Kamuning Bakery’s Wilson Lee Flores
“Not all old or old-fashioned things are bad or inferior,” says writer and entrepreneur Wilson Lee Flores, 50. [Disclosure: Wilson’s paternal grandfather and mine were brothers, making us second cousins.]
“Traditions are part of our heritage,” Wilson continues. “Our history is not just stories in books or artifacts in museums, but also in how we prepare and eat our food. They must be passed down through generations, and if needed, adapted to society today.”
In 1939, Atty. Leticia Bonifacio Javier and husband Marcelo founded Kamuning Bakery in Quezon City. Tycoon Alejandro Roces Sr., President Manuel Quezon’s friend, urged Leticia’s parents to set up a bakery there, since the latter had gained fame for their Los Baños Bakery in Manila.
Their daughter and her husband took up the challenge, but the latter, together with Letty’s father and her brother-in-law, were killed in the Battle of Manila.
Leticia took charge of the bakery, while raising three children. The breads were praised by writers Nick Joaquin, NVM Gonzalez, Doreen Fernandez; patronized by the powerful (such as former President Corazon Aquino) and the plebeian.
However, not many food businesses manage to survive more than two decades. And despite its historical import, Kamuning Bakery was like an old soldier—quietly fading away. Then came the meeting between Wilson and Ted Javier, now in his 70s, the son of Leticia and Marcelo.
Against all odds
After Wilson spoke at a seminar, Ted, then in the audience, asked his help in selling a certain property. Wilson could not believe it.
“In the 1980s, I already knew about Kamuning Bakery. Doreen, the moderator of our college paper, had written about the breads, so I had already visited the bakery. I convinced Ted to keep the bakery going, though when I looked at the financials, the business looked like a sari-sari store!”
Ted and his siblings had tried to make the bakery profitable, to no avail.
By the time their mother passed away, the siblings already lived far from Kamuning. They focused on their own professions, so the bakery was managed by non-family members.
In December 2013, Wilson took control and ownership of the business, with Ted staying on as a minority shareholder. (Ted had bought out the shares of his siblings.) Soon “the boss of a top business group texted me if I planned to tear down the structure, but I said that I would retain it. We tore down some walls and saw the original woodwork. For safety, we had to put steel beams, but I took photos of the original design, telling the renovators to follow it.”
Wilson also refused various offers to franchise the bakery. “I have to financially revive the bakery first, then open some company-owned branches. Quality over quantity.”
Many family businesses fear being taken over by outsiders, but Wilson says, “Reassure the owners that you are working for the benefit of everyone. Respect their heritage, what they had worked so hard for.”
Kamuning Bakery has two working pugon ovens, but only one baker remained from the olden days, and so Wilson set about training young bakers, many from the provinces.
“Our breads are artisanal. We bake by hand, labor-intensive and time-consuming. We bake pan de suelo on the floor, which Filipinos used to do a century ago. The Americans were shocked to see bread baked on the floor, so they demanded it be done on steel trays, which gave rise to the pan de sal, which used to be a lot bigger, not like the small buns we have today.”
Pan Legaspi bread from Bicol and Binangkal bread from Cebu joined the menu, and soon the bakers were concocting foods old (yema rolls, old-style fruitcakes and birthday cakes) and new (Oreo cakes, strawberry cakes, pineapple pies).
Being a society and business writer helped the business, but Wilson also harnessed social media, namely, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. “We did not want to raise the costs of the products, because Kamuning Bakery is not in Barangay Forbes or Greenhills. We did not want to lose our existing customers. We had to attract new ones. Through social media, other people started to visit us, some from far away, and several are now regular customers.”
Bobbie Malay Ocampo, daughter of the late Dean Armando Malay and wife of activist Satur Ocampo, brought her grandson for snacks, and introduced him as “a fourth-generation customer.”
In March 2015, an adjoining café, which used to be a dental clinic, started serving all-day Filipino breakfast meals not only with breads, but also rice meals and pasta, with artisanal coffee drinks with beans from Benguet and Mt. Province.
Another adjacent space, which used to be a printing shop, will soon be a restaurant specializing in pugon-baked pizza and pugon-roasted chicken.
“It shouldn’t only be the big guys or rich firms which should share, but also small businesses,” says Wilson. “We’ve been donating modestly but consistently, in cash or in kind, to typhoon victims, cancer kids, orphanages, homes for the aged, centers for abused women. Instead of hosting a 75th anniversary party, Kamuning Bakery would be assisting 75 centers of disadvantaged people during our anniversary year, December 2014 to 2015. I dream of changing our society for the better, one pan de sal at a time.”
Follow Kamuning Bakery on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Visit Kamuning Bakery (9292216, 7945045, 4112311) on 43 Judge Jimenez St. cor K-1st St., Kamuning, Quezon City.
Next week: Is the stock market rigged?
Queena N. Lee-Chua is on the board of directors of Ateneo de Manila University’s Family Business Development Center. Get her book “Successful Family Businesses” at the University Press (email@example.com). E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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