The traffic from our office in Magsaysay Avenue to Barlin Street in Naga City was relatively mild on a noontime. I assumed either the students traversing Francia street all had lunch baons so them crossing the road for a bite wasn’t an option. That or we had lesser vehicles on the road. We were rushing to catch three ladies on a rare occasion of meet-and-greet with their employees, and by ‘rushing’ that meant driving through the city’s narrow streets at 60 kilometers per hour.
I honked at a jeepney dropping off a passenger in the middle of the street. “I can’t be late!” I said to myself as Bonnie Tyler finished the final ‘turn around’ in Total Eclipse Of The Heart playing in the background.
When I arrived, having set my eyes on the three ladies across the glass-walled room laughing with such animation, I realized I was thirty five years early. I was back in 1983.
The Bigg’s restaurant in Barlin street is no stranger to rare occasions. It has witnessed several firsts in the city: the vibe and energy that is Que Pasa Naga (closed now for renovations), the providential discovery of the Spanish-era Barlin tunnel underneath its floors, being the home of the Philippine-Spanish friendship day soirees for years now, and redefining an otherwise ‘artsy/indie-street’ that is Barlin.
Me sitting in a small round table across the three ladies who started it all was the rare occasion. I have met them separately on different events but getting to see them together is monumental. There’s something about them that proves when you arm three women with the equipment to come up with delicious burgers in 1983, they could rule the world.
Thirty-five years later, the brand hits home to a successful three-decade run, and envisions to go even bolder in the future. They were right—these ladies—the whole time: passion will take one to great heights.
This isn’t even a historical account, but historic, it is.
The Year Before 1983
“The gym!” Nena Bichara, one-third of the trio, quipped with such youthful energy, “it was called Fit N’ Trim. So we’d go in the afternoon. On certain days it’s in the morning.” Proving that fitness was the rave in the early 80s when Aerobics was today’s Zumba, Nie-nie Buenaflor, mother of Bigg’s CEO Carlo Buenaflor, added, “On some days we would just play tennis! We met each other playing tennis, either at Central(school) or at the Civic Center during its heydays.” Imagine the three women clad in either an all-white Wimbledon ensemble or striking technicolors at the gym trading them in for a restaurant-ready outfit. Yes, that occurred perhaps a year later.
“You know,” Nie-nie says about their beginnings, “when we started the business, we didn’t think we were going to go this far,” she looks around the restaurant, “we did not think that. Unlike other businesses which had a five-year or a ten-year business plan, we didn’t have any!” Then what was it then, I asked, “It’s really just libangan,” Nena beams with the same vivid smile she had when their iconic photo together was taken. Nie-nie continues, “Yes, even our husbands would even say we could only see as far as our noses! Or what’s in front of our noses. But we could not see the future.” So is this the part where realize a vision sometimes isn’t necessary: just living the moment? “In fact, we were happy already with our little earnings,” Maricar Manjon, also one-third of the trio, who helped in production back then, said, “we didn’t think of the future because we were so happy with what we have.”
Fun To Fortune
And this is the 80s. Several enduring Filipino brands such as Bench and Penshoppe began thriving in the decade and in entrepreneurial-speak, blossomed fully almost at the same time Bigg’s was gaining momentum in the region. We’ve always wondered if there was something special about the so-called decade of excess that is the eighties. “None at all, we didn’t think of it as a business thing,” Nie-nie speaks of their little corner, “it was something lang to do. You know, it was something lang that made us happy because everybody was enjoying our food!” The burgers were apparently a hit among locals, “then our husbands said, you think you’re doing great, so why don’t you expand?”
Ultimately, expansion was written on stars above Bicolano soils.
“With the arrival of competitions,” Maricar pauses, “that’s when we started to think about expanding.” “But I think they all came around eight years later, but we started expanding in our little corner,” Nie-nie butts in. Whether or not competition was in the picture, the brand eventually breaks through, “We offered Naga something different. Western Food that’s as western as you would think of it now: burger, pasta, fries. The look of our store was totally different, and looked fresh at the time,” Nena continues, “the décor was mostly red, orange and yellow, we even had red mushrooms painted on our walls!”
Before the idea of expansion, the first day of operations had to come first. Of course, there’d be scenes as quintessential as the opening of its doors, but ostensibly there was more. “You know, that first day, we knew that our physical presence is very vital in the business. Di ba? The people like that e, the visibility. The owners being there, knowing that you’re on top of everything. So we were really hands-on. With that, our Mothers, when they come to visit, we would make them sit there,” Nie-nie fondly remembers their Moms coming over to help out. “We would make them cashiers!” Nena laughs, but Nie-nie adds, “we actually do that so we could go the beach,” if I were watching this scene from a television sitcom, I would have laughed hysterically. On this note Nena adds, “there was this one time they didn’t like calculators! They were so old-school! It was our early taste of something ‘digital’ but they refused. They wanted to do manual computations.”
“We didn’t trust anybody,” Maricar speaks of making the family work for the business. Keeping a tight circle of people one trust moves an enterprise forward. They, however, trusted one thing: their instincts. At a time when promoting a store wasn’t as easy as using today’s digital contraptions, the three ladies relied on word-of-mouth to get their message of good food across channels and dining tables. No Marketing theories pushed the envelope in driving customers to their store, not even a flyer was in place. Still, the people came in throngs. At a time when the city was enjoying the simple joys of provincial afternoons with pancit guisado paired with bread or siopao, the three ladies decided that their diner-type menu would make it. It was fresh. It was cosmopolitan. It had an appeal that spanned decades and influenced the regional dining behaviour of Bicolanos.
Today’s Bigg’s of course evolved from Mang Donald’s to Carl’s Diner to the contemporary sky-blue-and-black-coloured brand that we know of. If there’s one thing we are sure of, it’s the fact that the brand pretty much shaped the dynamics of local dining. There’s a good chance giant, national food chains flew to Bicol soils out of the confidence in seeing a Bigg’s store door swinging endlessly. That’s one theory only a thirty-five-year-old thriving brand can prove at any given time.
The Customer Is The Bigg Boss
But its success can’t be attributed to burgers alone as it had something extra. It was peppered with great people. When I asked them what the hallmarks are of being a Bigg’s employee, they all drew a single point: Customer Service. “We had this guy, Ambe,” Nena shares an anecdote, “not sure if you’ve met him, but he was our benchmark for customer service. I would say kindness, being able to personalize the service. He knew our customer’s first names. He knows more about them than just their first names. He was truly caring, sincere.” Nie-nie continues, “Taking the extra mile, that was key. Just to let you know also, Ambe, the kind of guy he was, when we opened the restaurant located at the second floor, the New England space (it was in the corner of Luna and Evangelista St. in Naga, across the Plaza Rizal, thoroughly iconic because of a one-of-a-kind vintage car mounted at the top of the doorway), we were doubtful, but it was the only available space left that time. We had a challenge: paano na yung matatanda? How would they go up the stairs? You know Ambe, he would have his customers sit in a monoblock chair, and lift them up the steps! Everyday! It was the kind of service we envisioned.”
Usually, pageant viewers get to witness this question being asked onstage: “if you were to change a fragment of history,” in this case, Bigg’s, “what would it be and why?” The three fell silent for a few seconds. I wanted to check if I asked the right question, so I held up my paper, but it was there in bold letters. “Certainly not the name, Mang Donald’s, because it helped us gain popularity at that time,” quipped Nena. I may have asked them a difficult question as Nie-nie uttered “we couldn’t think of a thing!”
“Well, we did fail in a few of our endeavours,” Maricar speaks out, “we could say that us attempting to get out of Bicol was something we could have changed, me personally,” she speaks of opening branches in the Calabarzon area, “I believe if you’re home-grown, stay, and say ‘this is it,’ We really couldn’t think of anything else outside Bigg’s, really.” “Even when we were discussing the transition of the brand,” Nena recalls of the restaurant’s aesthetics, “from a diner-type to something as modern and as ‘millenial’ that you see now, we had resistance. ‘Let Marilyn(Monroe) and Elvis(Presley) die in peace,’ they told us, but we said okay let’s move forward,” she looks around, “I mean Carlo(Buenaflor) made the transitions, changed the look, and it worked!”
Where innovation was key, passion determines the path. Nie-nie makes sure to have this in mind when talking to someone who dreams of having their own business. “Ako I would ask him/her, ‘do you have the passion?’ Passion kasi is, when you have it, you love it. From there, you can do anything. You can learn the technical things you don’t know. It doesn’t come easily if you don’t have the love for it.” Nena nods to this and concludes, “I would probably say the same thing. Passion. Everything else you can learn, but the thing in your gut, that’s very important.” My guts tell me one thing: the future is bright for Bigg’s, we all must wear sunglasses.
When we finished, I asked for a photo op to recreate their iconic photo from the eighties. The photo first appeared in a newspaper. They were holding burgers and decked in eighties regalia staples: printed skirts cinched high in the waist with belts and padded shoulders. The fashions may have waned, but Bicol’s love for the brand? That’s going to live forever.