If you’re in states with large Filipino immigrant populations, you’ve surely tried mango or calamansi juice from Manila Gold, heated Turo Turo Gourmet’s Filipino-flavored barbeque and fried ukoy (shrimp fritter) and grilled fresh, frozen bangus (milkfish) from the Philippines with the Frescano brand.
Soldiers and their families (not just Filipinos) stationed in various parts of the world enjoy the flavors of the Philippines through the Ramar Foods brands, which are available from their commissaries.
And just in the past few months, health-conscious foodies shopping at Whole Foods Market have been introduced to healthy, hearty Filipino cuisine through the all-natural, gluten-free, definitely no-MSG chicken adobo, chicken lumpia, vegetarian lumpia and a pancit (noodle) kit (everything you need to enjoy gourmet Filipino pancit, just add the noodles), all branded Kusina ni Maria.
And of course, every Filipino expat in the U.S. has at some point capped their meals or salved their homesickness with Magnolia ice cream (also available as milk bars in six flavors), now in 16 flavors including the best-selling ube (purple yam), buko pandan (young coconut-pandanus leaf combo), macapuno (chewy coconut) and mais queso (corn-cheese combo).
All food products under these brands–Magnolia, Orientex, Pampanga’s Best, Manila Gold, Bestaste, Turo Turo Gourmet, Frescano and Kusina ni Maria–are manufactured by Ramar Foods International at its three-building headquarters in Pittsburg, California.
No one can dispute Ramar’s dominance of the Filipino frozen food market in the U.S. Its products are ubiquitous–aside from Asian stores, they can be found in at least 600 food outlets nationwide, including select Costco warehouse stores, gourmet food stores in various cities, mom-and-pop stores in the East Coast, Walmart and Longs Drugs in Hawaii, in some Lucky/Albertsons supermarkets and in 325 Safeways on the West Coast.
Though Asian supermarket chains in California and neighboring states have come out with their own brands of tocino, tapa (beef jerky) and longganisa, even frozen lumpiang shanghai packs, they are mere copies of Ramar products and packaging. None of these outlets can afford to ignore Ramar products; most of the time, store brands sit side by side Ramar’s in the freezers, providing customers the advantage of choice. [One notable difference, explains Susie Quesada, Ramar’s executive vice president, “Most of our products have no MSG. Since we do use oyster sauce as an ingredient in some of our products, we have labeled those products NO MSG Added.” The company also doesn’t add fillers to their meat products, unlike other producers seeking to cut costs. “The textures of our meats are the real thing,” Susie says.]
Ramar’s success in the tough (especially for immigrants) U.S. business environment is not just the classic story of grit, determination, good timing, business acumen, risk-taking and cunning, although all these elements are definitely present in the company’s story. It is, most of all, a narrative of family legacy that spans over 40 years in America and many more years before that in the Philippines.
The Story of Ramon and Maria
Ramon Quesada, a medical doctor, and his wife Maria Serapio, were successful entrepreneurs in the Philippines. The companies they founded and owned were varied, from pharmaceuticals to real estate and restaurants. Filipino boomers will remember Bonanza, the site of many teenage parties in the ‘60s, and the first Kentucky Fried Chicken (now KFC) franchise in Manila. So successful was the latter, that the family was able to expand to 33 KFC outlets at some point.
Despite their very comfortable life in the home country, the Quesada couple, particularly Maria, wanted a bigger world for their brood of eleven. In 1969 they decided to move to the San Francisco Bay Area, bringing with them seven of the younger ones (three who were already married opted to stay put in Manila; the eldest, Ramon Jr., was already a practicing doctor in Seattle).
Maria promptly began a small business she dubbed Orientex, selling Filipino handicrafts and jewelry at the San Jose Flea Market. A few years later, the business expanded with a brick-and-mortar store on Castro Street in Mountain View. In addition to the handicrafts, the retail store carried frozen and dry goods imported from the Philippines.
The grocery section of Orientex turned out to be a winner. At the time, in the early ‘70s, there was a dearth of Filipino food available to the rapidly growing immigrant population and the manongs who were constantly hungry for the tastes of home. Soon, the family expanded its retail operations to San Jose and Daly City, and branched out to wholesale importing and distribution. In 1972 it started marketing ice cream under the Magnolia brand.
By the time the sixth child, Primo, graduated from college, established and ran Orientex Travel in San Francisco, and married his high school sweetheart, Evangeline Poe, the family business had grown so much – now spanning real estate, travel, importation and retail -- but had also hit some snags that required rethinking and restructuring, particularly with its wholesale operations.
In 1978 Primo took over the helm of the company and began the long, difficult but ultimately rewarding, process of converting its core operations from importing and retail to manufacturing. Renaming the company Ramar (a combination of the first syllables of the names of their parents, Ramon and Maria, a common practice among Filipinos), Primo read the rapidly growing Asian market correctly: that the demand for high quality, authentic ethnic foods would increase and that manufacturing them in the U.S. would ensure cost-effectiveness, flexibility and innovation. The idea was not to completely abandon importation–since the Quesada entrepreneurs had already mastered the process of bringing goods from the Philippines to the U.S.–but to limit it to Philippine flavorings. To this day, Ramar still imports Philippine flavors for its products, in addition to frozen bangus for its Frescana line.
In the early ‘80s, Ramar opened its ice cream processing plant in Pittsburg, California, and quickly captured the nostalgia-fueled Filipino market. Magnolia Premium Tropical Ice Cream remains Ramar’s best-selling product line, accounting for about 30 percent of its business. Unlike other Philippine ice cream brands that are appearing in Asian grocery shelves in the U.S., Magnolia uses authentic fruit puree from the Philippines and real dairy cream, not mellorine–the vegetable oil derivative that passes for ice cream. (Check the ingredients, the Ramar folks say, make sure your ice cream does not use mellorine.)
From ice cream, the completely Filipino-owned company expanded its manufacturing operations to include meat products and other Filipino favorites, such as lumpia, ukoy, siopao (char shiu bao) and shu-mai (dumpling). The Pittsburg factory, completed in 1989, now churns out 100 different product lines targeted at various segments of the Filipino American market as well as non-Filipino consumers.
For a complete list of Ramar products, go to: www.ramarfoods.com
The Third Generation Takes Over
With his business credentials undoubtedly proven and his family corporation raking in profits, Primo Quesada, at the turn of the millennium, was ready to hand over the reins to the next generation of Quesadas–his three children. It was no walk in the park since his talented children had other interests and were starting careers of their own that were nowhere close to business.
Susie, his eldest and only daughter, was happily teaching middle school; Gabe, the second child, was focusing on becoming a professional musician, while PJ, the youngest, was into video production. Not one of them planned on joining the family business, mainly because they spent their summers doing grunt work for the food factory and found the jobs exhausting.
The astute strategist that he is, Primo bided his time, allowing his children to flourish in their chosen professions. Though he won’t admit it, he must have known that the family’s entrepreneurial blood runs deep and that it would only be a matter of time before his children would come around.
Susie narrates that her father talked to her about trying out the business when the two of them returned to the Bay Area ahead of the rest of the family, who had spent a sad Christmas in Manila following the death of Fernando Poe Jr., her mother Evangeline’s beloved oldest brother. Her dad talked about how the knowledge he had acquired would just go to waste if no one will use it. Try it for two years, he said, and if Susie didn’t like it, she could return to teaching.
That was eight years ago, and Susie is now executive VP of Ramar Foods. Not only has she thrived, she has displayed a business acumen that has given her father the confidence to completely hand over the day-to-day management of the company to her. Her brothers Gabe (who is board treasurer and manager of real estate operations) and PJ (now the marketing manager), have likewise come around to embracing the family business while not abandoning their artistic pursuits.
The three of them now make the major decisions for Ramar, from approving new products to making sure these reach their intended markets through the company’s core of distributors. Like their grandparents, the third-generation Quesadas have fully embraced entrepreneurship; like their dad, they do not shy away from taking calculated risks.
One of these risks is venturing into the mainstream market, an unheard of move in the Filipino food industry in America. Primo himself admits his complete ignorance of the non-Filipino, next-generation market. Thus, he has given his children free rein for as long as they don’t abandon the company’s core clientele–the first-generation Filipino immigrants whose tastes remain rooted in traditional Filipino flavors.
Going mainstream requires a different strategy and mindset, something that only second-generation Filipino children who have grown up American (like the Quesada trio) can comprehend and define. “Healthy, fancy, trendy” is the way to go, PJ explains.
The strategy is not without empirical basis. Gabe, whom PJ calls their “cultural consultant,” draws on his ethnic studies degree and his community outreach as a musician and performer to determine how best to approach various market sectors and communicate with them.
“There is a big difference in the shopping and eating trends between first-generation and second-generation Filipinos in America,” he explains. “Fil-Ams are no longer shopping where their parents shop and [as they start their own families] they are moving away from their parents. They are motivated by different things. Like the average non-Filipino consumer, they look for good quality, healthy products with good price points. [But] they also show brand loyalty.” Add to this the busy lives that they lead, and they’re a natural niche the frozen foods leader intends to exploit.
Armed with these knowledge assets, the new Ramar leadership has introduced their new line of healthy products to big retailers. The terms “gluten-free, zero trans-fat”–unthinkable in traditional Filipino food–appear in the packages. And in keeping with trendy and fancy, the boxes were re-designed to catch the market’s eye, definitely different from the same products’ packaging for Asian/Filipino stores.
An example: The box for coconut ice cream sold at mainstream outlets reads, “Coconut flavor so intense you’ll feel like one dropped on your head” in big, eye-catching font. The Magnolia logo recedes in the background.
There’s a discernible new energy at Ramar right now that’s definitely young and potent. The company has assumed a much more visible profile in the Filipino American community and in mainstream food events as Susie, Gabe and PJ tirelessly crisscross the country, supporting advocacies, granting media interviews and backing their large network of dealers and distributors in whatever way they can.
Meanwhile, their dad, Primo, who claims he is no longer actively involved in the day-to-day operations of Ramar, now focuses on the Hawaii market, where he built a new distribution center to service the requirements of the formidable Filipino population in the islands. He has likewise overseen Ramar’s acquisition of a Hawaiian company, Belair Distributors, which distributes dry goods to mainstream outlets there. The acquisition has given Ramar products an entry into Walmart, Longs Drugs and other major retailers in Hawaii.
No one can dispute the dominance of Ramar in the Filipino food market. Those who have tried or are trying have a long way to go before they can even walk in the shadow of the Quesadas.