For 22 years, Margaret "Mai" Uy couldn't get the taste out of her head.
Sizzling steak blended with bubbling provolone. Zesty grilled onions paired with the sting of hot peppers. The crunch of a hoagie that keeps the hot-and-tangy mix together.
The Philadelphia-style cheese steak is a combination of flavors that the Saint Mary's College alumna now wants to bank on. This summer, years after returning to her native Philippines, Uy plans to open her own cheese steak shop featuring her favorite sandwich made by the Hercules-based Cheese Steak Shop franchise.
"I tried different cheese steaks available in Manila, and they are really not the same," Uy said during a recent return trip to the Bay Area. "A lot of people have advised me: Why not get a recipe from the Internet and open a cheese steak shop? But it's not the real thing. It's not the real taste."
Uy, 40, who had her first cheese steak at the company's Walnut Creek store in 1989, said she expects to open her first shop in Manila in July. She plans to open two other stores and eventually market the concept to other franchisees.
"We have a slogan in our stores," said Steve Oakes, president of the Cheese Steak Shop chain. " 'Caution, may be habit forming.' It was to her."
The company, with 24 stores in Northern California, has annual sales of nearly $14 million, Oakes said. The company also has stores under construction in Palo Alto, Elk Grove and Larkspur, and it hopes to open two more in the Bay Area in addition to the Manila franchise by the end of 2012.
Oakes says a key to the franchise's success is authenticity -- so much that it orders the sandwich ingredients straight from the Philadelphia area, except for the onions. It will continue do that with Uy's franchise, shipping Philadelphia-area products to the Philippines in what represents Cheese Steak Shop's first international expansion after nearly 30 years in business.
Oakes said that natives of Philadelphia often visit Cheese Steak Shops and compliment the store for carrying Philly products, such as the famous hoagies from Amoroso's Bakery. The Cheese Steak Shop also insists on importing its sirloin steak, chicken breast and hot and sweet peppers from the greater Philadelphia area.
"We bring them in by the truckload," Oakes said, estimating that the shipping costs 10 percent more than buying locally. "We could have bought it cheaper, but we wanted to keep it authentic."
A 1993 graduate in business administration from Saint Mary's College in Moraga, Uy already owns a Japanese restaurant and a number of vending machines in the Philippines. She said her father, who is in the steel business, has inspired her commercial ventures.
"This is the first one that my family is really letting me handle on my own," she said.
The Cheese Steak Shop franchise is a partnership between Oakes and Keith Layton, a fellow Philadelphia-area native. Layton, who founded the first Cheese Steak Shop on Divisidero Street in San Francisco in January 1982, eventually expanded to 11 stores.
Oakes, a loyal customer who had managed franchising for Concord-based Round Table Pizza, approached Layton about forming the franchise company and expanding further, which the two did in 2000.
Layton, who is vice president of the company, retains individual ownership of nine stores, but the rest are owner-operated as franchises. Franchisees pay a monthly royalty of 5 percent to carry the Cheese Steak Shop affiliation, and part of the funding is placed into a large advertising pool used to promote the chain.
Uy's shops in Manila will offer dine-in and takeout service. They also will carry vegetarian versions of the famous sandwich, as well as salads and other side dishes.
Although large American restaurant chains have a presence in the Philippines, including Pizza Hut and Subway, Oakes said he thinks the cheese steaks' difficult-to-replicate flavor will set it apart.
"We are a unique option to all of those," he said.
James Triguero, a financial adviser and board member of the Filipino American Chamber of Commerce of Santa Clara County, said Filipino immigrants have had great success opening restaurants, selling real estate and conducting other business in the Bay Area. However, he said bureaucracy in the Philippines makes it difficult for Filipinos to open small businesses there, even ones offering popular American products or services.
"One of the things that limits growth in the Philippines is red tape and small-level corruption," he said, adding that the current government is working on reforms that might benefit Uy.
"It takes quite a lot of courage to go and launch those businesses," he said. "If she gets it up and running, she will have big success because they are fans of American culture over there."