At the age of 86, Tiyo Tatoy is not yet thinking of full retirement. “I don’t want to stay idle,” he said. For as far back as he could remember, he was always working. He wasn’t yet into his teens when he began climbing coconut trees to gather tuba. That was before World War II. When he reached his teen-aged years, he also began going out to sea to fish. Tuba gathering and fishing became his main sources of livelihood. Then he went into farming and, with the help of his children, raised cows.
In fact, he would still be tending to his farm and cattle if it were not for his children’s insistence that he slow down. Every day, he still shows up at the restaurant to look into its operations, although management has been fully turned over to his children. But it’s this ethic for hard work that propelled Tiyo Tatoy to success in the nearly 48 years of operation.
Tiyo Tatoy credits his mother, the late Genoveva Tiburan-Espinosa, for the rock-solid principles of honesty, hard work and dedication that enabled him to turn his business into one of Iloilo City’s biggest restaurants. He fondly remembers that during family meals, his mother required all nine children to be present before they could eat. “Perhaps it’s because we had so little food on the table, and our mother wanted each one of us to get an equal share,” he narrated with a smile.
The dinner table was the stage where his mother taught her children nuggets of wisdom that became the foundation for their strong character. She did this in the form of stories. “One story that I remember vividly is about the world being round, and that what is up and down don’t stay where they are permanently,” Tiyo Tatoy said. The poor, their mother said, won’t stay poor as long as they are willing to work hard. And she added that even the rich could go dirt poor. This amazed Tiyo Tatoy because during those days, many people in the rural areas didn’t even know that the world was round. “Damo pa sadto nagapati nga tapan ang kalibutan (many still believed that the world was flat),” he said.
Another valuable lesson nanay Genoveva taught her children was never to envy those who are wealthy, or possess many material things. She taught her children gratitude and always be thankful to God, Tiyo Tatoy said. The principles of fairness and equity, honesty and integrity, were also imparted to them during those family meals.
These lessons were transferred on to the nine children of the Espinosa couple. One episode illustrates the character of the children. Nestor, the eldest child, got to earn a degree and professional license as a mechanical engineer. As their market grew, Nestor used his knowledge of mechanical engineering to design a roasting machine that enabled him to cook 10-12 chicken at the same time. Previously, the pit roasting was done manually, requiring several persons to man the “litsonan”. It was a technological innovation that made the job easier and faster while ensuring good quality.
“One day, an engineer from DPWH who was a regular customer noticed the roasting machine. He quickly pulled me aside and advised me to get Nestor to apply for a patent. The DPWH engineer told me Nestor could make a fortune if the design is patented,” Tiyo Tatoy said.
When Tiyo Tatoy relayed to his son the advise to apply for a patent, Nestor just shrugged it off. “Bay-i da ‘tay kon ilugon sang iban, maayo na agud maka-ambit man sila sang aton ginhimo (Don’t mind it if other people will copy the design, it’s good they could also share the benefits from our invention),” Tiyo Tatoy remembers Nestor telling him.
Hence, it’s no wonder that their poverty did not pose an obstacle to growing Tatoy’s Manokan into what it is. When Tiyo Tatoy’s customer base became big enough, he decided to lease a plot of land on the beachfront and build 3 nipa huts with bamboo slat tables and benches. “The land owner asked for a monthly rental of P1.50, one lechon manok and broiled bangus,” he said. “I didn’t bargain anymore and went ahead.”
Tiya Consing (as his wife, Consejo, is fondly called) cooked the food with assistance from their children. Hector remembers cutting up spices and other ingredients in the kitchen before he reached the age of 10. It was one big family enterprise, with each child doing his or her share, including washing the dishes and waiting on tables.
Lechon manok was the main fare from day one, and continues to be that way until now. “Everything else is just secondary,” Hector, who has since assumed the management of the kitchen, said.
To ensure quality control, all food served at the Cabatuan branch (just outside the Iloilo International Airport) and the newly-opened branch in the Atria Business Park in Barangay San Rafael, Mandurriao are prepared in the original Tatoy’s kitchen in Arevalo.
From just three heads of native chicken each Sunday, Tatoy’s has grown exponentially to an average of 600 heads of native chicken every day, according to Hector. On Sundays, the figure could reach 1,000 heads of free range native chicken. Until now, Hector continues to roam all over the province to buy native chicken from farmers.
The kitchen now employs dozens of cooks and assistants. “Most are relatives,” Hector said. But the recipe for the chicken marination that is the secret of Tatoy’s tasty lechon manok remains a secret within the family. “What the kitchen staff knows is only 90% of the recipe our mother concocted more than 40 years ago,” Hector said. The remaining 10% is provided by Hector personally.
“Even by just looking at the food once cooked, I would know if it wasn’t prepared as it should,” Hector said. Every so often, he would ask friends to buy food at Tatoy’s and eat them in other places. “My friends, including media people, are my food tasters and critics,” he said. This way, the staff at the store won’t know the food will ultimately reach the taste buds of Hector and his circle of “tasters”. And when he notices anything that isn’t right with the cooking, Hector said he immediately calls up the kitchen supervisor and tells her what is lacking.