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Sweet (and crunchy) success

Apart from relying on traditional crops such as corn, coconuts, abaca, and, lately, pineapple, one of the country’s most typhoon-affected regions is finding salvation and global recognition in pili nuts

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By Czarina C. Imperial

The House of Pili's main store, which includes a coffee shop, in Camarines Sur

The House of Pili’s main store, which includes a coffee shop, in Camarines Sur

It is a house that pili built. And rightfully so. Hands down, J. Emmanuel Pastries is the Bicol Region’s and perhaps the country’s biggest pili nut processor, thus their tagline “The House of Pili” is a rightful claim. The most successful brand using the pili as its base had humble beginnings.

In 1995, with P500 leftover from their wedding cash gifts, Maria Lydia Perez Lomibao and Joseph Lomibao started J. Emmanuel Pastries (JEP) as a home-based pili tarts business venture.

“We really wanted to start a business and we thought of a product that would make a good pasalubong,” Lydia recalls. What better product is there in the region than pili nut? Besides, she has been making pili tarts on the side when she was still single.

From local to global

A small but steady revenue kept their cottage industry afloat until they decided to register with the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) in 1997, adding more products like crispy pili nuts with garlic, honey glazed pili nuts, and roasted pili nuts. Soon after, JEP started producing and selling pili mazapan, pili bar, suspiros de pili, and other variations of the processed pili nut.

A grant of P500,000 from the DTI expanded the JEP and many bazaars and trade fairs after, the Lomibaos cracked into the export market. It was in the ASEAN Food and Beverage Exhibit by the ASEAN Japanese Trade Center where they met a Japanese trader who wanted to order a bulk of JEP’s products for distribution in Japan.

The order was so big, almost a million pesos worth, the Lomibaos had to source pili out of the Bicol Region. They were able to meet the order and the rest, they say, is history.

The business has grown tremendously since their first export to Japan. Now, JEP also exports to the USA and Germany with many more countries signifying interest in the delicious and beautifully packaged products of The House of Pili.

Lydia Perez Lomibao (third from right), with husband Joseph and their daughter Andrea, receives the Inspiring Filipina Entrepreneur award from President Duterte in Malacañang early this year

Lydia Perez Lomibao (third from right), with husband Joseph and their daughter Andrea, receives the Inspiring Filipina Entrepreneur award from President Duterte in Malacañang early this year

J. Emmanuel Pastries products are Philippine FDA License to Manufacture/Export Own Products certified, US FDA FFRS registered, Halal certified, GMP-compliant, and HACCP-aligned.

In Naga City, J. Emmanuel Pastries – The House of Pili has seven outlets, two of these are in big malls, one in the People’s Mall (formerly called the Naga City Supermarket) along the pasalubong stores, one other outlet in the downtown area, one in a big convention hotel, the main store in Canaman, CamarinesSur, and one newly opened along the restaurant and hotel row on Magsaysay Avenue.

The new store has a cozy coffee shop at the mezzanine. Lydia got the idea to include a coffee shop in the newest The House of Pili from the tea and coffee places that abound in the area.

“I thought of going along with the tea and coffee trend and lifestyle. A pili nut lover passing by may also want tea or coffee.  We will soon serve my natural coffee with pili nut milk as creamer,” the woman behind J. Emmanuel Pastries said.

World fairs

JEP is a regular participant in National and World Food Fairs like Salon International de l’Agroalimentaire (SIAL Paris 2016), “It is the largest food innovation observatory in the world,” said Jun Olin, JEP’s special projects, exports, PR and marketing manager.

“JEP participated in MIHAS 2017 in Malaysia, the Natural and Organic Products Asia (NOPA), Hong Kong. In a few days, J. Emmanuel Pastries will also participate in Orgulyo kan Bikol (OKB) Trade and Tourism Fair in SM Mega Mall. Afterward, Lydia and Joseph will fly to Japan for the FABEX Kansai in Osaka then push to Tokyo as part of the Outbound Business Matching Mission,” Olin added.

Awards are aplenty for Lydia as well as for the J. Emmanuel Pastries: 2017 Inspiring Filipina Entrepreneur, Go-Negosyo; 2009 Presidential Award for Small Enterprise, DTI; 2008 One of the 50 men/women of Science, DOST; 2008 Presidential Awardee, DOST Technology Adaptor; 2007 Presidential Awardee, Gawad Saka Award, High Value Commercial Crop Category, Department of Agriculture; 2017 Leon SA Aureus, Mayoral Award, Naga City; and 2016 Halyao Awardee, Outstanding Bicolano Businessperson of the Year.

In 2013, J. Emmanuel Pastries was named by DTI as “THE HOUSE OF PILI” for Product Excellence and as the Runaway Leader in Pili Nut Processing both in Domestic and Foreign Markets. In the same year, the main store and factory of The House of Pili was designated as an Official Destination for Metro Naga Cultural Heritage Tours.

A premium product dubbed as Mazapan de Pili

A premium product dubbed as Mazapan de Pili

Domestic and international distribution

Now considered a medium-size enterprise, JEP has 75 employees, seven stores, and distribution of products both domestic and international. From a daily pili processing of 50 kilos, they now process more than three times the volume they used to process.

Product range has also expanded, Olin enumerated the eight pili nut variants for the world to taste: crispy pili nuts with honey, crispy pili nuts with garlic, roasted pili nuts with testa, pili nuts barbecue, pili nuts with Himalayan salt, pili nuts with sea salt, chili pili, and the latest, pili nuts Au Naturel. (For marketing purposes, pili and nuts are written as one word in their labels and packages).

“Pili nuts Au Naturel is pili nut without the testa. It was first introduced in the Natural and Organic Products Asia in Hong Kong. Bare, natural, and brimming with vitamins and minerals,” he said.

Testa is the fibrous seed coating of the pili nut that is edible and also used as potting material for growing plants such as orchids or anthurium. JEP mixes the testa in their specially formulated Galletas Dobles. And of course, they use the shell of the pili to fire up their stoves and ovens.

To protect their brand and to keep up with the level of excellence in everything they do, JEP makes sure their research and development is a continuous process. Olin explained, “R and D is conducted in-house as well as with the help of various government agencies and private entities thereby ensuring quality as well as reliability in the processes involved.”

The Lomibaos’ perennial problem has always been sourcing out pili nuts to meet increasing market demand. Joseph would travel to all corners of the region and even to other regions where the pili tree grows to buy pili nuts. As they envisioned growth by leaps and bounds, The House of Pili decided to launch the PILIpinas Movement.

PILIpinas is a Bicol socio-economic development project and according to its set mission, “to establish pili nut plantations in the Bicol Region starting in Camarines Sur through partnerships with landowners, farmers, tenants, local government units, government and non-government  agencies, private corporations, and religious-socio-civic organizations.”

Job opportunities

The program also aims “to provide greater job opportunities in the rural areas by actively advocating for the establishment of more pili nut nurseries, farms, orchards and commercial plantations, consequently increasing the pili nut supply base, enhancing the value chain and maximizing business opportunities. Fully utilize the pili nut and the pili tree’s market potentials for the pili industry stakeholders’ benefit and the economic development of the Bicol Region through the scientific and dedicated cultivation of the tree.”

J Emmanuel pastries assure pili tree planters and farmers involved in the PILIpinas Movement of wholesale purchase of their harvest at fair farm gate (market price). In the contract, JEP supplies the pili seedlings and gives technical trainings on the proper growing of pili trees.

There are eight PILIpinas contract growers now. JEP has planted pili trees in 75 hectares together with their contract growers. Another 1,500 + hectares are waiting for planting materials. It takes five to six years for the pili tree to start bearing fruit. Since its launch in Sept. 10, 2013, there will be one to two more years of waiting before the first harvest from the pili trees in the PILIpinas contract growing program. The holistic approach in addressing the pili nut processing concerns should earn more awards for the Lomibao couple.

Lydia and Joseph Lomibao always say that their achievements would not have been possible without the support of their family and the help and cooperation of various government agencies like the DTI, DA, DOST, DOLE, and DENR in all their years in the pili processing business. Lydia in particular said, “My being self-motivated makes me meet challenges head on. Every day is a new adventure and that keeps me going, going forward.”

It’s a blessing to have an equally driven, hardworking, and self-motivated husband like Joseph, who is a Pangasinense but talks in Bikol like a native that people forget he is not a Bicolano by birth. He has assimilated himself to the culture of the region so successfully, and has become as loved as his wife.

Together they have raised four beautiful and smart college and high school-age children: Joseph Emmanuel, Maria Angelika, Joseph Lemuel, and Maria Andrea.

This writer recalls what Lydia intimated a couple of years back when asked what she thinks of their almost philosophical rise in life, both personal and business. She said she believes it was meant to be, that everything was right all along as if the stars aligned especially for her and Joseph, and everything is just full of love and blessings. When reminded of what she said before, Lydia said, “It was meant to be because of what I am and what I have become.” But all of that is because she loves.

The House of Pili is a house that pili built. It is also a house that love built.

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