LIKE a basketball game, life is full of ups and downs, surprise twists, unexpected turns.
None more so than for Benedict Fernandez.
The Far Eastern University Tamaraws standout and former PBA player had more than his share of success and frustrations in basketball, but never expected than an abrupt end to his pro career would lead him to unbelievable success elsewhere.
The 11th pick of the 2009 PBA Rookie Draft who fans remember for his accurate pair of hands and spiked green hair is now the owner of Grumpy Joe Restaurant, a must-visit food destination in Baguio City which now has five other branches spread across Luzon.
His road to success was by no means easy.
After being drafted, the gung-ho guard out of Saint Louis University only spent a season with Barako Bull before moving to the ABL (Philippine Patriots and the San Miguel Beermen), the PBA D-League (Cebuana Lhuillier Gems), and later getting a short-term contract from Alaska in 2013.
His last-ditch oppurtunity came from the GlobalPort Batang Pier, but he failed to make the cut owing to the influx of rookies led by fellow FEU products Terrence Romeo and RR Garcia.
“Pinapunta ako ni (player agent) Tito Ed (Ponceja) at may chance daw ako makapirma. Pero di nakapirma kasi may seven players daw na nakuha sa draft ang GlobalPort," he recalls. “So ginawa namin ng wife ko noon, umakyat na lang kami ulit ng Baguio para magtayo ng business. Kinausap ko uncle ko na magtayo na lang kami ng business.”
The couple found a spot along Leonard Wood Road, beside the then famous 50’s Diner Restaurant, and opened a hole-in-the-wall eatery.
“Noong February 19, 2014 nag open ang Grumpy Joe," the successful restaurateur vividly remembers. "Nothings special, ang liit ng place pero doon mo makikita na food ang pinupuntahan, dinadayo at binabalik-balikan ng tao."
Through word of mouth, Fernandez’s fusion of American and Italian food suddenly grew in popularity among locals and tourists alike. In no time, people were lining up just to get a taste of Grumpy Joe’s pizza, pasta, chicken wings, and coffee selections.
Some of the must tries are Grumpy Joe Fried Chicken, 5-Cheese Pizza, Pepperoni with Jalapeño and Anchovy Pizza, and the Grumpy Joe Pizza topped with tomato sauce, ham, ground beef, bacon, bell pepper, onion, and pineapple.
[Fun fact: The name Grumpy Joe was coined from his idol Chef Joe Nick, a namesake of his uncle-business partner who is known to be grumpy in the kitchen, hence the adjective.]
As his business grew, a second shot at basketball came in the form on an offer to play as an import in Thailand and Singapore. It was Benedict’s turn to decline. At that point, his wife of just over a year was suffering from an illness that eventually cost her life.
Life hits Benedict hard
“May pinagdaanan ako na depression.” Fernandez says now. “Kinwestiyon ko din 'yung Diyos nung time na 'yun, na bakit sa edad ko, nawala ang asawa. Noong 2014 kami kinasal tapos 2015 siya nawala. Masyadong maaga.”
“Okay na sana kasi gumaganda negosyo namin. Nakikita namin ang pinaghirapan namin tapos biglang ganito na naman."
Constant questions from fans who felt he packed up his basketball career way too early didn't make him feel any better.
“As a player, yung masyado ka pang bata nawala sa PBA, di ba? So ang hirap din makita sa labas. “Idol, saan ka na?” Paulit-ulit. So actually, yung depression nagki-kick in kasi first love mo basketball," Fernandez adds.
For days, and even weeks, Fernandez would lock himself in his room, talking to no one.
“Nagtatanong ako kung ano purpose ng buhay ko noong nawala asawa ko. Nahihirapan ako, nawala ako sa focus na magpatakbo ng business. Isang buwan, nagkulong lang ako, talagang nagkulong. Hindi ako pumupunta sa restaurant, umiinom.” he says.
New lease on life
That was the point in his life when the help of friends and loved ones brought him back to his feet.
Realizing that he can no longer turn back time, Fernandez was inspired by his uncle to push through with the business and channel his remaining energy there. As the saying goes, one door closes, a window opens.
A few years after losing his wife, Benedict met model Michelle Gujer, who now is his steadfast partner in business and in life.
“Michelle has helped me a lot to be myself again. Tumulong siya na mabuo ako ulit kaya nag-focus ako sa business ko. Even during pandemic na na-challenge yung business, she was there to help lalo na may background siya sa business at interior design. So yung aesthetic ng mga resto, siya yun. Hands on siya,” he said.
Like wildfire, the popularity of Fernandez’s restaurant has caught on and it is now one of the most popular destinations in the City of Pines. Not a day goes by that queues of customers form outside its new, and bigger, location along Upper Session Road.
“Pinipilahan yung restaurant. Sabi nga nung iba sa umpisa lang 'yan, pero seven years na kami,” said the 37-year old known as 'Wolverine' during his FEU days.
“Nakakatuwa nga kasi overwhelming ang pagtanggap sa amin. Kaya we're expanding,” he said, mentioning recently opened branches in San Fernando, La Union and in San Fernando, Pampanga and another one soon to open in Dagupan, Pangasinan.
Benedict had several opportunities to reignite his mothballed basketball career in the PBA since, but by then his priorities have changed.
“Inofferan ako ng Blackwater kung saan si Coach Glen (Capacio) pero nag-start na yung business eh. Medyo lumalakas na, kaya nakapag-decide ako na nung buhay pa 'yung asawa ko na stick muna tayo sa business.”
“Kumbaga hindi pa buong-buo yung loob ko na iwan talaga yung basketball noon, may pagasa pa rin talaga na makakabalik sa basketball.” Fernandez recalls.
But since business was flourishing, Fernandez realized that God has better plans for him.
Fernandez, however, hasn’t truly closed door on basketball as he continues to help young, aspiring players in Baguio and also acts as business consultant to some PBA stars who want to follow in his footsteps.
“Ang daming nanghihingi ng advice sa akin. So tinutulungan ko, lahat nang natutunan ko from my experience as a struggling entrepreneur to where I am now, shine-share ko,” says Fernandez, whose Instagram is filled with photos of family vacations at world-famous destinations like Amanpulo island in Palawan.
But if there's one last thing Benedict wants to do in basketball, it is to own a PBA team someday.
“Yes, yan ang ultimate goal ko, ang maging team owner. I already trained my body to become a player, now I am training my mind to hopefully one day become a team owner,” he says.