Tasting Notes

How Potato Corner Got Us to Line Up at Food Carts

The French fries brand helped change the way we mall.

It’s a tub of freshly-cooked French fries, served hot, and coated with lip-smacking flavors – all these factors come together to bring us the Potato Corner experience that we have grown to crave.

The first cart opened in Megamall, back in October 1992, borne from Jorge Noel Wieneke II’s observation on malling behaviour. “At the time, you could only order French fries from fast food restaurants like McDonald’s. Then, if you are a parent na nagtitipid, you’d order the fries for the kids, bibili ka ng maliit, tapos sasabihin mo hati na sila dun. I know because that was what I would do,” he smiles.

Jorge Noel Wieneke II.

It was also the time when he, a producer/casting director at an ad agency was looking for a better way to make an income. “One of my inspirations was Ricky Montelibano’s popcorn business. He was my model for a toothpaste commercial and I asked him how much he was making from his flavoured popcorn, because he had a really nice car, a cellphone, and a cd player on a gooseneck in his car!”

This realization that going into business can be the key to success galvanized him into action. He was able to form a group that had core competencies that gave birth to the food cart’s inception and eventual expansion. Jorge, the youngest, was the creative guy; the late Danny Bermejo was the one with the perseverance; Joe Magsaysay knew operations because he worked at Wendy’s, and Ricky Montelibano, who had the business experience and the funding. Weineke also mentions his father-in-law’s importance, as he was then Imports Director of the Central Bank and he knew the suppliers.

To his recollection, R&D only took about 5 to 6 months, because all four had brought their expertise to the table. “JoeMag knew the technicalities of how to cook the fries right such as which oil to use, Danny knew someone who can make the carts for us. Ricky already had the flavorings that he uses for his popcorn.”

The four of them chipped in about P36,000 each, he recalls. “Our mall rent was very low at the time, so was the security deposit. There were other carts already around at the time – there was a popcorn cart, mini donuts, and flavoured taho — but cart space was just an afterthought, as the malls would concentrate on bigger retail spaces.”

The Potato Corner Lab in Glorietta 4.

When they opened, a long line of customers were eager to try out their innovative product. “It was word of mouth, since there was no social media then, but it was a hit.” It was also trial-and-error at the beginning, especially with the cart design, and they had problems with the cart’s smoke. “Ang daming beses naging issue yan!” he exclaims.

It took less than a year for them to open another branch, he remembers. “The second one was at Glorietta, then at Robinson’s Galleria. “We really didn’t plan on the strategy to open at the high-end visible malls at the time, but I consider that as a lucky break, because we were able to get there ahead of the copycats.”  

Potato Corner CEO Joe Magsaysay.

It took less than a year for them to open another branch, he remembers. “The second one was at Glorietta, then at Robinson’s Galleria. “We really didn’t plan on the strategy to open at the high-end visible malls at the time, but I consider that as a lucky break, because we were able to get there ahead of the copycats.”

Potato Corner became an empire it is today, with its website listing 200 branches worldwide, because of franchising. “When we started the concept of franchising was mainly reserved for big businesses, mainly the foreign brands that were coming in. Hindi pa nga uso ang term na entrepreneur, businessman pa noon, and food carts were considered as ‘naglalaro lang’.” Without the sharing of expertise that there is today, in the form of franchise fairs and GoNegosyo talks (where Wieneke shares his time today as a mentor), they built their own clunky system of franchising. “Friends and relatives helped us out. There would be joint ventures, full franchises, and kiosks that we ourselves managed. It was half-baked,” he laughs.

Because of its phenomenal success, and the relative ease and lower cost of setting up a cart versus a traditional restaurant, Potato Corner was one of the drivers of the franchising revolution, he says proudly.  

The humble fries kiosk introduced the cart concept to a wider market, paving the way for it to become part of the mainstream lifestyle. “It answers a need for fresh, hot food on the go, at affordable price points. We started during a recession, and even when there is an internal recession, such as the parent being laid off from work, they would tell the kids at the mall, ‘let’s eat something from a cart, then we’ll eat a full meal at home’. It’s the last line of the economy.”

Potato Corner store in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong.

Wieneke sold his Potato Corner shares in 2002. Armed with his expertise from Potato Corner, he ventured into consultancy later on, helping to grow Waffle Time, and he since has launched his now-successful Tokyo Tempura brand in 2012, following the same principle of addressing a need in the market. “Tempura is something you would only usually see in a Japanese restaurant, and mahal siya. We made our tempura more affordable and more easily available in our food carts.” The same formula for success applies, it seems, as there are now 100 Tokyo Tempura carts nationwide.

Photos courtesy of Jorge Noel Wieneke II and Potato Corner.

About the author

Maan D’Asis Pamaran

Leave a Comment