Her nickname means “showing pleasure” and that’s exactly how restaurateur Happy Ongpauco-Tiu runs her businesses and entertains family and friends.
Born to Rod Ongpauco, scion of the Barrio Fiesta restaurant chain, and ’60s actress Liberty Ilagan, Madonna Peace, as she was baptized, always wore a stoic expression. Thus, her parents gave her the nickname “Happy” so that she could imbibe it.
“Eventually, I was always giggly,” she says.
Growing up in a family of restaurateurs, Happy was exposed to abundant food on the table. Then again, there was also the discipline that came with the business. Her father never doted on his three daughters. If they wanted anything, they had to work for it. While Happy’s classmates were partying or going on a holiday, Happy was posted in Barrio Fiesta and her father’s own restaurants—Bakahan at Manukan and Singing Cooks and Waiters Atbp. (the Isdaan theme park would come later). She learned how to be a cashier and dispatcher, and mastered other aspects of running a restaurant until she could manage a branch.
After acquiring her degree in International Business at Assumption College in 1997, she honed her chef skills at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, California.
In 2000, Happy opened a 25-seater, hole-in-the-wall restaurant along Timog Avenue, Quezon City, specializing in rice bowls with tasty toppings. Instead of asking for money from her parents, she maxed out her credit card and paid for the chairs, tables, and appliances by installment. World Topps, her first brand, was a hit among students and young professionals. In one year, she recovered her initial investment and used the profits to open her second branch.
Her mother company, Happy Concept Group, has since spawned Bento Box, Hawaiian BBQ, Pamana, and Tsokolateria (all temporarily closed due to the pandemic). Hawaiian BBQ reflects her fondness for grilled foods, Pamana specializes in heirloom Filipino recipes that are artfully plated, and Tsokolateria serves drinks, desserts, and savory dishes infused with the best cacao in the country.
With business partner Allana Montelibano, she pioneered boutique hotels in Tagaytay. The seven-room Boutique Bed and Breakfast was the first house to be converted into a lodging place in the popular weekend getaway some 50 kilometers south of Manila.
Her venture is Gourmet Republic on LP Leviste Street, Salcedo Village, Makati, which consolidates the best of her brands.
Happy describes her business philosophy as old-fashioned—single proprietorship and no malls. Despite the fact that she doesn’t advertise, people come in droves to her restaurants because of the positive feedback and ample parking.
I save and save and branch out. I’m on my own. I don’t get other partners for investment. I’m not pressured by the stiff rentals of the malls and the competition with hundreds of concepts in a mall. I do it my way—I conceptualize and do research and development. With four sons, I have to hire professionals to delegate responsibilities,” she explains.
The independent streak was influenced by her father who wanted to have his own ventures outside of the family business. “I look up to my father who was never threatened by new concepts. He’s doing his own thing at his own pace. That is how I am. I don’t want to get intimidated by sophisticated concepts or foreign brands. Being competitive takes the fun out of being a restaurateur.”
Happy also credits her family as her support group. She is married to Dexter Tiu, whose family owns Discovery Hotels & Resorts. Tiu has set up his own businesses in renewable energy and water.
Although their sons are enrolled in international schools, the Tius espouse traditional Chinese values such as close family ties and respect for elders.
“All the houses of the siblings have an extra room for the parents. Since we live in one vicinity, we keep sending food to each other’s house. Bonds are tight,” says Happy.
Every Sunday, the Tiu siblings take turns hosting family lunches. When it was her turn to host lunch, Happy concocted a Mediterranean menu of salad with feta cheese, pita bread with hummus and baba ganoush, baked fish with lemon and salt, kebabs, and baklava, to name a few.
At another reunion, she went Indian with chutneys and flat breads, spinach and homemade cheese stew, buttered chicken, beef masala, a curry bar, and crabs, clams, and shrimps. The desserts were homemade saffron ice cream and thick yogurt with star anise.
When guests came, they were awed by the burst of colors from the flowers and the Indian spices on the buffet table.
“I love entertaining. It’s my passion and stress release,” she says.
Private dining excites her because it leads to new discoveries. “I’m not stuck with my restaurant menus. I’ve been doing everything from conceptualizing to getting the look and demonstrating preparations. With four kids, I have to manage my time. Business people tend to control. They realize that they have to let go. When they help other professionals grow, the business thrives.”
Her tip to successful entertaining: Pay attention to presentation. “Entertaining isn’t just about food. It’s for the tummy and the eyes. When you come to a party, the visual presentation creates the atmosphere and it becomes an unforgettable experience when you leave. Some friends think that the tablescape is not important for as long as the food is good. I say no. Even in my restaurants, food is served in a bountiful way. That was how we were raised. My classmates loved to come over for a meal. When I entertain, it’s festive but sophisticated,” says Happy.
For this restaurateur who lives up to her nickname of showing pleasure, the secret to being content is not to expect immediate results but to enjoy the moment. “I’m doing everything because I love to do it,” says Happy. “That’s what I saw in my dad. It’s all in the passion.”
Photographs by Paul San Juan
Makeup by Butch Choo
Hairstyle by Kris Ong
See more of Happy’s work as she unleashes her creative skills in the private dining room on Asian Dragon’s October -November 2017 issue, available for download on Magzter.