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When the ‘Market’ is the school
Published By: Philippine Star | October 12, 2020
MANILA, Philippines — Jasper Munji woke up one morning with a mix of excitement and anxiety of a schoolboy preparing for the first day of class. The 39-year-old general manager was indeed, and in more ways than one, a student about to enter school.
All Munji had known throughout his professional life was that he had a ladder to climb. He was a bright-eyed graduate who got accepted into a large company. He worked his way up the commodities trading division and was now an executive with a startup group.
Everything was coming up roses until the pandemic broke out. The prospect of his new company taking on the future now filled him with apprehension about how he would survive. His wife was in the airline industry, which provided no better long-term security for their family of five.
In Munji’s search for new, more reliable sources of income, he decided to break the professional glass ceiling.
Owning a restaurant was something he and his wife had always dreamed of, but the pre-pandemic life did not provide enough time and yielded just enough comfort. In times that called for extraordinary measures, Munji finally rolled the dice and got into the foodservice business.
He invested part of their family savings in a franchise for a Korean barbecue brand and sold frozen meat products online. At first, their clientele comprised of friends, family, and tenants in nearby residential properties. It was an exciting start, but then Munji did not venture into business for excitement. He needed to see returns and looked for opportunities for face-to-face setups.
One option was to sell in his community at Princeton Residences in New Manila. When Munji requested SMDC for clearance to sell, what he got was an invitation to join The Good Guys Market, a weekend bazaar set up by SM Development Corporation (SMDC).
Munji expected to pay an entrance fee upfront. He was told that not only does the program welcome residents for free; it actually helps vendors—especially new ones like him—to set up shop. On his first day with The Good Guys Market, which marked the official start of his new life chapter as a bona fide, customer-facing entrepreneur, Munji felt like a student all over again.
“We set up very early that day,” Munji recalls. “I caught a cold three days before the opening so we weren’t prepared. There were no tarps, no uniform. All we had was an icebox and a table.”
Along with the simple setup was the distinction of being the only meat seller in a bazaar that sold mostly greens, as The Good Guys Market was established to connect displaced farmers with consumers through SM Foundation’s Kabalikat sa Kabuhayan on Sustainable Agriculture program.
Soon enough, Munji’s unique stall caught the attention of a curious customer: a well-loved resident that the Princeton community fondly calls “lola.” As it turned out, lola had no clue about Munji’s frozen Korean goods or samgyupsal.
“Baka ‘di ko makagat yan?” Munji remembers her asking. “Baka mabali ‘yung pustiso ko.”
The seller allayed the concerns of his customer, saying that samgyupsal is cut thinly, making it easy to cook, chew, and digest. Convinced, lola made a purchase and she has been a regular customer since.
She also proved to be a lucky charm as Munji sold out the day’s stock. He believes the solid turnout reflects the strong sense of community at Princeton.
Munji bought his Princeton unit at the preselling stage in 2009. “When I saw the model unit, layout, and plans, I decided that this was where I’d start my family. This is our dream home.”
Munji kept true to his words and now has three children, who were all raised at Princeton; it was also there where he found himself a part of a larger family. Now the community has presented him with the chance to earn and continue to serve food on the table during a tough time like this.
“Our main idea was to have the business as a fallback option. But our end-goal has changed,” he says. “Since SMDC helped us start with this market setup, what we intend to do is to grow it along with The Good Guys Market.”
Munji has grown a lot as a businessman since joining the program.
Apart from providing a marketplace for its residents, SMDC has been conducting an entrepreneurship webinar series to help prepare residents for their business start-ups, from getting business permits all the way to product development and marketing. Munji has attended all of SMDC’s entrepreneurship webinars. He has expanded his operations outside Princeton and now joins The Good Guys Market in other SMDC properties, such as Mezza in Quezon City, Breeze in Manila and Shell Residences in the Mall of Asia Complex.
Having to face clients taught him good marketing. From simply having cutout stickers plastered on coolers and icebox, he now engages with his customers online with creative marketing materials.
“We learned through The Good Guys Market that business is not just about the quality of the products you’re selling. It’s also about how you market your brand to make it more appealing to different types of clients,” he said.
Munji also discovered the importance of listening to client feedback. His samgyupsal continues to be a top-seller. But Korean barbecue is largely viewed as weekend food; the customers were asking for meals for everyday consumption.
While looking for ways to meet the demand, Munji came across a chef who was laid off from work. He asked the chef to create samples of products. He tasted the products and decided to try a new concept. This led to the birth of Mr. Chef. The brand offers ready-to-eat meals – from Bicol Express to Queso de Bola Caldereta, Japanese Curry, and the bestselling Roastbeef Lenggua.
Munji and his partner introduced 10 microwaveable tubs at The Good Guys Market. Today, with clients beginning to buy in bulk for a week’s worth of food, they are targeting as much as 80 tubs per outing.
Such is the success of Munji’s samgyupsal franchise and his own ready-to-eat concept that he has struck partnerships with food delivery services and an e-commerce site to reach even more customers. He now spends his mornings fulfilling his office duties on his laptop and switches to his iPad in the afternoon to look over his business.
“SMDC has helped us find a way to survive this pandemic,” Munji said. “Moving forward, we hope to open a store. We really have to prevail and level up in the new normal.”