Chili’s is still hot after 20 years

Julie Cabatit-Alegre (The Philippine Star) - March 30, 2017 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Buffalo wings, fajitas, burgers, ribs and margaritas — these were the original items you found on the menu when Chili’s first opened in the Philippines at Greenbelt in 1996. 

Twenty years later, you can still find these classic items on the menu.

And why not? Through the years, they have become bestsellers and all-time favorites.

A number of new items have been added, such as smoked chicken quesadillas, and white spinach queso dip served with warm tostada chips and fresh salsa. While Chili’s classic Oldtimer Burger keeps its top place on the menu, the new Southern Smokehouse Burger — a hearty burger in a bun packed with bacon, crispy onion rings, cheddar cheese and Chili’s signature sauce — is now a bestseller as well.

“The one thing we wanted from the very beginning was consistency,” says Luis “Luigi” Vera Jr., managing director of Am-Phil Group, the Philippine franchise holder of Chili’s.

The American restaurant was first established in Dallas, Texas, in 1975.

“It was in 1987 that we first stepped into Chili’s in Cupertino, California, and we instantly loved their food,” Luigi relates. He was studying at Sta. Clara University at the time, together with Richie Yang, a schoolmate at Xavier School back in the Philippines. The childhood friends, together with Robert Epes, whom they met at the university, would hang out together after classes or gym sessions for a late-night meal and drinks.

After graduating from university, they came back to the Philippines and decided to open a restaurant that served the kind of food they loved at Chili’s.

“We knew the food was better than any of the other American brands,” Luigi says. “We didn’t have to adjust the recipes to suit the Filipino taste. We liked it in the States, and so we delivered the same things here, with the same seasoning, the same marinating. And the Filipinos accepted it. The only thing different was we started serving rice, in response to our customers’ demand.” 

There are two items on the menu unique to Chili’s in the Philippines: beef salpicao and country-style pork belly. They continue to update their menu regularly to make it relevant to the changing needs and wants of their customers.

Well into the new millennium, Chili’s has done some renovations in its interior design, in line with its re-imaging effort. The booth seating was changed, as well as the tabletops, which used to feature those familiar, multicolored tiles. The lighting fixtures were upgraded from bright incandescent bulbs to more subdued track lighting.

“Our aim is to make it look younger, more updated, to cater to the millennial market,” Luigi explains. “Before, the store look was going after the Chili’s heritage, which was very southwest, bordering on the Mexican influence.”

While the look now may be more contemporary, the target market has not essentially changed. “Don’t think ‘age’ but rather, think ‘life stage,’” Luigi says. “They are fresh graduates, new on the job, just starting a family,” although they still get loyalists, like his mom’s friends, who keep coming back for the kind of food that they’ve loved through the years.

“It was difficult at the start. All I knew at that time was how to eat; what is good and what is not,” says the civil engineering graduate. “Our biggest challenge in the beginning was, we had no back office. All we had was an accountant, and it was really a struggle for us.”

Luigi found himself doing odd jobs, even changing a broken toilet seat when it was needed. But it did not take long before they got an efficient system going.

“One of the important things we learned is how to recruit the right people, not because they are smart or more experienced, but because they fit in our company culture,” Luigi says. “We have programs for our staff to make them feel welcome. We train a lot. Happy staff, happy guests.”

They also learned how to source good products and how to manage the supply chain. “Food safety is very important at Chili’s,” he stresses. “The advantage of having a franchise partner is, they can share information and tell you what worked and did not work for them.”

Luigi concedes that business has been affected to a certain degree by the upsurge of new players in the restaurant industry — “share of stomach,” as he calls it — in response to current market trends. Nevertheless, he takes comfort in the fact that “they don’t stop coming to Chili’s, although not as often. People like to try new things. But after the trend dies down, they come back.”

That’s why marking Chili’s 20 years is important to him because he realizes that now they know better. “Whatever problems we may have today, we can work it out and get to where we are going,” Luigi says. “We have been working hard on this for the last 20 years, and we will be here for the next 20. How you’ve come to love Chili’s — we’ll make sure it stays the same. We will evolve with the times, because the needs of our guests change, but what they love about Chili’s will always be there.”

* * *

Chili’s has 10 branches in Greenbelt, Greenhills, Tomas Morato, Rockwell Power Plant, Alabang Town Center, Megamall, Fairview Terraces, Mall of  Asia, UP Town Center and The Block SM North EDSA.

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