Connie’s Kitchen: Home-Cooked Goodness in a Glass Jar

Nowadays, a lot of foods on supermarket shelves contain additives that lengthen shelf life and improve flavor and texture. While the efficacy and safety of food additives in processed foodstuffs have been widely tested, consumers still prefer “all-natural, no preservatives, no additives” in their diets for health and other reasons. Food processors like Connie’s Kitchen provide an alternative for these discriminating consumers.

Connie’s Kitchen became a business by chance. Its success, however, is not. It came through years of hard work, patience, planning and prudence. Here is their story.

Like many young couples, Connie and Manolet Gonzalez enjoy the outdoors. Family camping trips were scheduled whenever possible, as they have done for more than a decade. And like any caring mother and wife, Connie always takes care of preparing healthful and convenient foods that do not spoil easily even without refrigeration.

A friend shared with Connie her mother’s recipe for tuyo (dried fish) in olive oil. However, being more familiar with daing, she developed a recipe that would soon be known as Gourmet Daing. It became her family’s favorite camping food. Not too long after that, campers who shared their meals with the Gonzalezes were encouraging the couple to begin selling the unique product.

“We sort of fell into this kind of business by accident. When I developed the Gourmet Daing, I really had no intention of going commercial with the product. During that time, as far as I was concerned, it was ready-to-eat food meant for the convenience of campers such as my family,” related Mrs. Connie C. Gonzalez, president of Connie’s Kitchen.

It was only a matter of time before insistent friends finally convinced a reluctant Connie to accept orders for her Gourmet Daing. By 1990, someone ordered from them several cases (24 jars in each case) of the bottled delicacy to bring as pasalubong for relatives living in the United States. As soon as word spread that the Gonzalezes were accepting orders, friends started calling – and ordering. Not too long after, orders for tuyo in olive oil also started coming in. The home kitchen was always abuzz with entrepreneurial activity as orders averaged three cases per month.

“From the time we started selling until about 1994, we were part of the ‘underground economy’. The business somehow grew because of regular orders from friends and resulting sales from our participation in bazaars. We didn’t have regular outlets then, so I suppose many people really enjoyed our products and found them worth buying again and again.”

In 1994, during one of the bazaars that Connie and Manolet joined, Mrs. Tantoco of Rustan’s happened to visit their booth. She was impressed by the creativity and packaging of the Gonzalezes’ product line. At first, the Bon Appetit Café‚ of the department store chain carried their products and eventually the Rustan supermarket had their products prominently displayed on the supermarket shelves.

“Before the birth of Connie’s Kitchen, we were already dabbling in entrepreneurship. We were able to get a franchise for a few carts selling flavored popcorn in the malls. Our experience in this venture helped us somewhat, but there’s nothing like having your own food processing business, complete with R&D. It is a totally different ball game!” added Manolet, Connie’s very supportive husband.

“When we finally decided to go into this business on full time basis, there were tons of paperwork that we had to accomplish, including DTI (Department of Trade and Industry), BIR (Bureau of Internal Revenue) and SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) registration, BFAD (Bureau of Food and Drug) approval, and the like. There were also the details of the production side. We had to fine-tune such production systems as maintaining reliable suppliers, having regular staff and workers, and sustaining a clean and safe environment for our factory. All of these were necessary to make sure that we keep our standard of quality, as well as adhere to industry requirements,” Manolet related.

Since the first production run, Connie’s Kitchen now has extended its product line to include a wide variety of products. From its Gourmet Tuyo fillets and Gourmet Daing flakes, there are now other kinds of fish preparations bottled with olive oil and other sauces. Among them, Tuyo with Capers, Bacalao Filipino, Salsa Amaya, Kippers in Capers and Bihod (Pinoy caviar). There are also vegetable-based sauces such Pinoy Putanesca, Pesto, Sun-dried Tomato Pesto and Salsa Fresca, and of course, the cheese-based dips/spreads such as Cheese Torta, Garlic Cheese, Marinated Kesong Puti and Marinated Feta Cheese.

The number of Connie’s Kitchen outlets has also grown. Today, majority of big supermarkets in Metro Manila has Connie’s Kitchen foodstuffs on their shelves. Even Cebuanos and Cagayanos can avail of the products from their local Gaisano stores. Local specialty shops and restaurants in Metro Manila specializing in Philippine delicacies like Bulacan Sweets and Cabalen also carry the Connie’s Kitchen line.

Assisting Connie and Manolet in running the enterprise are a general manager, two marketing representatives, two administrative staff, an accountant and eleven regular production workers. During peak season, additional workers are hired to fill the need for additional hands. And sometimes, even their three teenage kids help out whenever they can. The marketing representatives take care of selling, and stocking and restocking the supermarket shelves with fresh supply of their products. (Connie said that ensuring the freshness of the product is an important rule that is followed strictly by the company.)

The Gonzalezes have developed such a good relationship with their suppliers that delivery of raw produce is rarely a problem. The dried fish from Roxas City is always of good quality. (More than 200 kgs. of dried fish are processed every two days.) The kesong puti Connie’s Kitchen uses is made to specifications by a dairy farm in Bulacan. This arrangement leaves Connie with enough time to spend in her own kitchen for R&D. She realizes that to keep pace with the changing taste of her market, she has to keep coming up with new delicacies that will appeal to them.

“We normally come up with two to three new products every year. Of course, our banner products – the Gourmet Tuyo and Daing – are still very good sellers, often for clients who buy by the case for consumption abroad. Once, on a visit to the United States, I was surprised to find our products on the shelves of a Filipino foods store! So this finally had my husband and myself thinking about going into export ourselves,” Connie revealed.

Setting their sights on the export market, Manolet and Connie are now in the process of realizing the next stage in the evolution of Connie’s Kitchen. “We are now members of the PhilFoodEx and currently applying for our HACCP (Hazards Analysis Critical Points) accreditation, which is a must for food exports. For this, we have retained the services of a food technologist from the University of the Philippines who regularly assesses our plant for safety and cleanliness. All our staff and workers have also undergone intensive training on how to keep the workplace always clean and themselves hygiene-conscious,” said Manolet Gonzalez.

Meanwhile, even as they prepare for the export market, Connie and Manolet have a more immediate goal: That Connie’s Kitchen will have its own outlet where the bottled preparations can be sampled as taste test is the best way to sell food products. The couple believes that one of the reasons why people buy their products in bazaars is that consumers can sample their products. It’s the best-by-taste marketing formula. The outlet would be a good venue to show off to potential clients the many different ways of making wholesome food preparations using their bottled sauces and spreads, as well as sell the products by retail and wholesale.

“Right now, the best way of selling our products is still during bazaars. That’s why we use glass jars and bottles as containers. The clear jars and bottles show off the appetizing colors of our products and catch the eye of the bazaar shoppers. Furthermore, the packaging – our labels and paper bags – is all geared to show the homestyle goodness of each preparation. Rather old-fashioned but it works! We remain true to our claims that appear on our product’s label – no preservatives, no additives, and you can count on that!” proudly disclosed Connie.

“Many people have commented that, considering the market’s reaction to our product, Connie’s Kitchen should have grown much faster than it already has. However, right from the beginning, Manolet and I have agreed that whatever money the business makes for itself will have to be rechanneled back to business to fund for its own expansion. Thus, borrowing money from the bank is out of the question. But in a way, I think that, with our system, the business itself has shown that it is financially viable and ready to join the global market,” admitted Connie.

“I always keep in mind that we are food processors. And food safety and quality should never be taken for granted. In our production plant, ingredients are always carefully measured to assure consistent quality. We manage Connie’s Kitchen in the same way. We plan to continue taking measured but sure steps into the global economy.”

For Connie’s Kitchen, the ingredients of success are all there. Production-wise, it is ready to join the global competition. After all, for discriminating, health-conscious consumer market, nothing beats nutritious home-cooked goodness in bottles and jars!