During the recently concluded Mindanao Food Congress, an official from the Indian Embassy in Manila made it a point to find time to visit Cagayan de Oro’s oldest store.

“I saw a tourism video of Cagayan de Oro which started with a picture of Wadhu’s Quality Store and decided I would visit it the next time I came to the city since I had a very tight schedule previously,” said Mr. Nishikant Singh, the First Secretary for Economics and Commerce.

1st Secretary NIshikant Singh (2nd row, right) with the Dharamdas Family and the store’s iconic 1931 NCR cash register.

On October 28 the envoy finally visited the store accompanied by two delegates from the India Business Forum, Mr. Devadatta R. Sirdeshphande, President and General Manager of Bioseed Research Philippines, Inc. and Jigar Y. Gauswami, ‘Jiyo’ Sales & Marketing Director of Riddhi & Zarana Enterprises Corp.

The visitors had a grand time chatting with the owners Penelope ‘Penny’ Laplap-Dharamdas, wife of the late Wadhu “Dodong”Jr., his only sibling Linda Dharamdas-Chauhan,  and the third generation grandsons of the founder, Haresh and Wadhu John III.

First on the agenda for the visitors was a picture with the store’s iconic 1931 NCR cash register, bought by the store’s founder by mail order from Sears & Roebuck in the United States 86 years ago. During World War II, the owner wrapped it in grease and buried it in his backyard. After the war, he dug it up and it still serves the same store now run by his grandsons.

Wadhu John Dharamdas III shows visitors from the India Business Forum how to operate their iconic 1931 NCR cash register.

That cash register is the living testimony of the traditions that has made Wadhu’s Quality Store Cagayan de Oro’s oldest surviving retail store, a tradition established by the store’s patriarch and carried on by the third generation who now runs it.

“It indeed was a refreshing visit to the store and what amazed me was the fact that the cash register was buried under ground wrapped in a poly cover for four years during the world war II. The fact does not end there, but was a simple cleaning with oil that made it function normally again. No rust, no stain nor any termite and the shine retained,” remarked Mr. Sirdeshphande.

“I was lucky to operate it and the nostalgic feel is a lifetime experience. I plan to visit with my family and friends some time in future,” he added.

Eighty six years ago, Wadhumal Dharamdas Uttamchandani set up in Cagayan de Misamis (as Cagayan de Oro was then known) Wadhu’s Home of Quality near Plaza Divisoria, the town’s social and commercial center.

Mr. Wadhu arrived in the Philippines in 1924 as a 12-year old boy from Poona (now called Pune) in the western Indian state of Maharashtra.

He was employed at the Indian Bazaar owned by his uncle Nebhraj Ramchand Buhdrani in Zamboanga City for 12 years where he gained his basic knowledge and business savvy in the retail trade. In 1936, he felt he had enough seed money, contacts and experience to establish his own store in Iligan, but eventually decided on Cagayan instead.

Wadhus House of Quality circa 1936 at Plaza Divisoria.

His thatched roof store featuring items bought by mail order from Sears & Roebuck was set amidst stores run by Japanese nationals near the Heroes de Cagayan monument. Divisoria was the Escolta of Cagayan in those days, and the nearby public market ensured the fledgling store flourished until World War II exploded.

His late son, Wadhu “Dodong” Jr. related how his father survived the war by bartering his goods for food and clothing. He married Trinidad Babiera Valmores of Balingasag, Misamis Oriental in 1943 and had two children, Wadhu Jr. and Linda.”

In 1946, Mr. Wadhu (as he was fondly called by friends and customers) reopened at a new location in Plaza Divisoria just across the public market, but moved to the next block after two years, when its present name Wadhu’s Quality Store was first seen.

The store moved to its present site in the corner of J.R. Borja and Pabayo streets when Mayor Justiniano R.  Borja moved the city public market to the Cogon area in 1958. He didn’t want to be too close to the Cogon market where competition would be fierce, but likewise didn’t want to be too far from the former site in Divisoria and his regular customers.

In 1973, the elder Wadhu felt the younger generation was ready to take the reins of the business and turned over the store’s management to Dodong.

And not too soon. By 1975, retails giants Ororama and Gaisano came into the picture, forcing other stores to fold up due to the intense competition.

But the indomitable little store welcomed competition believing it was the only way to serve the public with better service and cheaper prices.

Thus, when more people from Butuan, Surigao, Bukidnon and Iligan began coming to Cagayan, Wadhu’s still multiplied its customers despite stiff competition from the bigger stores.

The 1990s brought even stiffer competition from malls like SM City and Limketkai Mall which featured a wide variety of stores and merchandise and attractive amenities like national food chains and cinemas all under one roof.

But Wadhu’s Quality Store kept its loyal clientele and even added more thanks to its personalized service. While most of the sales clerks in big malls are hired on a casual basis, they were no match for better paid and motivated sales staff of smaller stores who have better experience and training, not to mention knowing the customers on a first name basis.

“Everyone is equally served and each person is attended to no matter how small their needs are,” the late Wadhu Jr. used to stress. “We train our sales people never to look down on anyone and treat them as regular adult customers regardless of age, gender or appearance.”

The visitors said Wadhu’s Quality Store is a lot like typical stores in India which still sell quality merchandise such as watches and sporting goods through their personalized service.

Some years ago, a ruggedly dressed barefoot gentleman wanted to buy an expensive watch. Sensing the sales clerk was at a loss on how to deal with him, Dodong stepped in to personally entertain him and he paid in cash. They later found out he owned a big building with many stores in Bukidnon, and told Dodong that Wadhu’s was the third store he went to, and the only one who gave him any attention.

When traders from Mainland China, Taiwan and Korea swamped the city with low quality merchandise at very low prices, and ukay-ukay vendors selling smuggled garments and shoes at rock bottom prices began crowding the city’s sidewalks and even areas fronting regular stores, Wadhu’s did not buckle under the pressure.

The third generation of Wadhu’s take all the competition and changes in stride, having been born and raised in Cagayan de Oro under the tutelage of their father and grandfather. They remain confident the “Open Door” policy of the original Wadhu’s Home of Quality will see them through the next 86 years and beyond.

3 Generations: Haresh Dharamdas looks up at the picture of his grandfather Wadhumal Uttamchandani and father Wadhu Jr. who managed the Wadhu’s Quality Store since its founding in 1936 and 1972, respectively.

“We grew up in this store and we don’t see any reason to change how it looks or operates,” said Haresh, who now runs Wadhu’s Quality Store with his brother Wadhu John III.

“Since my grandfather first started this store, he insisted to my Dad to leave the store’s doors wide open. So, even people from the rural areas would not be shy to come in and window shop. They don’t feel pressured to buy something and can look as much as they like.”

The iconic 1931 NCR cash register continues to serve Wadhu’s Quality Store 86 years after it was first bought by the owner from the US through a Sears & Roebuck mail order catalog.

In the center of the store, Wadhu-John III rings up another sale in the NCR cash register. If the sale totals more than the P99.00, he uses a small calculator. It looks like the old machine could easily outlive a dozen or so of its modern counterparts, just like the store it serves in the corner of J.R. Borja and Pabayo streets in Cagayan de Oro has done for the last 86 years.

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2 Comments

  1. It indeed was a refreshing visit to the store and what amazed me was the fact that the cash register was buried under ground wrapped in a poly cover for four years during the world war II. The fact does not end there, but was a simple cleaning with oil that made it function normally again. No rust, no stain nor any termite and the shine retained.
    I was lucky to operate it and the nostalgic feel is a lifetime experience. I plan to visit with my family and friends some time in future.

    1. Thanks for sharing and expanding the narrative of this story! We’ll be happy to host you again here in Cagayan de Oro. Take care.

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