Karla Reyes, Fourth Generation Restaurateur

A Q&A session with Karla Reyes, a fourth generation restaurateur.

In many family corporations, members have to wear several hats depending on the responsibilities assigned to them. Karla Reyes is someone who wears all those hats and wears them well. She is a fourth-generation member of the clan that founded two iconic Filipino culinary institutions, The Aristocrat and The Plaza.  

Like her mother (The Plaza Inc. CEO Millie Reyes), Karla grew up in the family business and trained for the roles she would take up in it as soon as she was old enough. An alumna of De La Salle University in Manila, she earned her degree in Business Management, majoring in Entrepreneurship before flying off to New York for culinary studies at the French Culinary Institute (now known as the International Culinary Centre). 

Today, this hands-on dynamo is in charge of business operations and development for the company. When not in the kitchen or the office, she is also a contributor to The Philippine Star, one of the country’s leading broadsheets. This time, she makes time to speak with Food Pulse about her family business and her experience as a chef.. 

Aside from The Aristocrat and The Plaza, a number of your relatives have also started their F&B companies. Were you all expected to join the family business at an early age?  

Not really. The way I was brought up, I don’t think there was any expectation for me. Then again, I was exposed to the business at an early age. 

I used to go with my mom to the caterings, and I was the official taster behind the scenes. I would try everything. 

After school, my playground was the bakeshop. While other kids were playing with plasticine dough, I was playing with real dough, and I spent my afternoons working with flour and eggs. 

How did you end up joining the family business? 

I was exposed to it early on, but it only got serious when I was in my sophomore year at college. 

In 2006, my mom was creating a separate brand for our baked ham and was bringing it out to the market as a retail item. At that time, she hired a brand manager to get the business up and running at our SM Mall of Asia (SM MoA) store. But, a month before we were set to open, he decided to quit. 

I was on summer break and told my mother, “Oh, if it’s just a matter of making the operations manual or overseeing the details like ordering in stock, don’t worry, Mom. I’ll work for you for free.” It was just to get things rolling. I actually wrote it on a note: Don’t worry, Mom; I’ll work for you for free,” and she framed that note! 

I thought it was just going to be a summer thing, but Mom took it seriously. I was still in school then, but two months later, we were offered a space at SM Megamall in Ortigas because our SM MoA stall was doing very well.  

Karla Reyes with her mom, both are smiling.
Karla Reyes and her mother as the third and fourth generation in the family business. (Photo: Courtesy of The Plaza)

For you, as both chef and restaurateur, what does it take to succeed in what is getting to be a very competitive industry? 

Discipline, even if you know the techniques and have the palate for it. If you don’t have the discipline to run things the way they’re supposed to be run, you won’t get very far. 

Not a lot of people see it that way, though. They think that “Oh, you’re a great cook; you should open a restaurant!” But being able to cook and knowing how to run a restaurant are two completely different things. If you’re a chef who doesn’t know at all that much about the business side, get a partner who’s more business-savvy than you are. 

There are a lot of restaurants that have closed because, while their food was good, they were unable to maintain quality, they made bad decisions, or they didn’t have good working practices. Some had problems with cash flow because no one was taking care of the corporate side properly.  

What advice would you give those who want to put up their own restaurants? 

Study the business hard. It isn’t easy. As a restaurant owner, you have to be prepared to give up your holidays, weekends, and even sleep. For the most part, it’s the cooking that’s easy; but keeping everything and everyone together on the same page is a challenge. It does take work. 


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