By Ruth Manimtim-Floresca
Marvin Agustin is building his restaurant empire. Read this fascinating story of how the actor started from the bottom as a waiter to become one of the country’s most accomplished restaurateurs.
Many people may not be aware that TV host and movie actor Marvin Agustin is also a sharp entrepreneur. He’s actually one of the brains behind popular restaurant brands like Kung Fu Kitchen, Tokyo Grill, SumoSam, Marciano’s, John & Yoko, Johnny Chow, Komrad, Robotosan, and several others.
Surprisingly, Marvin did not come to own these food establishments after earning a business degree. “I only finished high school,” he reveals. “[But] I took up short courses like Management of the Arts program sa AIM and also took up culinary in the International School of Culinary Arts and Hotel Management. Business degree wala.”
Marvin admits, “Wala kami masyadong maraming pera noon. We really tend to save while I was growing up. Medyo survival eh, we had financial problems. We’re three siblings, I’m the youngest. Not much to say when I was a kid.”
When his dad lost his job, Marvin’s mom found a way to earn by selling cold cuts like longganisa and tocino around their neighborhood. “Ako ang taga-singil at taga-deliver n’ya noon,” recalls Marvin who also had the idea to buy and sell shirts and pants sourced from Tutuban. “I sold them to our neighbors and even got into a paputok business when I was young. Talagang ako ang nagbebenta sa mga kapitbahay namin.”
When he turned 13, the enterprising young man also worked as a mascot in Shakey’s. “Sobrang init [sa loob ng costume]! My sister was the supervisor and wala s’yang mauto,” he grins. “[Pero] kailangan ko rin ng pambaon so nauuto n’ya ako. I earned P150 per appearance in birthday parties.”
Later, Marvin also became a family service representative in ACA video. “I tried applying for a job in McDonald’s pero ‘di nila ako tinanggap because I was too young daw. So nag-apply ako sa Tia Maria’s at natanggap ako.”
Taking Small Steps To Success
“Nung bata pa ako, ‘pag tanungin mo ako anong gusto kong maging, sasabihin ko businessman with no specific business in mind,” he confesses. When he started working at Tia Maria’s, he dreamt of becoming a restaurant manager. “Masayang-masaya ako noon dahil sa umaga, pag-aaralin ako ng Tia Maria’s tapos sa gabi, magtatrabaho ako. They were really pushing me to study more.”
Marvin started working at the restaurant when he was 16. “Graduate na ako ng high school noon. They saw a potential because I was their youngest regular at the time. So, sabi nila, sayang. ‘Mag-aral ka muna sa umaga tapos trabaho ka sa amin.’”
It seemed that his path would eventually lead him to put up his own food business. “I grew up with people working in restaurants. My sister was with Shakey’s, my other sister was with Dunkin Donuts. My family? We all love to eat!”
Marvin shares that both his mom and dad love to cook. “As early as seven years old, taga-saing na ako. We live in a small house wherein wherever you are, you see the kitchen, you see what’s going on, smell what’s cooking. So naging blessing in disguise s’ya for me dahil natutunan ko ang pagluluto at naging passion ko.”
Thus, when he was able to save up enough money to enter into business for his family and himself, Marvin chose to put up a restaurant.
His first brand was SumoSam. “It’s [my and my partners’] concept. I like Japanese food but, at the same time, it was a very strategic decision because, when Shangri-la was offered to us, walang Japanese restaurant doon.”
He recalls how it was a very good problem when they started. “We weren’t ready for its success. At the time, there were a lot of people discouraging us to get that space because that sixth floor in Shangri-la, s’ya yung nalulugi na space,” he recollects. “We never thought that on our first day, sobra-sobrang lakas that I had to be the waiter and the sushi man. My friends, buti na lang, were there helping us with the tables and chairs ‘coz we weren’t supposed to open that day. So that concept was really an answered prayer for us.”
Having worked from the bottom up, Marvin says he can perform any tasks his employees do. “In Tia Maria’s, I was the waiter, I was also the security guard, and the cashier. [Some days], I could be the janitor, I can be in the kitchen, nag-bartend din ako. I was all around there.”
And because he knows how hard it is to earn an income, Marvin believes that employers have to keep employees happy by giving them what’s due them. “You have to treat them right and, at the same time, [provide them with] non-stop training and constantly finding out saan pa yung growth na gusto nila.”
He adds that one of the reasons he loves doing business and why his company continues to expand is that, “We’re not just helping one person. If you employ one person, you’re helping the family of that person. So with our businesses, money is important but it’s not everything.”
“Every time we’ll open a restaurant, ang sarap ng pakiramdam na ilang tao yung matutulungan mo agad; ilang tao yung mabibigyan mo ng trabaho,” he explains.
Marvin states that, typically, every day for him is a long day, “I wake up early and start my day working out. My trainer would come to the house then, if I have a shoot, I’d go there. If not, I’d go to the office.” Aside from his food business, Marvin runs two other companies called Futuretainment and MediaNation. “We do concert, TV, and film productions [as well as] artist management. In one building lang yung office ko ng Sumosam and production para I can just go up and down.”
Normally, he does office work in the mornings until about lunchtime or mid-afternoon. “And then, mag-iikot na ako sa mga restaurants sa hapon.” During the interview, while eating some of his favorite dishes in Kung Fu Kitchen, Marvin shares that, “This is unwinding for me. Working is a hobby. It doesn’t feel like I’m working.”
Sundays though, the single dad sets aside for his family. “I cook or barbeque for them. I love doing that! I have twins who turned seven last August 15. May college fund na sila although I’m still paying for it.”
Speaking of investments, Marvin says his first one would be the townhouse that was his Valentine’s gift for his mom in 1996. “Artista na ako noon. Ni-loan ko s’ya sa bank. Buong buhay kasi namin, nagre-rent kami. Wala kaming sariling bahay or place that we can call our own. Kaya nung nagkachance, sabi ko, I’ll give my mom her dream house.”
Asked who he looks up to in the financial industry, Marvin reveals he’s a fan of well-known Filipino businessmen Manny V. Pangilinan of PLDT and Ramon Ang of San Miguel. “MVP is very sharp, a visionary and, at the same time, a good person. Sometimes, hindi mo mahahanap yan sa isang tao lang. I met Mang Ramon once, sobrang warm na tao. He’s a very good friend of the dad of the mom of my kids. He’s so down to earth and is such a genuine and sincere person,” he describes. “I guess the reason why [they both] are very successful is because they’re not just great; they’re also nice people.”
As someone who experienced being a working student, Marvin wants to have a foundation in the near future that advocates for education. “Yun yung isang bagay na, feeling ko, masarap ituro o dapat bigyan ng value. I want to help deserving people na walang perang pang-aral.”
He adds that, in terms of managing all his earnings, “I’m a very practical person. I only buy the things that I really need. I don’t overspend. If I know my savings would be hurt to acquire or buy that, I won’t until I am comfortable or until I feel I can buy it.”
“I would loan for business but not for my personal needs. Ang prinsipyo ko sa buhay, kung ‘di mo kaya, ‘wag mong bilhin. Kung ‘di mo pa abot, ‘wag mong pilitin,” he advises. “I learned this principle through hardships [since] lumaki [akong] mahirap [at may] simpleng buhay. That’s what I don’t want na mawala sa akin, to enjoy the simple things in life.”
Marvin shares his tips to fellow entrepreneurs on keeping the business going:
Never lose passion in what you’re doing.
Lagi nating naririnig yung quote na, “Strike the iron while it’s hot.” Ako, lagi kong sinasabi, keep it burning. It’s like your passion, like your love for something. When you start losing it, everything else will fail. Walang secret sa success. It’s really hard work, determination, and drive. Never lose them and magthathrive at magsa-succeed ka pa lalo.
You have to enjoy and love what you’re doing.
If you love what you’re doing, na-solve mo na yung kalahati ng problema mo because you’re not pleasing other people but just yourself; because you like to do it. No one’s forcing you, no one’s dictating you what to do.
Always challenge yourself.
Like with our restaurants, every location is unique. You won’t see a SumoSam that’s very identical from another one. We always try to tweak and find the uniqueness of a location. Hindi kami basta-basta nagbubukas ng branch dahil eto ang concept namin. We always try to adapt and adjust.
Never become discouraged.
SumoSam wasn’t my first venture into the food business. I had Mr. Donut. When I endorsed them, yun ang hiningi kong talent fee. And then after that, I had Ricecapades. We weren’t able to continue it anymore. Wala na rin yung franchise ng Mr. Donut. What happened with that was nagkaroon ng maraming 7-Eleven and Ministop and they both sell Mr. Donut. Napaligiran ako, so parang they killed their own brand, they killed their own stores. Yun ang naging problema ko. Marami na rin akong pinag-aralan at pinagdaanan but I never stopped. I just kept on going.
Stay humble all the time.
Dapat hindi lang pera yung pinaka-importante sa ’yo.
Kung walang risk, walang enjoyment yan eh. Lahat ng bagay, walang 100% na assurance sa mundo.
Find good business partners.
Finding a business partner is like finding a wife. Hindi ‘yan dahil pareho kayong magaling, pwede. You have to share the same values. You have to share the same principles. Kasi, relative ang mali at tama eh. Pero kung hindi kayo nagkakasundo sa isang bagay, hindi na kayo magkakasundo sa maraming bagay. So dapat, aligned kayo palagi.