“Be careful of what you pray for—you just might get it,” admonished St Teresa of Avila.
Had a fortune teller told Jennilyn Antonio that she’d be a multimillionaire in just seven short years, she’d probably have thought it a cruel joke!
How could that even remotely happen to an ordinary laborer in a cell-phone factory and her husband Boyong, who was only a company driver himself?
Her family was just barely surviving. They were so poor, her eldest child offered to stop schooling altogether so he could sell chewing gum and sweets in the streets and add a bit more for the family. They were so poor she had to keep on borrowing left, right, center and back to survive.
But Ehje knew there was something looming for her in the horizon. She knew she was open and ready to try anything. She could tackle the hard work because in their family of nine, she was the Cinderella, the token maid, the go-to-daughter for all hard or dirty work.
After work, she made tocino and sold it to her co-workers. She even opened a small carinderia, whose profits her mother gave away for a favorite daughter. She was not one to complain.
Shunned by her family and demoralized, she remembered walking one afternoon by a dirt road and looking up, saw a most beautiful tranquil field. She said she felt this overwhelming peace and started praying. Much like talking to the wind, she asked what else she could do to help her needy family. And just as suddenly—from out of the blue, she had this gut feeling of buying peanuts. Yes, a kilo of peanuts from the market.
But what to do with it? Ehje trusted her instincts and had the peanuts ground. She went home and experimented balancing the flavors of salt and sugar in this unknown but exciting concoction. She sheepishly sold that kilo of peanuts turned peanut butter to her eager co-workers. Orders started to come. Her two bottles became four, then a dozen—till word spread around her co-workers to try the homemade product she was selling on the side.
Ehje’s Peanut Butter was born! Her unfailing optimism willed her on. Physically and mentally, she went through the wringer, and bore the small and the huge obstacles that came popping along in this nascent journey of hers.
What’s great about this very unassuming, totally simple, steadfast entrepreneur was that she focused on how to make her product better.. Among the simple questions she asked were—“What goes well with peanut butter?” Answer: Bread, of course!
Instead of bamboozling her way to big bakeries and presenting herself like a conquering hero, she coyly went from one small bakery to another, no under-the-table manueverings, no bribes or hard selling. She’d simply leave a sample bottle and allow them to do their taste test. And call her on their own sweet time.
Through neighborhood bakeries, she went from strength to strength.
Her first big break came from this well-known bakery that had branches all over the city. They liked her product! When her peanut butter became a bestseller, they started selling it under their own label.
But they wanted more. First they didn’t want her to divulge it was her product they were selling, and second, they wanted her to surrender her recipe to them and “upgrade” her product, so to speak.
But they could not strong-arm Ehje who was no pushover. They dangled to her face the promise of instant wealth—by supposedly providing her entry into the shelves of giant supermarkets, which “only they could provide,” she was told.
But she held on to her secret recipe. “They themselves couldn’t believe how I could reject their very tempting offer,”
She refuses to give their name—having parted ways with them after five years.
“Besides,” she said, “my husband and I were not in hurry to get rich.”
Ehje then joined a writing contest on micro-finance sponsored by a rural bank, and there chronicled her own little story. She won the first prize of P150,000, which was the capital she needed to upgrade her budding factory.
This also got her the introduction to people who helped her business grow.
The judges were names she only read about, such as Tessie Coson of SM, the Central Bank governor, the president of BPI, among others. She naturally brought along samples of her peanut butter during the ceremony.
Ehje again was right in her intuition to go slow in her business. She never pushed herself in the spotlight, or cocky enough to insinuate herself to the judges whom she met during the awards night.
Call from Tessie Coson
She recalls getting a call from Tessie Coson’s office a year later, asking her if she had changed her cell-phone number. Apparently, Coson had been asking for her and couldn’t find her!
Coson had been calling Ehje for her to sell her peanut butter to SM groceries all over the country!
Others who discovered her product followed, such as French Baker whose owner surprised her by happily telling her how he was dedicating his store’s peanut butter cookies in her honor; and Julie’s Bakeshop, that ubiquitous store one finds in teeming bus terminals and heavy-pedestrian street corners.
Soft-spoken and unassuming, the 41-year-old mother of four is full of thanks and unwavering gratitude to the people who helped her find a solid footing in the very treacherous swampland of entrepreneurship.
She credits, among her mentors, Anna Resurrection whose seminars Ehje attended; Globe Telecom, which she credits for learning “communication tools” and “understand (ing their) relevance to my operations… and for “(taking) care of me when I was an absolute nothing”; and the many minders of stores and security guards who obliged her request to give her peanut butter jar to their bosses.
This self-deprecating entrepreneur gets astonished at being the subject of an interview. She says she was, in fact, surprised to be included among the success stories to come out of her province in Laguna. She’s now very computer-savvy and goes online in the wee hours of the morning when it’s quiet because that’s when she’s “most productive.”
From Laguna to Berlin
Ehje has also been featured in the movies. specifically in an indie documentary that is being shown in Berlin, titled “Produkto ng Pilipinas.” Together with two other successful Filipino entrepreneurs, the documentary directed by Julian Ablaza (and produced by father Gerry) is getting good reviews.
So what makes her peanut butter special?
With a staff of 20 in her spotless home factory, every kernel of peanut is meticulously inspected. She buys imported peanuts because of their quality. She explains that the locally produced, though not inferior, suffers mainly because of the humidity in this country. Its moisture content gave her a lot of problems in taste, smell and storage, which resulted in much wastage during her first years.
She also doesn’t believe in making her product “sexy,” that is, through artificial coloring. She says that when properly roasted, the color of the peanut butter should speak for itself. She says she doesn’t resort to short-cuts as well, or the “puwede na, mentality.”
Another must is the A-1 quality stainless-steel machinery which she and her husband designed themselves and ordered directly from Japan, however expensive it was.
Ehje and her husband are hands-on in their business. And despite their overwhelming financial success, Boyong has remained the company’s chief and only technician slash mechanic for all their equipment and vehicles. His being a driver and laborer in his past life honed him well for this amazing twist of fate.
One downside to their success however is not being able to travel together. She and her husband Boyong are the only ones (with their eldest child in training) who know of their secret peanut butter recipe. Boyong is travelling soon to China and Japan to introduce—what else? Ehje’s Peanut Butter!
Before her products even got noticed, Ehjie’s prayer was always, “Dear God, don’t let my customers get sick or poisoned by my peanut butter!” Now, her prayers are more a litany of never-ending thank yous.
Her blessings have enabled her to help her big family. She has also started a scholarship program that sends children in her neighborhood to school.