David Sison of Mama Lou’s on the Pros, Cons, and How-Tos of Starting a Family Business

From a humble Italian restaurant to a multi-million brand with branches across Metro Manila, David Sison reveals how he grew Mama Lou’s into what it is today.

Getting a business off the ground carries a multitude of challenges—the foremost of which is overcoming a one-in-ten chance of succeeding. After all, statistics show that about 90% of start-ups across all industries will fail. On average, 10% will tank in the first year and a staggering 70% will close shop within five.

But for entrepreneur David Sison, beating the odds did not seem as daunting when he had his intended life partner Crystal Tremblay serving as his business partner, too. Here’s the story of how he and his wife started and grew Mama Lou’s enterprise.

All in the Family

David had always enjoyed cooking, but it was not until he met Crystal that he fully explored the extent of this passion. After all, Crystal’s parents, Richard and Malou Tremblay, were restauranteurs who had opened different dining concepts in BF, Parañaque.

In 2010, the Tremblays opened Mama Lou’s Italian Kitchen—fondly named after Crystal’s mom. David, who was then in graduate business school, decided to base his thesis on the newly opened restaurant. After graduation and with borrowed money from his father, David and Crystal (who were not yet married then), opened Mama Lou’s in Nuvali. 

“Back then, Nuvali was not fully developed yet but the big dining chains already had a strong presence there,” he narrates. “I ate in all of them and asked the managers how much their average daily sales were. The figures were very promising.”

“Soon we opened shop. We did everything by ourselves. I manned the kitchen and Crystal managed the front of the house. I was able to repay my dad after just a year. But by no means can I say that there’s a shortcut to success. We did the hard work, made many mistakes, and learned valuable lessons on the job,” David recalls candidly.

Young CEO on the Rise—Mama Lou’s dynamic leader has delivered solid growth rates despite a challenging pandemic climate. His prime directive is to offer a consistent and exceptional dining experience to diners every time, all the time.

Fueled by big aspirations, the Sisons grew their single Italian restaurant into what is now the Mama Lou’s Hospitality Group. To date, the company has four concept dining outlets in its portfolio with 19 restaurants and seven more due to open before the year ends.

“Currently, we have our flagship brand Mama Lou’s, which is positioned in the premium casual dining category and caters to Italian food lovers of all ages. Nonna’s, which means cool grandma in Italian, specializes in freshly made pasta and Neapolitan pizzas. Recently, we acquired FAMU, a farm-to-table concept [that] highlights the flavors of local produce and features iconic Filipino favorites served with a twist from different regions,” David explains.

What’s more, they have added craft beer to their assets. Just this month—Braubass, which brews and serves session-able German-style lagers and bar food—had its soft opening along Silang, Cavite. “These are exciting times for us. The market is ready and we are being (cautiously) aggressive as we expand to different provinces,” he enthuses.

Roles, Rules, and Rudiments

David is now 37 and is the Group CEO. He is responsible for the operations of all the restaurants, kitchen management, and marketing. On the other hand, Crystal acts as Managing Director and oversees the operations support team. But however defined the roles may be, the couple oftentimes finds it difficult to separate personal issues from business decisions.

Thus, in order to avoid these conflicts and the tension that inevitably ensues, both have agreed never to talk business inside the home. “My wife is very prayerful. We start and end the day by giving thanks to the Lord and this practice has made all the difference in our lives,” David shares. 

And then there’s the issue of succession planning. Who will run the company when they want to retire? “The solutions become clearer when we do not rush our decisions. We will figure it out eventually” he says resolutely.

Meanwhile, David still prefers a family-run structure over a publicly-listed company. “It’s all about control. We built this business and are very determined to run and expand it. We are a family and share common values and one vision for the business. This creates a strong sense of purpose and direction. The thrust now is to ensure that all the family members are equipped and skilled to run the business effectively and pragmatically.”

What’s more, within the circle, they also share a deep level of accountability, flexibility, and trust—values that David thinks may be lacking in non-family employees.

The CEO Skillset

Mr. Sison considers the following as musts for any CEO: the ability to articulate and carry out a compelling vision for the company, the capacity to think strategically at all times, and the facility to be an effective communicator both internally and externally.

“A company leader must be able to inspire and motivate the employees, shareholders, and other stakeholders,” he explains. “He must also be quick to identify emerging trends and opportunities, as well as potential dangers.”

“To this end, he must make decisions based on data and not hunches or guesswork. Lastly, he must also be a good listener. A CEO must consider feedback—from guests, most especially, so he can act accordingly,” he adds.

What Entrepreneurial Dreams Are Made Of—David’s sharp business acumen and entrepreneurial skills have turned Mama Lou’s from a humble restaurant to a multi-branch business with stores all across Metro Manila.

Being your own boss is the dream of all. How to achieve it is what every entrepreneur must figure out. With that, David and Crystal made it as a team in the food industry and they have these tips for those who want to try their lot:

  • Define roles and responsibilities to avoid conflicts. 
  • Focus on quality and consistency, since this is critical in achieving a loyal customer base. Use high-quality ingredients and always prepare food safely and hygienically, ensuring you always deliver a consistent exceptional experience to diners. 
  • Articulate the culture that you want and innovate as you see fit. 
  • Embrace social media as a powerful tool in promoting your brand. 
  • Use technology to achieve efficiency. Invest in online ordering systems, feedback systems, and delivery applications.
  • Seek advice from industry experts, fellow entrepreneurs, and trusted family members.
  • Take time for each other to nourish the relationship and prevent burnout. 

Lastly, David Sison considers his late dad Dodi Sison as his personal hero. “He was an outstanding advertising guy and I really wanted to work for him. But my dad said no—find your passion and build your own business. I listened and did exactly as he advised. Here I am now,” he ends.