Johnlu and Alou Koa. ‘If we didn’t seek refuge in prayer, we couldn’t have done it on our own.’
Photo by DIX PEREZ courtesy of PeopleAsia
Johnlu & Alou Koa share their recipe for success, hope & acceptance
PEOPLE - Joanne Rae M. Ramirez (The Philippine Star) - April 23, 2019 - 12:00am

This year marks the 30th anniversary of The French Baker, the neighborhood baker that elevated your daily bread to international standards. Founded by Johnlu Koa, a business executive and University of the Philippines professor, The French Baker has grown from a single store at the SM North EDSA Annex in 1989 to 63 company-owned branches all over the country. Johnlu and his movie-star pretty wife Alou are now planning to take The French Baker to the next level and go regional.

“When we started, French restaurants in Manila were few and mostly confined to hotels,” Johnlu recalls. He expresses hope that through his and Alou’s example, they will be able to inspire other entrepreneurs in their “dark hours.”

“Businesses go through cycles. Nobody is exempted from that,” says Johnlu. “Having been in business for the last 40 years now, The French Baker in the last 30 years, I realized that one can never be too certain about what the future holds. I went through it myself when competitors started to come in and snatch market shares. I also had to take on so much ‘punishment’ in terms of learning how to bake the right way by enrolling in baking schools. I had to go through so many business disruptions as the industry competition heated up. Giving up and losing out wasn’t an option at all. That’s what I’d like to tell people who might want to ask me about it. With French Baker, Lartizan and Chatime well-positioned in the market now, I’m so glad we’ve overcome those cycles and emerged victorious.”

While other wives may caution their husbands against dropping a well-paying job to start a new business, Alou gave The French Baker her support from Day 1.

“It’s the person behind the brand! ” she says unequivocally. “I believed in his promise of delivering quality product at affordable prices and his ability to give consumers products exactly like those you see in Europe. Johnlu had so many ideas and a clear vision of what the future will be for the brand. There was so much opportunity to grow the brand. And it made perfect sense.”

Even now, says Alou, “Every time he tells us what his plans are, they get realized.”

A personal challenge

“Beneath this veneer of success is a life filled with challenges,” says Johnlu.

As they were building their dreams with The French Baker, the couple were also building a family. They named their firstborn son Jonard.

One day, their second child Clement contracted meningitis at the age of one month, as a result of which he now needs assistance fort the rest of his life.

“He is now 21. Practically bedridden. He can’t communicate,” Johnlu told PeopleAsia magazine. He and wife Alou grace the cover of the magazine’s April-May issue.

“It’s so ironic. It was a life and death situation. At the time, at the age of 38, 39, I got a TOYM award. As I was getting the award, Clement was there, suffering in the hospital. You just don’t know how to feel,” confides Johnlu.

“He was born premature, on my eighth month of pregnancy. When you’re born at that stage, it usually affects your lungs or your immune system. In his case, it was his immune system. When he was born, he contracted an infection. And then it went to his brain, which eventually caused meningitis,” Alou, the woman behind Escada and Van Laack in the Philippines, shared with PeopleAsia in the cover story written by Alex Vergara.

Despite surgery in the US, Clement never recovered fully.

“It was very difficult, especially during the first 10 years. That’s why Alou did not want at first to have a third child,” says Johnlu. “I told her, at some point you have to let go, there is a plan for us. If there is a plan for us, let it happen.”

Johnlu and Alou at first asked themselves where they went wrong. Johnlu “almost” blamed God.

“I almost did. I think it is at that point wherein your human frailty would come out, it would test you. And in the end, it was that test that made us become closer as a family because we met Sister Immacolata, mother superior of a congregation in Tagaytay. She assured us, ‘Don’t’ worry. Everything would be okay’.”

He adds: “If we didn’t seek refuge in prayer, we couldn’t have done it on our own. ‘Di mo kayang tanggapin noong first five years. Laging iniisip mo, baka may magic wand na magka-miracle resulting in Clement’s healing.”

When Alou finally decided she was ready for a third child, she had difficulty conceiving. But nine years after Clement was born, they were blessed with another child, a bouncy rosy-cheeked baby girl who they named Julia.

Having Clement in their lives has made Johnlu and Alou more sensitive.

“Our son’s condition has made us more compassionate to the needs of other kids with the same condition,” he says.

For her part, Alou tells me, “God will not give you anything you can’t handle. We have so many blessings, including Clement. We try to always look at the bright side. We became even more prayerful. We are grateful to the people we met, people along the way who somehow made it easy for us to manage Clement. Some of them, we became close to. Most important of all, we are blessed for having this opportunity to be understanding and supportive of one another. Johnlu and I never pointed a finger at whose fault it was that this happened to our son. Rather, we handled it together and said, ‘We will make it through’. ”

And made it through Johnlu and Alou have. Not just in the world of business, but in the business of life.

So you see, there’s more than just success in the kitchen of The French Baker. There’s more than a ton of love, faith and understanding.

(You may e-mail me at Follow me on Instagram @joanneraeramirez.)

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