For many people in our fast-paced world, a home-cooked meal is a luxury. Few have the time, energy and inclination to simply prepare a dish that takes hours to prepare – from slicing the ingredients to spending hours in front of a hot stove waiting for the precise moment when a culinary masterpiece is done.
One such dish is laing, a staple of Bikol cuisine that has gained wide acceptability throughout the Philippines.
Anna and Rufino Manrique, owners of MoonBake, Inc., decided to make available the goodness of this native specialty to many people at any time they desire.
In November of 1999, the Moondish ready-to-eat Laing was launched during the Asian Ethnic Food Exhibition of the Department of Trade and Industry. Local as well as international wholesale buyers were tickled by the idea of canning one of the national food favorites. Barely two years later, almost all major supermarkets in Metro Manila stock and sell all six variants of Moondish ready-to-eat Laing on their shelves.
Before setting up a food business, Anna and Rufino were social workers helping the urban poor improve their lives. Then in 1991, the couple decided that setting up a business is another way of helping the urban poor by providing them with employment. With a loan of PhP 50,000, they were able to set up a small bakery, Moonbake, that catered to the needs of their neighborhood in Las Pinas City.
However, after almost a year of operation, the bakery was not as profitable as they hoped. Although, Anna and Rufino were able to put up another outlet in nearby Sucat, they observed that there was already too much competition. What the enterprising couple needed to do was find a particular niche that they can fill, without requiring too much capital investment.
Separately, Anna and Rufino enrolled in known culinary and entrepreneurship institutions like the Asian Baking Institute, Sylvia Reynoso, Heny Sison and the Technology and Livelihood Resource Center. They needed to bone up on information that can make their existing bakery more profitable. Meanwhile, they also conducted their own baking experiments and taste tests to come up with new products that will surely find buyers in their targeted market. They were able to create their own versions of chocolate crinkles – “chocolitos”, as well as fudgy chocolate cakes and cupcakes.
The turning point for Moonbake came in 1994. In that year, aside from retail selling of the chocolate cookies, cakes and cupcakes in the two bakeries, it was also supplying school canteens in Metro Manila to as far as Batangas in the south and Pampanga in the north. Production in its plant was in three shifts (24 hours). Around 140,000 pieces of cookies and hundreds of cupcakes are baked and packaged everyday. Daily deliveries to schools and ‘drop houses’ began as early as three in the morning.
“Right from the start, my husband and I decided that the business we will set up will cater to the ‘low-end’ market, hence the neighborhood bakery. When we realized that competition made business not too profitable, our reaction was to change our main product line,” said Anna Manrique, owner and general manager of Moonbake, Inc.
“Cookies are the ideal products for us to produce and sell. These have longer shelf-life than the breads, and very little investment needed in terms of plant space and equipment,” she added.
For several years, Moonbake continued to bake ‘chocolitos’ and chocolate cupcakes. To increase their product line, they also developed ube cupcakes, as well as lenguas de gato cookies, but their main clients were school children. Annual sales were about PhP 30 million.
Then as what happens with any enterprise, Anna and Rufino noticed that while sales of the baked goodies were still good, it had already reached its peak and was beginning to plateau. There was also the matter of a shrinking profit margin. This happened during the late 1990s and once again, the couple decided to look at other food products which they can develop and sell to their target market.
“We heard that the Industrial Technology Development Institute (ITDI) of the Department of Science and Technology had already developed several products that were ready for commercialization. The institute was only looking for individuals or groups who are willing to invest some time and money to bring these products to market,” related Rufino.
One item that stood out among the many products developed by ITDI was the canned laing. It appealed to the Manriques’ because laing is made from indigenous materials. It also helped that Anna is from the Bicol region – the Philippine region known for coconut milk-based dishes such as laing. Thus, a new division of Moonbake Inc. was created – Moondish – to handle production, marketing and sales of canned Filipino cuisine.
“Right there and then, both Anna and I realized that canned laing had great potential not only locally, but also overseas. There are many Filipinos living abroad who would like to have a taste of Philippine cuisine as often as they can. For the domestic market meanwhile, our main selling point was that Moondish laing is ready-to-eat. For those who do not have the time nor the energy to enjoy the home-cooked goodness of laing, we suggest that they try our canned variety which is just as good.”
Laing is a native Filipino dish that has coconut milk and taro leaves as its main ingredients. Preparation begins with the selection of young taro leaves which are then washed, air dried, then cut to shreds. The main flavoring ingredient, fermented salted shrimp or “alamang” is washed in running water to remove excess salt and impurities such as bits of shell and small stones. Then the milk is extracted from freshly grated coconut. Other flavoring ingredients such as ginger and chili are added to taste.
In the factory space leased by the Manriques from ITDI, there are thirteen workers who take care of the washing, shredding and cutting of 500 kilos of taro leaves and stems, grating and pressing of 2,000 mature coconuts, as well as cooking and canning of the finished laing. The cans, meanwhile, are labeled at the Las Pi¤as plant of Moonbake Inc. The normal production capacity for laing is 2,400 cans (155gms) daily, although they can easily double the amount whenever needed.
To supply the company’s requirement for fresh and consistent quality raw materials, the Moondish division has contract growers who strictly adhere to mutually-agreed upon guidelines. These guidelines include planting and harvesting only of pre-selected taro varieties and using only natural fertilizers and pesticides, if necessary.
As to production machinery, Moondish plant supervisor Arnel Torres said that there is still room for improvement.
“Almost all of our equipment are still manually operated,” according to Torres. “However, when we move to our new plant site in FTI, Taguig before the end of the year, we should have acquired a hydraulic coconut press/grater with a much bigger capacity, as well as more units of automatic can seamer. We need these equipment to further increase productivity of our workers. The other equipment used in producing canned laing include boilers, an exhaust box and a retort chamber.”
“Using tin cans for packaging is still our best option for our type of product. If we use ‘tetrapak’, we need a considerable capital outlay for packaging machinery. Tetrapak is also not as durable as tin cans. And this is a very important consideration now that we have made inroads not just in the domestic market, but in the foreign market as well,” added Torres.
The production supervisor said that since the company began production of canned laing in commercial quantities in June of 2000, more than 50,000 cans have been distributed and sold. Furthermore, many people are showing interest in becoming distributors or retailers of Moondish products.
Moondish laing is currently sold in six variants in major supermarkets in Metro Manila. These variants are: regular/traditional; hot and spicy; vegetarian; vegetarian hot and spicy; in curry; and with tuna flakes.
Anna and Rufino also participate in trade fairs and bazaars every month to increase awareness of the unique product.
“Short of advertising in media, we try to get as much exposure for our canned products, as often as possible. So far, our efforts have paid off. Aside from the local market, which is basically Metro Manila, we have also managed to get orders from importers from Guam, Saudi Arabia, Canada and the United States,” related Rufino.
“You might be interested to know,” added Anna “that people from the Oceania region have developed a taste for our laing. It is probably because they are also familiar with the ingredients we Filipinos use, such as coconut milk and taro.”
Always on the look out for new and innovative food products, the couple are now in the process of commercializing the production of calamansi juice concentrate. Mr. and Mrs. Manrique intend to keep their focus on Filipino food items and dishes whose raw materials are readily available and easy to grow locally.
“After being in the business for almost ten years, both Anna and I realize that we have to keep innovating so that our company will also continue to grow.
It is ironic that we found success in producing ‘instant’ food, when in fact, success did not really come for us ‘in an instant’ or many people in our fast-paced world, a home-cooked meal is a luxury. Few have the time, energy and inclination to simply prepare a dish that takes hours to prepare – from slicing the ingredients to spending hours in front of a hot stove waiting for the precise moment when a culinary masterpiece is done.