitated us or copied from us,” Marlo claimed. The funny thing is that most of his employees after they had left the restaurant had put up their own fast-food business but comes up short imitating his style of operation.
Marlo immigrated to the U.S. in 1984. He found a job at Denny’s restaurant group of companies. He started at Mother Butler Pies (a division of Denny’s) as a kettle operator, cook, associate supervisor and worked his way up becoming a production supervisor and a night shift manager at the company’s production location that supplies all Denny’s restaurants in Southern California with assorted pies and desserts. After Denny’s, he moved to La Petite Boulangerie, a division of Mrs. Fields Cookies. He was the store manager of the Lakewood store and eventually became a district manager.Thereafter, he shifted his work to the aerospace industry of Air Treads, a division of Goodyear Tires as a buyer, parts supervisor and head of Purchasing.
In a trailblazing move, Marlo and partner Ismael put up the Pinoy Pinay Filipino Fastfood. As a reflection, Marlo was asked about the pros and cons of having a business partner. He explains, “A partner provides financial stability, helps you manage the day-to-day operation and ease up the burden of running a seven-days-a-week operation. However, it also has its pitfalls like management decision comes at a slower pace, opinion varies and sometimes a conflict of ideas occurs,” he shared.
After 22 years in the industry, Marlo tries to slow down the daily nitty-gritty management of his two restaurants. He now heavily relies on his managers and just macro manage his operation. He said, “I don’t have the same energy but I still have the zest to go on and provide the Filipino community of a decent meal. I try not to get stressed a lot and spend more time with my family.” Thus the reason, he downsized his stores only to Cerritos and West Covina and gave control of two other locations to his partner Ismael.
In the long run, how does he envision the future of his lucrative business? He intimated that he will try to groom his son or immediate member of his family to continue his legacy. “I hope they will have the same enthusiasm and attitude and work ethic to continue this legacy,” he says with conviction.
Marlo’s typical day starts by checking with his managers and cooks and inquire from them the happenings of the previous day or weekend. He checks on the sales and expenses. He follows up on the vendors if there’s a discrepancy on costs then he updates his staff for any changes in purchasing policies, schedules and menu rotation. He reports to his office once a week doing accounts payables, preparing payrolls, answer correspondences, etc. “The last but not the least, I checked the employees upcoming birthdays,” he quipped.
Despite his hectic business schedules and other activities, Marlo dutifully fulfills his family chores. He starts his weekdays by bringing his son to Cerritos High School nearby his Cerritos main branch. He also sees to it that he breaks bread with his wife for breakfast two or three times a week. “I don’t really take a day off,” he said as a matter of fact. “I’m either in Cerritos or West Covina locations. I take business-related phone calls anytime of the day. I learned how to relax and enjoy life by playing golf twice a week. I just let my people run the business with little supervision.” Most of Marlo’s cooks and managers have been with him for more than 15 years and they already know the normal routines. “I let them micromanage it and I just step in when I need too,” he told this writer.
Marlo is married to the former Anna Belle Cuyong, a dentist who has her own practice in the Cerritos area for the past 20 years. The union is blessed with son, Lawren, who recently graduated from Cerritos High School. He only has one sibling, brother Lomar who is based in the Philippines His parents both deceased hail from Bulacan (Balagtas and Meycauayan) and Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija.
When asked what are the secrets of his success, Marlo attributes a combination of hard work, making the right choices, decisions, attitude and pure luck.
He always reminds himself not to be in a hurry to be successful. His motto is: “Be humble. Avoid being greedy. Always keep a low profile and do not let them see you coming.”
During his free time, he keeps himself abreast by watching The Food Network Channel, The Cooking Channel, and The Travel Channel.
As a businessman whose livelihood is in the food industry, Marlo loves to browse anything that features restaurants, mom-and-pop stores, and hole-in-the-wall establishments. “I would make note of a restaurant, a taco truck, a hot dog stand that were featured in these channels and visit that city, state or country for observation. It’s also a form of vacation with my family.”
After attending elementary and high school at Claret School in Quezon City, Marlo graduated from De La Salle University on Taft Ave., Manila with a Bachelor’s degree in Business Management/Marketing Management in 1983.
Later, he studied at the Institute Computer Technology in Los Angeles, specializing in Operations, Programming and Information Support and Technical Services from 1984 to 1985.
When his inclination began to shift to the food industry, Marlo took up Culinary courses at Orange Coast College Culinary Arts in 1986 to 1987.
Marlo’s business acumen began to shape up in the shadows of his parents. His role models are his parents who had a jewelry family business back in the Philippines. His mom Naty was in charge of sales and marketing while his dad Naning took care of the financial side of the business. He and his only brother Lomar would help out in the collection of payments in most of the government offices in Quezon City. Looking back, he professes, “I guess, everything I have or who I am today is attributed to my parents.”
When asked if he has any advice to upcoming Filipino-American upstarts, he says, “To the second or third generation of young Fil-Ams who were either born or raised here, learn to appreciate what your parents have done to ensure you a better future. You may not realize this but the sacrifice they did coming to this country, hurdling a lot of obstacles to be a good provider, I hope they get the message in that they don’t take them for granted or lightly.”
For his charitable causes, Marlo supports the Breast Cancer awareness and Autism Speaks! With his two stores comprising 38 employees of labor intensive production, Marlo reveals that they prepare the food from scratch. His staff consists of managers, cooks, assistant cooks, counter servers and kitchen preparers. He describes his support staff as hardworking, caring and loyal people and proudly says that he has a low turnover of employees.
“I have been working in the restaurant and food industry almost all my life, so the choice to make it as a career and means of livelihood is an easy one.”
This article was originally published on Asian Journal in 2013 and was written by Dan Niño.