Financial Adviser: 5 Business Lessons Everyone Can Learn from the Founders of One of the Country's Best Burgers, Sweet Ecstasy
In the world of entrepreneurship, stories of success often emerge from the most unexpected beginnings. Al Galang and Monica Tobias, two individuals from entirely different professional backgrounds, embarked on a remarkable journey that would eventually lead them to establish a thriving business.
In 2012, fate presented Galang, a former yoga instructor, and Tobias, a DJ broadcaster from Monster Radio, with an enticing opportunity: the chance to open a food stall as a sideline business in Cubao Expo. The partners eagerly seized the offer and introduced adult milkshakes with liquor and delectable cookies, which they named Sweet Ecstasy.
However, the early months were not without their challenges. Galang and Tobias quickly realized that to sustain and grow their business, they needed to diversify their product offerings. This realization became the driving force that eventually transformed their business.
Drawing inspiration from his upbringing in the US and the renowned In-N-Out, Galang decided to venture into the world of burgers. He immersed himself in the art and science of burger-making by learning from online resources.
After six months of intensive research and development, Galang and Tobias began selling burgers every weekend at their Cubao store. The burgers quickly became a hit, amassing a loyal following.
But it wasn't until 2015 that Sweet Ecstasy achieved remarkable success. Upon relocating their store to Jupiter Street in Makati, their burgers struck a chord with customers, leading to a tenfold increase in average daily sales compared to their performance in Cubao Expo. Capitalizing on this resounding success, Galang and Tobias set their sights on expansion.
Today, Sweet Ecstasy has evolved far beyond its initial offerings of milkshakes and cookies. It has carved a niche for itself as a purveyor of high-quality burgers that proudly compete with international brands, boasting seven outlets and continuing to expand.
The journey of Al Galang and Monica Tobias reminds us that even the most unexpected ventures can transform into sweet successes with the right blend of dedication, flavor, and the pursuit of culinary perfection.
How did Galang and Tobias successfully navigate the initial challenges they encountered when launching Sweet Ecstasy? What strategies did they employ to set the business apart in the highly competitive food industry?
Here are the five business lessons everyone can learn from Al Galang and Monica Tobias, founders of Sweet Ecstasy:
1| Know how to build and measure a business idea
Building a business idea into a tangible product or service allows you to test its feasibility in the real world. This step helps you confirm whether your concept can meet market needs and generate revenue.
When Galang and Tobias decided to start Sweet Ecstasy, they began with an idea for an adult-themed milkshake and cookie shop. However, they quickly realized that just selling cookies wasn't sufficient to sustain their business. This realization prompted them to pivot and add burgers to their menu.
Galang, with no culinary background, conducted research and experimented with burger recipes at home. This phase allowed them to build a minimum viable product (MVP) in the form of burgers. They chose to sell burgers on weekends initially, possibly as a way to minimize risk and test the market. This approach allowed them to measure the success of their burger concept without completely shifting their business model.
“I started as a DJ and worked as a newscaster and host,” Tobias says. “That was my life for about 17 to 18 years. Yeah. I was actually born in Manila, but I was raised in New York. After spending some time in New York, I moved back to Manila. It was upon my return to Manila that I discovered radio. In 2012, I met Al Galang, who is my partner and the co-founder of Sweet Ecstasy.
“At some point, we had a space that was offered to us in Cubao Expo in Quezon City and we said, ‘Okay, why don't we go into a business together?’ However, we had no prior experience in business. Al was a yoga instructor, and I came from a media background. It wasn’t our forte, but we said we want to create something.
“We wanted to start a business, and we had this fantastic artsy space. At the time, there were art galleries there, and I believe there still are. It was a vibrant creative hub in Quezon City, so we opened there and we actually started a milk and cookie shop, kaya we named it Sweet Ecstasy.
“Our idea was to create an adult-themed milk and cookie shop, meaning they had a little alcohol in them, and freshly baked cookies. After a few months, Al said, ‘Well, we're not going to make money just by selling cookies, right? I need to do something more.
“Al, being from Los Angeles, grew up with In-N-Out Burgers. Burgers were his thing, his comfort food. Like, if my comfort food in New York was pizza and bagels, he was the burger guy.
So he said, ‘You know what, Monica? I think I can make a good burger.’ I replied, ‘Really? Okay, let’s supplement what we were already selling in Cubao.’ This guy, obviously, young guy, a yoga teacher with no culinary background, did his research on his own and figured out how to make a really good burger. We made it one day in Quezon City, in our house. He prepared it for me, and after trying it, I said, ‘Okay, this is good enough for us to sell.
“At that time, from selling milk and cookies every day, we decided the weekends would be our burger selling days. We grilled the burgers, invited friends and even hosted a little event to launch our burger menu. From there, it just grew. We realized we needed sides like French fries, onion rings, milkshakes and wings. It just snowballed from there.”
2| Know how to research and develop a winning product
Researching and developing a quality product is an integral aspect of business strategy. This not only fosters higher satisfaction levels but also cultivates brand loyalty and garners positive reviews. It also serves as a unique selling point, attracting customers and establishing brand prominence.
Galang's journey to create a remarkable burger product began with a strong fondness for In-N-Out Burger and similar classics. Dissatisfied with local offerings, he decided to develop his own burger. Despite having no culinary background, he turned to online resources, such as blogs and videos, for extensive research.
Armed with theoretical knowledge, he started experimenting and achieved unexpected success. To refine his product, he dedicated six months to daily burger-making and applied research findings meticulously. This journey transformed his passion into a precise science of burger crafting. Galang's journey from a burger enthusiast to a burger artisan was characterized by a profound commitment to self-learning, experimentation, and an unyielding dedication to crafting the perfect burger.
“Let me walk you through the process,” Galang says. “I love In and Out burger and burgers like that. I went to school in LA, and I moved to university in 2001. It was there that I was introduced to In-N-Out. I had already been enjoying In-N-Out from San Diego To LA. Since the 60s, there have been many mom-and-pop burger restaurants, especially in the eastern part of LA that make burgers like this.
“Now, when you talk about burgers, you talk about real, fresh beef with simple and straightforward condiments. This is my idea of what makes a great burger. Over the years, every time I go back to LA, the first thing I want to do is to eat a burger, especially one from In-N-Out.
“When I came here, I found the local burgers didn't quite satisfy my craving for a really good burger. So naisip ko, ‘What if I could just make one? We had Sweet Ecstasy, this milk and cookie cafe. What if we just added a burger to the menu? Is it that easy? Can you just make a burger? It’s not that simple.
“But the Internet is so generous with insight in R&D into what makes a good burger. Blogs, and, although not as much at the time, videos, provided in-depth research on how to handle a patty, what makes a good patty, and what makes a good sauce?
“I read blogs, and some people are very generous with their insights online. They go to the point where you don't understand why. Why are they dissecting the burger to this extent? But we benefited from that.
“So I took all of that, and I'm telling you, (we went through) pages and nodes of information, before I even made our first one. And then I said, OK, this sounds about right. It was November 2012, we were at our home, and I said ‘I'm going to make this based on my theoretical research.’
“I went to Robinsons Magnolia, and I bought buns. I asked them to make giniling based on the formulation I found from my research. I made the sauce based on what people had said would make a good sauce, and then I put it all together that first day.
“And it was a bit of a Eureka moment in the sense na, this was way better than I expected it to be. We were already selling cookies at the time, but this stood out. It had so much potential. With some work in the next six months, we took steps to further fine-tune it.
“You can learn anything online, but can you put it into practice? You know what? The crystallization of good food that becomes a good product is me using all of that research and making burgers every single day for six months. Eating our burgers every single day for six months, using that research and applying it every day like it's a science.
“To really make something very precise and very exact and make it sellable, you've got to play by the rules too. I took everything that the research said and applied it, calculating it carefully, and that's the way we make burgers.”
3| Know how to continuously learn and improve
In a competitive business landscape, companies that are committed to improvement gain a competitive edge. They can offer better products, services, and customer experiences, setting themselves apart from rivals.
Learning is all about gathering insights, data, and feedback through experimentation. In this phase, a startup focuses on creating a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and putting it in the hands of real users or customers. The primary goal is to learn as quickly as possible whether the product or service has potential, how it's being used, and whether adjustments are needed.
Sweet Ecstasy's journey from a good burger to an exceptional one demonstrates the power of continuous learning and improvement. The founders understood the importance of staying attuned to their customers' preferences, building a product that truly resonated with them.
This incremental approach to improvement is likened to the process of transforming aluminum foil into a polished, shiny metal ball—a gradual, iterative process. The founders emphasized that achieving excellence is a scientific endeavor. Instead of using local benchmarks, they aspired to create a burger that exceeded existing standards, relying on the best ingredients and the perfect balance of flavors.
Their differentiation strategy wasn't about being different for the sake of it; it was about making the best possible burger. To Galang and Tobias, their burger represents the pinnacle of their craft.
“Over those six months, we gathered comments and feedback to fine-tune that first burger,” Galang says. “From then until now, there have always been updates—a better supply chain, fresher ingredients, and improved processes.
“It was that good initially, and these comments were constructive tweaks. Suggestions included trying a different supplier for the buns, adding a bit more beef fat, pero yun lang ha. Actually, a little more salt and pepper, and a bit less of something else.
“We had to be there all the time, serving people on the weekends and staying in tune with their preferences. Now, mind you, it's not like we asked, 'How's your food?' while we were serving them. But people were very generous, you know, right from the beginning up to now, with their feedback about our product.
“I think it comes from a place of care for them. So, if they're giving us feedback and we're being receptive to it, there's an opportunity for us to build something with them. When we say that Sweet Ecstasy is also theirs, it's true.
“Have you ever seen those videos about how to turn aluminum foil into a polished shiny metal ball? It's not an instant transformation; you need to polish it over and over again, slowly, until it becomes smooth and perfectly round. You can hammer it, polish it, rub it until it's unrecognizable as aluminum foil.
“So, with our burger, if you don’t make drastic changes to improve it, you have a good foundation. You make little adjustments, small changes, bit by bit over time. It’s a scientific process, you know. To achieve a proper scientific result, you don't just change major variables. You start with your core, then you make incremental changes. If you see that something works, you keep the change.
“To create a burger that would match the caliber of other renowned burgers, drawing from my experiences abroad, I did not use local benchmarks as my starting point. It needed to be better.
“By creating one that surpassed what was available, and how could you make it better? By using the best, the ripest ingredients. Burger-making isn't just about using the finest ingredients; it's about achieving the perfect balance. That means getting the right cuts of beef, the right bun, the right amount of salt, and crafting it carefully each time.
“We were going to differentiate ourselves not by being different or making a weird or fusion burger, but by making the best possible burger we could make. That's what our burger is. That's how we set differentiate it. Now, there may be other burgers that some people feel are better than ours, but to Monica and me, this is the best possible burger. That's what our product represents. All of these are the best possible we could make it; let the market respond to that.”
4| Know how to build a brand and grow
In a crowded marketplace, a unique and well-defined brand helps your business stand out. It sets you apart from competitors and makes it easier for customers to recognize and remember your products or services.
A strong brand builds trust and credibility with consumers. When people have positive experiences with your brand, they are more likely to become loyal customers and recommend your business to others.
Galang and Tobias built and grew their brand by being adaptable, creative in their branding efforts, staying true to their product quality, and fostering a strong, organic connection with their customers. This approach enabled Sweet Ecstasy to evolve into a successful and memorable brand in the competitive food industry.
Initially planning to create an adult-themed milk and cookie café, they were open to change when they realized that burgers were their standout product. Instead of changing the name, they decided to redefine what Sweet Ecstasy meant, making it synonymous with burgers.
“So when we started, Sweet Ecstasy was supposed to be this adult-themed milk and cookie café, but we soon realized that the burgers are the star of the show,” Galang says. “But we had this name, Sweet Ecstasy. Visually, it resonated with us; however, at the time, it was just forming. We wondered, 'What do we do with this name? Should we come up with some burger-related name?' We tossed it around a little bit, but a name is a name. You can choose to keep it. You can choose to champion it.
“So, like Wendy’s or McDonald's, do they just mean burgers, or do they make it mean burgers? We decided that from that point on, we were going to make Sweet Ecstasy synonymous with burgers. How were we going to do that?
“By continuing on our path and owning up to our name: Sweet X, Sweet Ecstasy. There's an 'X.' This 'X' comes from two places - Sweet Ecstasy, where the short form is X, and we come from Cubao Expo, so X. We made X our iconic symbol.
“Before, we were not red; we were looking for black or white. But we became red and white because red is such a traditional food color. We liked it, like lucky things and such. So, now, the next part is our red theme. But then, visually, how does our brand represent us? The visuals of Sweet Ecstasy, the way our store looks, the 'X,' the logo, everything—they're all extensions of Monica and me and our food.
“We are organic, not so contrived, straight to the point, vintage, and modern at the same time. All of these elements are represented in our store. We have posters on the wall that are rolled out like old classic posters you see on electric poles and walls in New York, for example. Everything is like this. You don't have to be on the nose about your name to be a product, right?
“In the first few years when we started to become more well-known, people would say, 'Why Sweet Ecstasy? Parang bakeshop yan.' Eventually, people stopped asking because over time, they knew that once you try the burger, you realize it means more than the name. Sweet Ecstasy becomes that joyous moment when you bite into the burger, and that's how it evolved.
“In the Philippines, you see a lot of brands that feel the need to have big menus and offer a lot of different items. But internationally, that's not necessarily the case. It's more about being a specialty. In-N-Out, for example, only has three burgers, no wings, and one type of fries. We're kind of more like that.
“How do we grow? Better systems, more efficient processes, improved cost management, and eventually, opening more stores. We've been doing this for 10 years; we don't necessarily need to drastically reinvent the wheel. We just need to keep getting better at what we're doing.
“That's how we grow, and it has worked for us so far. I'm not saying we're the only burger business in town. We're not even necessarily everybody's favorite. But we're the favorite for some, and we just need to continue in that direction.”
“From the beginning, it was very organic,” Tobias says. “Our marketing approach doesn't involve hiring influencers to come and eat. Instead, we prefer that you come, be curious, try our food, and then provide an honest review. We've been fortunate that those who do come love the food so much that they talk about it to their friends or post it on their Twitter or other platforms. That's how it works; we don't want to force our food on anybody.
“You know, if you like it, you like it. If you don't, it's okay. But please give me an honest review. I will never pay anybody to come and sit down with my food and then feel obligated to write about it. You know, we don't like that. That's not our way.”
“Yeah, marketing is such an important part of this business,” Galang adds. “We won't say it's our strength. We're continually exploring ways to do it better in a way that resonates with us. But at the same time, the food business is also about food, and we want to make sure that at every step of the way, we're doing our best. That is part of our marketing—to be consistent and make the best possible product.
“As for the word of mouth that Monica was referring to, people genuinely share their love for our product, and that's also important. We're not much into trends because if you can live and die by that sort, right? And we're not new anymore. So the right way for us to do it at this stage of the game is to just keep finding ways to tell people, to remind people about us, share our story, but being very honest in our way. Just like our product, we're also very honest and down-to-earth as a brand.
“I did my part to make a good burger, but as they say in Transformers, knowing is half the battle when it comes to running a good restaurant. You see many successful restaurants and businesses that don't even have good or delicious products. So that's when you know it's more than just the food.
“So I know I can stand by the quality of my food, but I also know that Sweet Ecstasy is only, in a small part, made by the good burgers that I make. It really boils down to a very strong, stable back end and good decision making as a team. And that's what we are.”
5| Know how to balance between work and family relationships
Balancing work and family relationships is not just about managing time; it's about investing in a fulfilling and harmonious life. It is the cornerstone of a well-rounded, contented existence that fosters personal growth, nurtures relationships, and ensures overall happiness.
Galang and Tobias effectively managed their work and family relationships through a combination of strategies and principles. Central to their success was open and honest communication, enabling them to discuss work commitments, family needs, and expectations regularly.
They established clear boundaries, distinguishing work hours from family time to minimize interruptions. Delegation played a crucial role as they recognized each other's strengths, with Galang handling customer interactions and Tobias managing the back-end and finances. Despite distinct roles, they collaborated on important decisions to ensure a shared vision.
“The journey has been great,” Galang says. “You know, a romantic relationship as a business partnership is not necessarily a recipe for success. But the truth is, it has really strengthened the bond between Monica and me. Throughout this journey, we've had to listen, learn, and truly understand each other. We've come to realize that individually, we don't have all the right answers.
“Monica also doesn't have all the answers, and I don't either. But when the two of us, along with our partners, come together, we have the most right answers so far.
“Over the years, much like making the burger, there has been a lot of trial and error in the business. There have been numerous mistakes made along the way. In our relationship, to make this partnership work, we had to learn how to listen to each other and respect each other.
“I'll be the first to admit that in the first couple of years, much like when we're young and think we know all the answers in life, I thought I knew all the answers in business. However, with each passing year, I've come to realize that I know less and less.
“I learned how valid and important other people's opinions are. So, after the first couple of years of fighting and butting heads on decision-making, I started to learn that Monica has her own strengths, and I have my own strengths.
“Monica knows what my strengths are, and I know what her strengths are, so it's almost subconscious that we know when it's my time to shine or her time to shine in terms of handling elements of this business and aspects of our family, for example.
“Every single customer interaction, that's for me to deal with—complaints, concerns, issues. We know that it's best handled by me. We also know that when we're starting to look at numbers or making responsible decisions, both of us know that Monica has a better grasp of that.
“But even when we're doing that, even when we're taking care of our own roles, there's a constant open dialogue. Even though Monica handles the back end, she always talks to me about our numbers. We look at our screens together. We review our papers together. Is this right? We formulate letters and messages collaboratively. You know, people might think that's hard, but it's not. It's very easy to work together with someone when we're in sync like this. So, this is what we do: we test the food together.”
“But I think because of our specific dynamic, separating business and home life was challenging for us,” Tobias says. “So we really had to have many conversations about it. We had many conversations about, okay, if this is business and mainit ulo, you have to shut it off at a specific time because we work from home.’
“I mean, we don't necessarily go out to an office, so there's no boundary there when we work. So we had to say, 'Okay, during office hours, it's office time.' But then when it's about household matters, it's completely different.
“That's why I believe, especially with our children, financial responsibility and financial know-how are essential skills for kids nowadays. When I was growing up, we didn't have that kind of education. So, it's such an important skill to have early on in life—knowing how to manage your money and make it grow.
“Back when I was in media and hosting, I had so much income. If only I had known how to manage my finances back then, I would have had a lot more savings. So, at least, these are the things that we want to pass down to our kids.”
Henry Ong, RFP, is an entrepreneur, financial planning advocate and business advisor. Email Henry for business advice hong@or follow him on Twitter @henryong888