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Businesses don’t always have to innovate, says Potato Corner’s Joe Magsaysay

How making fast decisions turned a humble French fry stall into an international brand

Photos by Danica Condez and courtesy of Potato Corner

Joe Magsaysay, or Jomag, as he is commonly known, seems unfazed by the public’s adulation. In the 26 years since he and his partners put up the first Potato Corner stall in SM Megamall, he has encountered his fair share of loyal, sometimes obsessive fans. The company’s steady international expansion is due to its global fan base that has tried the product and wishes to share it with people back home. “For all of our international franchises, we never approached anyone abroad. We were always the ones approached,” he says.

COO Dom Hernandez narrates, “Our US franchise, for instance. We were approached by the son of an expat who lived in Pacific Plaza (along Ayala Avenue, Makati). He told us how he skateboarded to Glorietta every day to get his Potato Corner fries.” It’s that craving for crisp, freshly cooked fries dusted in flavored powder that is responsible for the 1,100 branches all over the world. The newest branch opening soon in Bali will be the 100th store in Indonesia. Growth of the brand in Panama, which was once less explosive than in other markets, is now on a steady rise. Who would have known that a simple formula adapted from flavored popcorn would turn into the global brand it is today?

Hernandez did. That’s why he and his family bought into Potato Corner in May 2017 after he experienced firsthand working with Magsaysay on their Nacho Bimby venture. “When I found out that Jomag wanted to sell shares of the company, I convinced my family that it’s an easy and simple business and it can be very profitable in the right locations,” says Hernandez whose family owns the bus company Victory Liner. But, more than their belief in the product, they know they are heavily investing in Magsaysay. “He’s a visionary.”

RUNNING GAME
Joe Magsaysay, or Jomag, as he is fondly known, put up Potato Corner 26 years ago.

Hernandez explains, “A very big part of Jomag’s business philosophy depends on acting quickly and boldly. Like in basketball, it’s a running game. Bawal mabagal.” He shares how Magsaysay gifted his executives with Vespa scooters. “He wants us to get out more, experience more of what’s happening in our surroundings,” Hernandez says. “He thought we were too boxed in.”

Since starting the company with his brother-in-law and a few friends in 1992, Magsaysay confesses that the wheels of Potato Corner haven’t stopped turning since. After he opened a couple of branches, interested parties had already approached him to put up franchises. He did not hesitate. “Even if we didn’t have a franchise contract.” Wasn’t he afraid of getting screwed? “For what? A few thousand pesos? Even college students can borrow money from their parents to buy their own franchise, kayang kaya. Maliit na investment lang.”

Hernandez explains, “A very big part of Jomag’s business philosophy depends on acting quickly and boldly. Like in basketball, it’s a running game. Bawal mabagal.” He shares how Magsaysay gifted his executives with Vespa scooters. “He wants us to get out more, experience more of what’s happening in our surroundings,” Hernandez says. “He thought we were too boxed in.”

ORIGINITY VS. INNOVATION

Potato Corner’s success seems bulletproof. Magsaysay abides by designing a process that works for the business and sticking to it. To this day, his inventory has not changed. The stalls, after some tweaking during Potato Corner’s early stages, are still basically made up of a deep fryer, some trays, and plastic garapons to shake the fries and flavored powder in. Did he ever think of diversifying? “That’s one misconception people have in the food industry—that you always need to change things up. You have to innovate. You don’t, e. You just have to be original. Other industries might need to constantly innovate, but that’s not the case with food,” he says.

True enough, many have tried to copy Potato Corner’s model, but the original is too difficult to beat. Chuckling, Magsaysay continues, “Dati pa, neighboring stalls would give me advice. I should add more items, or how I can improve my product. I just smile and tell them, ‘Ah, okay. Sige, kayo na lang.’”

OUTLIVE, OUTLAST

Potato Corner might be steamrolling over the competition now, but not without bumps on the road. There was a time they suffered a slump when Magsaysay took on a post at the Agustines-owned Ramcar Corporation heading the local franchise of Mister Donut in 2001. “When I saw Potato Corner’s sales were suffering, I asked my partners if I could come back and run the business,” Magsaysay narrates. Armed with new knowledge from his training at the Asian Institute of Management, he devised a new business plan, which he presented to his partners. And, with it, of course, was Magsaysay’s signature juggernaut style of management.

Barbecue, one of Potato Corner’s classic flavors

“There were mistakes along the way, of course,” Hernandez admits, “but Jomag is not the type to brood. He insists on never being idle, just always being on the go and figuring out the next move.” Magsaysay admits that the nature of this business allows them to quickly recover from a loss. “If a store closes, okay lang. It doesn’t really hurt us since the investment is so minimal. Unlike a full restaurant or a bar where you might spend millions. If it fails, you’ll really feel it. That’s not the case with us.”

Looking forward, Magsaysay sees a large future in microbusinesses like Potato Corner. He believes in investing in startups with their company acting as an “incubator” for new small concepts. “The pitch just needs to be sincere and passionate,” Magsaysay says. “I really have a soft spot for startups.” But, of course, the focus will remain on Potato Corner, and “how to keep it relevant for the next 25 years.”

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