Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Case of the Vanishing Entrepreneurs

Margaret got her first “haircut” January 14, 2009 at “Gruppo Barbero” along Tomas Morato in Quezon City (which used to be Bruno’s Barbers). Well, it was mostly just trimming a bit of the bangs, which were always on her eyes.

The kind barber didn’t charge us for the 20-second trim, which he did after my own haircut.

It got me thinking of the haircuts I had as a child back in San Miguel, Manila. There was a small squatter community beside the compound, and one of the residents was the barber, Mang Edring, who always walked over to the compound and serviced almost all the male members of the Golangco family.

Bruno’s Barbers vs. Mang Edring

Mang Edring had a little hole in the wall place with a mirror and a single rickety old refurbished barber’s chair that didn’t recline or rise. But hey, it looked like a barber’s chair so that’s what it was.

We trusted Mang Edring, because he was just down the street and he was a good barber. Apparently, he’d been cutting for over half a century at that time. Who cares about airconditioning and the hot towel? We walked over for a haircut. Want a manicure or pedicure? Missus Edring would be called and she’d do her thing while the old man did his.

So the man can cut hair, he’s paid his dues, and wants to make a humble living catering to the block by cutting hair. Probably cost him less than ten grand to put that thing together. The chair was practically a piece of sculpture, but his scissors and razor were already top-notch German shit. No frills, no nothing. That was that, and it wasn’t bad at all.

Half a block away in the same neighborhood, there’s a bakery at the ground floor of an old dilapidated building. It was called “Wow Bakery.” The loaf bread (which is annoyingly referred to in this country as “tasty”) was alright, but the pan-de-sal totally rocked. We weren’t worried about food poisoning or any of that shit. Heck, it was the neighborhood bakery. It’s got to be safe, right? Up until I got married and moved to QC, the bread there was still good, and whenever I pass the area, I would still see people bunched up at the bakery counter presumably buying bread.

No frills, no nothing. Just the little neighborhood bakery with the small painted sign facing a busy street. Probably a trusty old oven and slicing machines that make funny sounds, but still cut alright. A nice decent business for nice decent life. They served the bread needs of the neighborhood. No more, no less. No huge dreams of opening a dozen branches in different parts of the city. That was that, and it wasn’t bad at all.

* * * * *

Fast forward back to today.

I get my haircut (and head massage, manicure, pedicure, back massage, ear-cleaning and other what-nots) done at either Gruppo Barbero along Morato or Bruno’s at Julia Vargas (next door to the Maverick offices).

More often than not, I’d drive up a Pan de Manila for a bag of pan de sal. As a relatively new resident at our QC neighborhood, I didn’t know enough about the bakery around the other corner for me to buy my bread there. But I’d trust Pan de Manila since I found the set up very welcoming, and the visibility of the oven oddly comforting.

Of course, as a resident of the neighborhood, I should’ve been covered by the bakery around the other corner for me to buy my bread there. But no, I am a victim of the bake shop and barber shop with numerous branches, standardized operations, and the attractive backlit panaflex sign.

And I don’t recall ever having seen a hole in the wall barber shop in the neighborhood with no airconditioning. And even if there was, I doubt I’d trust some guy I don’t know to hold a razor against my temple unless his name was Bruno (or even Gruppo).

* * * * *

The Good Bibingka that Didn’t Make it

As a child, I noticed that as long as you had a store front along a busy street, you had some service skills, or some basic merchandise, you already had some of the main ingredients to a viable business. Of course that still holds true for some sleepier provinces. But for the most part, particularly Metro Manila, it’s already all about branding.

The entire concept of branding has made conglomerates out of what used to be viable hole-in-the-wall businesses. Also effectively threatening the survival of such small-time entrepreneurships, sometimes causing various industries to experience the continuous vanishing of entrepreneurs in the metropolis altogether.

Back when I held office at Horseshoe Village as a partner of what was then Montage Studios, I saw a coco-cloth streamer newly poised above a small store front along Hemady Street. It read “Gerico’s Special Bibingka Now Open to Serve You.”

Now I like bibingka (hell, I like FOOD, period.), and Ferino’s was a 7-minute drive from the office, so I gave it a shot.

I assumed that “Gerico” was the small guy who manned his little place, and made the bibinkgas himself. He had one piece on display on a small glass showcase, and another in small Styrofoam chest. I bought them both and brought them to the office. The stuff was good. I went back a couple more times in the succeeding few weeks. After not having bought there for a time, I just noticed one day that his streamer (which was already dirty at that time) was no longer there, and his little shop was empty.

And that was that for “Gerico’s Special Bibingka.” But Ferino’s was still baking away and dishing them out seven minutes away.

If I was them, I’d hire Gerico to bake in a Ferino’s branch. I wouldn’t be surprised if they already did. He made good bibingka.

* * * * *

Marketing vs. Simple Entrepreneurship: Double-Edged

As an advertising guy and marketing trouble-shooter, I have mixed feelings about these developments. On one hand, marketing and advertising of various forms have become the norm for even the smallest businesses to compete in the metropolis, whoopee. On the other hand, I feel for many business owners who have acknowledged that they need to do some marketing to compete, but advertising and marketing expenses might render their small-scale businesses no longer viable. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

Compared to Bruno’s Barbers, Mang Edring’s German scissors and almost six decades of experience weren’t going to cut it (pardon the pun). And I can only imagine how many corner bakeries with scratched glass showcases and ever-lessening displays of baked merchandise had to see their sales decline upon the entry of Pan de Manila in their neighborhoods.

I don’t blame anyone in these various scenarios, not Bruno’s, not Pan de Manila, not Mang Edring, not even the corner bakery with an ever-lessening display of baked merchandise. And while this may sound like shooting myself on the foot, I must admit that this trend is not an easy one to battle. I don’t have any easy answers here, but I will paraphrase what my former boss (and forever mentor) Kenny Quintal told me at the wake of my former officemate Architect Judy Lobas: “There’s enough work to get around. If your work is good, they [the clients/customers] will come, and if you stick to your principles and service them well, they’ll stay with you.”

He’s been right for the most parts, but the sharks are getting bigger, and the oceans are getting bloodier. But barbers have to keep cutting hair and bakers have to keep baking, and sometimes someone will stop by for good bibingka. They just have to stay open until enough people do.

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