History enthusiast, three-time Palanca award-winning writer, and 12-time Catholic Mass Media award-winning columnist Wilson Lee Flores first read about Kamuning Bakery from a newspaper column of late top food critic Dr. Doreen G. Fernandez, his Ateneo college paper Guidon’s moderator in the 1980s.
When he found that Fernandez had even featured Kamuning Bakery in her coffee table book Palayok, Flores knew he had to try the traditional pugon-baked breads she was talking about, all made sans preservatives and additives, as well as see for himself the delighful panaderia she had written about with such a rich history.
“I’m a foodie and a history buff so upon reading about it, I curiously looked for the spot in Kamuning, and discovered that the 76-year-old Kamuning Bakery continued to serve its old clients with artisanal, high-quality and pugon-style baked products,” recalled Flores in this one-on-one interview with The Sunday Times Magazine.
He became a loyal customer in an instant, and as he enjoyed servings of pan de sal and hot cups of coffee in its quaint Spanish-inspired interiors, the Kamuning Bakery regular had no idea that someday soon, fate would lead him to invest and restore this Quezon City treasure as his own.
Documented as the very first bakery to be established in what was then a developing Quezon City in late 1939, Kamuning Bakery was part of Don Alejandro Roces’ vision for the young metropolis to grow with housing projects and commercial districts in specified areas.
Roces advised his friends Atty. Leticia “Letty” Bonifacio Javier and her husband Marcelo Javier Sr. to follow in the footsteps of the former’s parents, Miguel and Jovita, who opened and operated the renowed pre-war panaderia in Singalong, Manila, known as the Los Baños Bakery
According to Flores, looking further back into history, it was the 76-year old Joaquin “Joaqui” Roces Jr., who told him that his late grandfather Don Alejandro was the brainchild of what is considered the largest city in the country today. Apparently, it was the legendary Roces partriarch who convinced the Tuason family to sell their Diliman estate to the national government at 5-centavos per square meter to create Quezon City.
Thereafter, the government sold pieces of land to the public at 50-centavos per square meter in 1939, at payment terms of 10 to 15 years, which the Javiers’ bought under Roces’ advisement for Kamuning Bakery.
Incidentally, Joaqui is a third generation regular of Kamuning Bakery after his grandfather and his late father, the equally legendary activist Joaquin “Chino” Roces who owned and published The Manila Times.
When Leticia’s father, husband and brother-in-law were killed as World War II heroes at the 1945 Battle of Manila, she was left to raise her three children—Beth, Ted and Elo—on her own by continuing her family’s time-honored baking tradition at Kamuning Bakery.
Twist of fate
Kamuning Bakery was in business for more than two decades, but with the influx of modern bakeries and restaurants, competition became tougher and tougher that Ted and his siblings had to make a decision to close shop and sell the prime property.
By then, Flores was already one of Kamuning Bakery’s regulars, and as a man of many hats—he is also an expert in real estate—was approached by Ted for advice on how to sell the historical address that is 43 Judge Jimenez Street in Kamuning, Quezon City.
“I tried to convinced Ted to keep the business but to no avail, especially when their mother died. By then Kamuning Bakery was already being managed by non-family members,” Flores related.
Unable to bear seeing his favorite panaderia fade away, the ever loyal customer and friend offered to buy the property—precisely to retain and revive the bakery—and officially relaunched Kamuning Bakery in December 2013, with Ted as minority shareholder.
“I love tradition and I believe that we should also cherish good traditions,” Flores humbly said prodded further on why he decided to save Kamuning Bakery. “I believe not all old things or traditional ways are bad or inferior or passe. I believe the history of a nation or a society are not only stories in history books or artifacts in museums, but also in the way we prepare and eat our food, such as the old baking traditions and traditional breads, biscuits and cakes.”
He went on to promise, “Kamuning Bakery shall continue with the Philippines’ old panaderia traditions, such as the more time-consuming and labor-intensive pugon baking—I help source the best firewoods too—, our policy of using ‘no preservatives and no additives,’ the old names of the breads such as ‘bicho-bicho’ for what others would call ‘doughnut twist’ and ‘Pan de Espana’ for what we commonly call today ‘Spanish breads’ and so on.”
After spending 2014 concentrating on rebuilding Kamuning Bakery through reviving its original offerings, growing its client base, and rehabilitating its 76-year-old building and facilities, including the antique pugon or wood-fire brick ovens, Flores officially opened anew a bigger and better Kamuning Bakery Café on March 20, 2015.
For more space to accommodate a host of patrons—which again run the gamut of newsmen, showbiz celebrities, business folk, and politicians as the Kamuning Bakery of old gathered—Flores took back areas the former owners had come to lease through the years.
Thus, the restored café, apart from serving freshly baked goods, has room to highlight Filipino art works, use antique local furniture, and put on display such unique items as a pre-war telephone, a grandfather’s clock and other valuable pieces.
Flores, of course, is prouder of the high-quality menu on offer, that is consistently affordable.
“Kamuning Bakery Cafe now serves all-day Filipino breakfast meals focusing on pugon-baked pan de suelo, pandesal and other breads, as well as rice meals, pastas, and sandwiches, plus artisanal coffee drinks like frappuccino using the finest coffee beans from the highlands of Benguet in the Mountain Province, as well as Brazil, El Salvador, India, Costa Rica, Sumatra, and Ethiopia, among others,” he enumerated.
Old and new
According to Flores, Kamuning Bakery’s breads, biscuits and cakes are described as “artisanal,” because they are hand-made by artisan bakers whom he retained upon taking over. They are considered craftsmen who use long traditional processes and pay close attention to details in mixing the dough for the breads, which are then baked in the 76-year-old pugon or wood-fire brick oven.
But while preserving and reviving old baking traditions, Flores also had to introduce a number of innovations in Kamuning Bakery. For the first time in 76 years, the bakery now has credit card facilities for convenience, free wifi, as well as a website and an active presence in social media via Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
Flores has further requested his young customers to help him upload YouTube videos of Kamuning Bakery breads and products, as well as their experiences of visiting the quaint panaderia.
“And through the social media, our pugon bakers, staff and management can communicate directly and immediately with customers to address their feedback,” Flores added.
Yet another remarkable addition that Flores introduced in Kamuning Bakery is the practice of corporate social responsibility. He believes that “it shouldn’t only be the big guys or rich firms, that shoud do their share, but also SMEs (small-to medium enterprises).”
Flores related, “We’ve been donating modestly but consistently to charities almost every month, whether in cash or in kind—to a project to help public school students of typhoon-ravaged Tacloban, disadvantaged cancer kids in various hospitals, orphanages, homes for the aged, centers of abused women, and Habitat for Humanity, among others.”
Kamuning Bakery even recently donated bread for public school students at a nearby Quezon City High School for their national government exams.
Moreover, instead of hosting a 75th anniversary party later this year, the bakery is assisting 75 centers for disadvantaged individuals throughout the milestone from December 17, 2014 to 2015.
With such huge leaps taken by Kamuning Bakery since Flores took the helm in 2013, there have been many inquiries of franchising the “iconic panaderia.” While the owner is open to expansion, he believes another one or two years is required to fully restore Kamuning Bakery to its old glory before he can open a few smaller, company owned branches.
He is, however, thinking sooner of opening a pugon-baked pizza and pugon-roasted chicken restaurant in another area beside the bakery, which the former owners leased out.
“The bakery has a big second pugon oven, which has not been used for years,” Wilson shared. “The restaurant can serve pizza with a uniquely Filipino flavor, and twists such as longganisa pizza, laing pizza, chorizo pizza, etc.”
What he is immediately ready for are hosting art exhibits across the café’s walls, which currently has his collection of paintings on display. He believes such activities would go well with his advocacy for reading via the small library he has also organized in one corner.
“Our customers can borrow these books because I want to encourage reading especially among young customers,” he continued, going through some of the titles on the shelf.
As for the business side of things, Flores related, “I tell our team at Kamuning Bakery that it is not our goal to be the biggest bakery or the richest bakery chain, but we should strive to be the best in quality, affordability, service and authenticity. I also remind them that more foreign brands and bakery chains from abroad will open in the Philippines, which is why we should work hard and work creatively to showcase Filipino breads, pastries, local coffee and even chocolate, to be at par with the world’s best.”
Clearly for the very intelligent, the very loyal, and the very nationalistic Wilson Lee Flores, his latest—and most diverse—business venture is not just about earning money. Besides restoring and reviving Filipino family traditions for the young to experience, it is about cultivating existing talents, community service, and national pride.
“Our historic area Barangay Kamuning is not a slum area, but it is also not Barangay Forbes Park or Barangay Greenhills. We are also near big public schools, and as a writer and college teacher, I am also very idealistic and I dream of helping make positive changes in society.”
And yes, with his vision and endless ideas, the man can do it—even just by baking bread.
Kamuning Bakery Café is now in its soft opening or dry run stage, open 7 a.m. to past 11 p.m. daily.