Peter and Juliet Chen: Blending business and marriage

Peter Chen and Juliet Herrera-Chen prove that spouses can make good business partners with the success of their Serenitea chain of milk tea and other beverages. They started out as classmates at the College of Saint Benilde, taking up Business Administration with a major in Export Management, in the early 2000s. They then became a romantic couple until they graduated, started working in separate companies and finally striking on their own while eventually getting married in 2014 and are now parents to two young daughters.

Looking back, Peter and Juliet admitted to DAILY TRIBUNE at an event celebrating Serenitea’s 15th anniversary that they didn’t expect their first venture to grow big, with about 70 stores nationwide. Back in 2008, he was working in his family business and she, trying to climb the corporate ladder. One day, he just told her, “Let’s do business,” and she said yes.

“Of course, when we were young, no plans, e,” Juliet said. “Talagang mag-open lang ng store. Nag-go lang kami sa flow (We just wanted to open a store and went with the flow).” Peter added that they initially just wanted to put up a kiosk. “’Yun lang wala kaming mahanap na space sa mall. Hindi kami ini-entertain kasi hindi kami kilala (We couldn’t find a space in a mall. We weren’t entertained because nobody knew us).”

The couple eventually opened the very first Serenitea store in December that year around the Little Baguio neighborhood in San Juan. Their menu consisted of about 30 beverages, with milk tea as the star attractions, such as Okinawa Milk Tea, Wintermelon Milk Tea and Hokkaido Milk Tea. They eventually added more items in their menu, including food.

At that time, milk tea wasn’t that known yet in the Philippines. It was only a familiar treat to people who’ve traveled to Taiwan, where the concoction is believed to have originated, or who’ve dined in Taiwanese restaurants offering milk tea.

Peter, who’s also Taiwanese, got the inspiration from his own experience as a patron and, for some time, a mixer in a tea shop in that country. He came up with his own recipe of milk tea that’s tailor fit to the Filipino palate. “Iba kasi ang lasa do’n sa Taiwan kesa dito sa Philippines,” Juliet pointed out. “Medyo matamis. So, we had to add more milk, a little bit of sugar (The taste of milk tea is different in Taiwan compared to that in the Philippines. It’s a bit sweet here).”

To give the exact amount of sweetness that every customer requires, Serenitea pioneered in customizing the sugar level that is put in each cup. Juliet noted that, at first, customers would almost always ask for 100-percent sugar level, but these days, it’s down 75 percent. This could be a sign that their patrons are getting health conscious, she added.

Juliet said early reviews on Serenitea was about being “something new in the market.” Then they saw the long lines that convinced them that their products are a hit, thus the decision to expand to other locations. By this time, mall owners already knew the brand, and they were more than willing to give it a space.

Friendly competition

About three years after Serenitea started, more milk tea shops opened, even the ones franchised from Taiwan. But Peter and Juliet were unperturbed. She pointed out, “Siguro nakita nila na may potential ang milk tea dito sa Philippines (Maybe they saw the potential of milk tea in the Philippine market).”

“This way, of course, mas nakilala pa ang industry, which is better. Kasi kung kami lang mag-isa, parang mahirap mag-maintain. So no’ng dumating sila, mas nakilala ang milk tea. Hindi na lang craze (It helped the industry. If it’s just us, we’ll have difficulty maintaining the industry. When the other brands came, milk tea became more known. It’s not just a craze anymore).”

Juliet went on to explain the advantages of Serenitea over its competitors: “We’re a Filipino brand. We are very flexible sa flavors na gagamitin namin (with the flavors we use), unlike with the competing brands that need permission from the mother company. We can do events. Others can, too, but they have to seek approval. Process-wise, medyo mabagal sila (they are a bit slow). Decision-making, implementation. Stick sila doon sa brand (They still to their brand).”

At the same time, Serenitea’s owners continuously improve on their products and services. They get new ideas mostly from their travels and the current food trends, like chilled taho in recent years. Juliet pointed out, “Taho kasi is very nostalgic and close to the Filipino heart. So, sabi ko (I said), let’s make a taho line of drinks.” It eventually became one of the bestsellers, along with Okinawa Milk Tea and fruit teas.

Peter and Juliet are also big on customer service. That’s why they have maintained good relations with their first customers, including bloggers, at the original Serenitea store in San Juan, which still enjoys brisk sales till this day.

When asked about the top three business insights they’ve learned, they gave these pieces of advice: “You have to believe sa product mo. You have to give quality product. Importante na maganda ang produkto mo (It’s important that your product is good). You should know the trend well. You should adapt to the current market. Three is invest in your people.”

Serenitea has around 350 employees.

Spouses as business partners

Peter and Juliet agreed that complementing each other’s strengths and weaknesses plays a big part in making their relationship work, both on personal and professional levels. In their company that runs Serenitea, he heads the research and development department, while she’s in charge of marketing and human resource.

“So ’yung areas n’ya, di ko pinapakialaman para di kami mag-away (I don’t meddle in his areas of expertise),” Juliet explained. “But, of course, I consult him pag mga (when it comes to making) major decision for the company. Siguro din kasi since college, magkasama na kami. Kilala ko s’ya (We’ve known each other since college).”

Realizing that they could work well in running Serenitea, Peter and Juliet decided to get married and have a family. Their advice to those who plan to partner in a business? “Number one, siguro, respect ’yung ideas. Mag-usap lang (Respect each other’s ideas, just talk),” Peter said.

Juliet added, “Importante rin na pareho kayo ng values. Pareho n’yong gustong mag-business. Ganito ang gusto n’yong direction. Hindi puwedeng ang gusto ng isa, dito lang. Magka-clash din talaga kayo (It’s important that you have the same values. You should both want to get into a business, the direction you want to take. It can’t be just one person decides. You’ll really clash, if that’s the case).”

She went on talking about their experiences: “We both grow together. At saka we started from scratch. We started as wala. We’re still together. Nakita ko ang ugali n’ya nang wala. Nakita ko ang ugali n’ya nang meron. Nothing changed (We started as nothing. I saw his character when we had nothing. I saw his character when we already had Serenitea).”