For the past 17 years in his advertising career, if you needed to find TV commercial producer Romeo Joven Jr., he was either in a meeting or a shoot. Working for multinational advertising companies in the United States entailed traveling around Los Angeles and to different parts of the world, and staying in hotels 250 nights in a year. Because of this lifestyle, he’d order a lot of takeout meals, which most of the time left him unsatisfied because the food was either cold or tough and dry after heating them in the microwave oven.
“I thought there must be a solution for this,” says Romeo, who had early on recognized his inclination to do small businesses even as he thrived in the corporate world. He started researching for ways to easily heat up food, and that was how he came across the concept of military rations.
Inside the soldiers’ meal pack are food packs, a heating pad, water, and a small empty bag. “What they do is put everything together in the plastic bag, pour the water manually, then after a few minutes, the food warms up. I thought that’s really smart but there are too many steps, and it’s quite messy. So I thought—why not simplify it.”
Romeo, who majored in Film and Television, Political Science, and Anthropology, started developing the product in 2018 and showed the prototype to his long-time friend, actor Piolo Pascual, to get his insights. “When [Piolo] saw it, he knew that it would be a game changer so he joined in,” he says. Another actor—and now also a director—Eric Quizon would join the company when it started operations in July 2020.
How it works
Romeo’s refashioned soldier’s meal pack looks like a sleek bento box where one needs only to pull the provided string so that the water goes to the heating pad. “This then creates an exothermic reaction that heats up the food,” Romeo says, explaining the innovation the group later on called the Hotbox.
In order to demo it to clients, they eventually had to hire a chef to develop their menu offerings. By April of 2019, they started doing market study and the feedback was positive. It turns out customers also liked their food, and this led them to thinking of another revenue stream—which is to offer food with the heating box. They improved on the product some more, and by 2020, they had the boxes in different sizes.
The box can heat up anything—from burgers to fried chicken, to food with sauces and soup. “We’ve devised it so it can accommodate all types of food and meals,” he says. Keeping sustainability in mind, they made sure the boxes can be reused—either to heat food (the heating mechanism needs to be replaced each time), or as a storage container. He notes that the box is made of premium corrugated paper, which makes it a nice keepsake.
Currently, Romeo and company are offering the Hotbox in different sizes, with prices ranging from P75 (solo meals) to P245 (platter for 8 pax). Solo meals are available at P150 to P300, while party platters are from P800 to P1000.
Pivoting the business
During the early months of 2020, they started offering the Hotbox to hotels and restaurants. But the pandemic struck. “The Hotbox was initially created for people on the go. Then suddenly, everyone has to stay home,” Romeo recalls to ANCX.
Operations were shut down for a couple of months but by May 2020, they tried offering their products to their target market again. Little did they know, they were already pivoting the business.
“The pandemic allowed us to realize the value of our product,” says Romeo. “Since it’s mostly food takeouts and deliveries, no more dine-in, and meals-sharing is discouraged, Hotbox became a necessity. We became a bridge for the restaurants and hotels to serve fresh meals to their customers.” Since the steam heats up the food, the food tastes like they’re fresh out of the kitchen—making it the next best thing to dining in restaurants in our current situation.
And since everything’s gone virtual—from meetings and corporate events, birthdays and even weddings—Hotbox was able to help hotels and restaurants pivot their businesses as well. “Somehow, we provided a helpful solution to the pandemic,” Romeo says. Some of their hotel clients include the Conrad Hotel, Hilton Manila, the Megaworld hotels, The Peninsula Manila, and Shangri-La Hotel. Since they can customize and personalize the Hotbox—they can put logos or photos on them—it became a preferred way to serve meal deliveries.
Romeo, who was raised and schooled in the US since age six, says that from the very start, he wanted Hotbox to become known as a Filipino product. “Even though I grew up in the US, I’m very much a Filipino at heart,” he says. “I thought if this is going to take off, I wanted it to be something that Filipinos can be proud of.”
His advertising job brought him to Singapore in 2018, and that allowed him to oversee and monitor the development of the business. He would fly back and forth from Singapore to Manila during weekends. But when the pandemic happened, he made the conscious decision to be locked down in Manila so he can monitor the business’ growth closely.
From their P50,000 earnings in May 2020, sales grew exponentially in July—the business earned P700,000 that month. Seeing the business’ potential, Romeo decided to leave his corporate job to focus on Hotbox. He says more products are in the pipeline. “Soon enough, people can also cook frozen meals, cook rice or ramen,” he says.
Romeo thinks his background as producer and his little startups developed his business instincts. But it took years before he finally took the big leap. “Many of us don’t try getting into business out of fear or because we have a job and we’re comfortable already where we are,” he says. In Romeo’s case, the pieces of the puzzle all perfectly came together.