Panizza Magnate Goes From Rags to Riches -- And Hard Work Is To Blame

Relish the story of Larry Cortez, co-founder and CEO of local brick oven pizza chain Uncle Cheffy.

January 29, 2017 by Katt Pascual

Business is a battlefield and Larry F. Cortez – the co-founder, president and CEO of homegrown brick oven pizza chain Uncle Cheffy – came prepared.

Leaving their Nueva Ecija home at age 16 to find a better life, Larry took on odd jobs, became deeply immersed in the restaurant industry as the manager of a high-end Makati dining place for over 17 years, and took success clues from the books of Brian Tracy, Robert Kiyosaki, and other self-made billionaires.

Today he is at the helm of the Uncle Cheffy Group, which boasts of 37 branches of the flagship restaurant, a range of other brands that include Kusê, Bossing’s Grill, and Chef’s Quarter Catering Services, and a growing franchise network nationwide. Uncle Cheffy is well-known for its innovative brick oven cuisine, which features affordable BBQ beef ribs and a lineup of delicious panizza flavors.

But his isn’t your typical rags-to-riches story. Here, hard work and persistence – not just the gory specifics of poverty and want – take the spotlight.

The Savory Taste Of Experience

Larry’s first entrepreneur model was his own father, a carpenter who had the pioneering idea of a “rolling store” of local sweets and delicacies in their hometown during the late 70’s. It was a monopoly in the small village, he recalled, that allowed his father to upgrade his broken-down bicycle into a motorbike, and to build their family home on a 600-sqm lot in their hometown.

The rolling store closed down when his father joined the wave of overseas Filipino workers (OFW) and worked in Singapore, where he went off track and came home to the Philippines after four years with very little savings.

As the eldest in a brood of six, Larry decided to stop schooling and instead seek opportunities in Manila. Living with relatives, he worked as an all-around boy for an ailing general services firm, and afterwards as a security guard in local factories and companies with active labor unions.

“Back then, the only qualification was your willingness to follow orders and shoot people,” he shared. He didn’t want any of it, so off he went to venture into the world at large.

Fate brought him to the hotel and restaurant industry as a junior waiter at Hotel Intercontinental, where he marveled at the staff’s sleek uniforms, fancy clientele, and exposure to the finest wines. Little did Larry know that he would stay in that world and morph into a seasoned manager and businessman in that sector.

“Almost everybody else in the staff would be out drinking and calling it a night while I would clear the tables, take the dirty dishes out, and serve the last drop of customers until 1 or 2 am,” said Larry.

It was the time when he first reaped the rewards of good customer service. A royalty from the United Kingdom and other wealthy clients would insist on handing him massive tips ranging from P500 to P1,000 every time, assuring him that he deserved it.

His main takeaway: the customer is your ultimate backer. “Do right by them and they will repay you in many ways you can’t imagine.”

Thinking, Growing Rich

In early 2000, Larry seemed to already have it all: a lovely stay-at-home wife, five children, at least P80,000 in monthly wages, and several investments including stocks. But at age 33, he discovered the world of business books and awakened a sense of ambition that had been there all along.

“People said I was too ambitious,” he said. “And they mock and dislike that attitude. When you’re from the province, you can’t aim for too much.”

Efficient and loyal as he was to the boss he served for years and even helped establish another high-end establishment in Baguio City, he prepared for his “bigger life mission” ahead by reading materials from self-made billionaires for years; educated himself on the matter of wines, steak, and all things food; and scoured his contact list for willing investors to the restaurant concepts he had been developing for years.

His vision finally took shape when a foreign investor, a former regular customer, shelled out a handsome P12 million for their first venture, a steakhouse in Taguig City. He acted as industrial partner along with chef and long-time friend Mauro Arjona, Jr., who remains a steadfast partner in all his business ventures today.

Parting ways with his first angel investor, building the next restaurant in Malate in 2007, and learning from failed attempts and mishaps along the way all led to the birth of Uncle Cheffy in 2009. The brand, made available to franchisees in 2010, banks not just on quality and an expansive Italian-American-Filipino menu, but also price points that attract penny-pinching yet value-seeking families and professionals.

Popular for its panizzas at friendly prices of P350 to P500 and delicious slow-cooked ribs, Uncle Cheffy operates from three locations in Taguig – Venice Piazza in McKinley Hill, Forbestown Center in BGC, and Vista Mall Taguig -- in close proximity to BPO employees, mallgoers, and even groups from out of town who visit attractions like the gondola ride at Venice Grand Canal Mall. His other restaurants in the city include Kusê with branches at Crossroads Building in BGC and Venice Piazza in McKinley Hill, Herbs & Spices in Venice Piazza, and Market Basket-Modern Dampa in Vista Mall Taguig.

Is the restaurant boss intimidated by more international dining chains coming in the country? Hardly, because “wala namang dadating na Pinoy galing sa ibang bansa (No Filipino brand will come from outside the Philippines),” he would assert, confident of the local cuisine’s appeal and his target market’s tastes and preferences. In fact, Larry sees Uncle Cheffy conquering the international scene in the future.

He looked back at the time when he was still building his food empire, but was holding a security baton, table rags, and soiled dishes instead of textbooks, pen and paper, and business capital.

“Opportunity is always waiting out there for you. It’s up to you to grab it and claim it as yours.”

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