By Robert A. Vergara, Jr., Digital Reporter
I DON’T WANT to start a food business that solely sells food,” said Francis Reyes, the 25-year-old CEO of Caravan Food Group, Inc., parent company of rolled ice cream store Elait and donut shop OverDoughs. “I want to send a message through food,” he added. “I want to hire people who the usual food entrepreneurs wouldn’t hire.”
Graduates from College of Saint Benilde’s School for the Deaf currently staff Elait’s branches in three malls. The company is also in the process of employing more people with autism or down syndrome for OverDough’s current stalls.
This ambitious idea, Reyes admitted, was risky for a service-oriented business, especially in this age of social media when one’s dissatisfaction can easily taint a brand’s reputation.
“I didn’t know how the public would react so, at first, we paired up deaf employees with those who can hear, then eventually we saw that they can handle things by themselves,” he recalled. “That’s when we decided that everyone would be deaf in the whole team.”
Reyes, who holds a degree in hotel, restaurant and institution management from the University of the Philippines, hails from the family behind clinic chain SkinStation. And while that kind of background might attest to his business potential, it also posed a challenge: some mall operators would press him about building his own brand when he could capitalize on their already established family business. After all, the playing field for dessert concepts was already dominated by big, mostly foreign, players like, say, Dunkin’ Donuts or Dairy Queen.
“When I was trying to pitch our concept to mall owners, I really had to push the idea that what we’re different, that what we’re doing is something else,” he said.
The persistence, however, did pay off. The company has earned enough profits to sustain operations and even fund expansion plans.
Yet more than the money, Reyes considers the fulfillment of his deaf employees as his biggest achievement in business to date.
“When I was interviewing them at the start, their goal was just to survive and support their families,” he said. “Now, they really appreciate the business more. They really take care of it, and they treat the branch as their home. They have a place to belong to.”