Man cannot live on bread alone, or so the Bible admonishes, but some 25,000 mostly mom-and-pop bakeries around the country definitely can.
These bakeries start operations at the crack of dawn to produce the country’s primary bread product—pan de sal, which is usually consumed at breakfast paired with a piping hot cup of coffee—and at merienda time, between lunch and dinner.
That pan de sal has become an indispensable part of the Filipinos’ breakfast table, and bread as a second favorite staple, can be credited to Spanish colonizers who introduced flour milling in the Philippines, initially to make Eucharistic wafers.
According to Ric Pinca, executive director of the Philippine Association of Flour Millers, who has been in the industry for 27 years as a baking technician, bakery instructor and flour milling executive, the Philippines even produced wheat during the 17th century, mainly in Cagayan Valley and Calatagan, Batangas.
That’s why it is no surprise that most of the master bakers in the country come from Batangas, where a thriving bakery industry still exists.
Pinca said that Spanish priests harvested so much wheat in the country (where rice remains the staple food), that they even managed to export the surplus to Mexico through the Galleon Trade.
When the Americans came, wheat planting was neglected as the Americans brought in processed flour, and later, white loaf bread under the brand “Tastee.”
“Since then, Filipinos have associated loaf bread with this brand, so we say ‘tasty’ when we refer to pan Americano,” said Pinca.
He noted that pan de sal and loaf bread have since remained the biggest sellers in local bakeries, 80 percent of them classified as small businesses since they consume only three to five bags of flour a day. The balance is accounted for by bigger businesses like Gardenia and Walter Bread.
The Philippines produces 1.5 million metric tons of flour a year or 60 million bags of flour weighing 25 kilograms each. Imported flour accounts for about 180,000 metric tons or 7 million bags. Per capita consumption is about 17 kg a year.
A little over half of flour produced locally goes to the bakery business; 22 percent are turned into noodles; 18 percent into crackers and biscuits, and 4 percent to other products such as lumpia wrappers, ice cream cones and shawarma wrappers.
Of the flour that goes to the bakery business, 19 percent become pan de sal; 19 percent, loaf bread; 12 percent, cakes and pastries, and 6 percent buns and rolls, said Pinca.
One intrepid entrepreneur who has seen profits rise because of the demand for bread is Johnlu Koa who, 25 years ago, invested in the business because he saw an opportunity to create a new category—authentic French bread.
Through his French Baker chain, Koa introduced Filipinos to other types of bread including croissants, meat-filled buns and pastries.
The French bakery-café is good business, he said because getting in isn’t as easy: One needs enough knowledge, experience and capital to go into it unlike the corner bakery. Getting out of the business, on the other hand, is easy: “The equipment is easily liquidated in the resale market.”
There are also several market segments in the bread market, Koa added. He has so far created four brands to cater to these different niches: Lartizan for the high-end market; French Baker for the upper mid-income group of mall-goers; Globake, which is positioned as a neighborhood bakery and stand-alone food shop, and Qwikbread for institutional buyers like airlines, hospitals, schools and caterers.
Newspaper columnist and real estate broker Wilson Lee Flores, who likewise invested in the bread industry, found his decision to be a wise one.
In an interview, Flores said he first read about Kamuning Bakery in one column of the late Inquirer food writer Doreen Fernandez. He became a fan and a frequent customer of the bakery that still uses the traditional pugon or wood-fired oven to produce its bread products.
When he learned that the original owners wanted to sell the business due to lack of time to manage its operations as well as intense competition from modern bake shops, Flores offered to acquire majority shares in the business.
Now, with just a bit more marketing and promotions, the 75-year-old bakery has seen an uptick in sales by over 500 percent in the last eight months.
“There will always be a niche for good old-fashioned, oven-baked breads,” said Flores, “I believe Kamuning Bakery and artisan bakers also uphold our intangible national heritage,” he added.
The sentiment is shared by Chito Chavez, chair of the Philippine Federation of Bakers Associations Inc., who comes from Batangas.
Chavez said a bakery is not an easy business to get into. Work starts early in the morning and there are no holidays since demand peaks during the holiday season.
“But that is part of the service,” he said. “Compensation comes when we hear people say they like what we baked,” he added. •