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At Isla Ora, pizza with a social twist


Isla Ora is the first concept-in-a-shipping container to be launched by a family with a franchising pedigree.

Isla Ora offers hand-crafted, affordable pizza with quality ingredients all cooked in less than three minutes in a small-format location. Anyone thinking, “Not another fast-casual pizza concept,” fret not, it’s not popping up in the U.S. just yet. The brand is growing where few of the largest brands have any presence: the Philippines.

It’s the brainchild of Chris White, the son of Growler CEO and Rapid Refill Ink founder Dan White. Chris White said his path to founding Isla Ora started while he was on vacation soon after the disastrous 2013 Typhoon Haiyan.

 “Just like a lot of people, I saw the hurricane images and I said, ‘I’m going to go help out,’” said White. “I had a logistics background. So I showed up with 35 people, raised some money, and brought in a small construction company’s worth of equipment.”

So over the next three years, he did help out. He repaired schools, built new ones, repaired or built 1,500 houses, helped with marine restoration projects and helped coordinate $500,000 in medical supplies. He founded a pair of non-profits to help in times of disaster and adapt to climate change. He also fell in love with the country and its people.

“After the savings accounts ran dry, my group was being hired as consultants by other NGOs around the world,” said Chris, referring to non-government organizations. But it meant a lot of far-flung trips. “I just got tired of leaving my new family and friends here, so we decided to build a cool new business that is a for-profit company that supports what we’re doing. So it all kind of ties together.”

A 10-by-10 box

Isla Ora means island time, and the core of the concept is simplicity. The entire concept fits into a 10 by 10 square-foot shipping container-style box. Within the spirit of his other local efforts, White ensured the concept was very low waste, all containers from the local commissaries (inside a 20 square-foot shipping container) were reusable and most everything was locally sourced. The cups and trays are bamboo and everything but the fast-fire, no-vent pizza ovens are locally made.

The local goods and simple operations were key to keep costs affordable for local families in a region where franchising is just becoming a buzzword.

 “It is one of the fastest growing industries in the Philippines,” said White. “It traditionally wasn’t, but because Western franchises are coming in and seeing that they had the branding to grow on, the local entrepreneurs caught on.”

Chris White

Founder Chris White is the son of Growler CEO and Rapid Refill founder Dan White.

Of course, with little legal framework it meant a lot of “franchises” that weren’t really in the spirit of the model as the Western world knows it and a handful of multinational, expensive brands that only very wealthy entrepreneurs could afford.

“We’re in an interesting gap in franchising. You generally have very expensive franchised brands—Dunkin’ and 7-Eleven—then you have these business opportunities that are essentially a $3,000 food cart. The quality is real low and there is no support,” said White. “We’re somewhere in the middle: a high-quality brand but within a price bracket that the middle income families who are retiring can afford to buy.”

He said the three initial locations are performing well, bringing in 15,000 to 20,000 pesos per day, or $300 to $400 each day.

“The numbers add up, especially when you start looking at multiple units, which is what we’re really going to target,” said White. “At three to four locations, it’s nice.”

And because it’s all contained in a solid metal box, if a location isn’t successful or franchisees want to be a part of a mobile event or festival, it’s just a matter of picking it up and moving it for about $100.

White said he’s getting a lot of attention from Filipino entrepreneurs and even local government for his work and is working on some master franchise agreements to spur growth.

He expects about 100 units across the southern Philippines over the next few years and continual innovation around the menu to fit in with the local culture. He said they were also testing other concepts from coffee to Cajun food in the same small format.

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