Empanada dreams: Couple grows business, keeps promise

By Cris Evert Lato-Ruffolo April 15,2018

Gary and Irish see a lot of promise in the empanada business they indirectly learned from their mom and relatives.

Ma. Belinda “Tita Belen” Jabone was known among customers, family members and friends for her delicious cakes, pastries and native delicacies.

Tita Belen was not trained as a pastry chef or baker, but she preferred baking over cooking because to her, baking involves measurements, unlike cooking where she needs to estimate.

Tita Belen was known to make cheese sticks, brownies, Brazo de Mercedes, cream rolls, chocolate cupcakes and chocolate bars.

But her chicken empanada was the best seller.

An auditor by profession for a pharmacy in Cebu, Tita Belen opted to avail of the early retirement option in 2012 so she could focus on her business.

The business was home-based and Tita Belen’s customers were her former workmates, neighbors and even people she randomly met inside the jeepney.

For her 60th birthday on August 2018, her children — second child, Gary and daughter-in-law, Irish — planned to surprise her with a physical store.

Both educators, Gary is a head teacher of a private school in Cebu City while Irish taught for almost 10 years in another private school.

They met in 2008 as officers of the Junior Educators Alliance, a group of education students from different colleges and universities.

They later became boyfriend and girlfriend and waited for eight years before they got married on April 9, 2016.

Gary and Irish were living in Barangay Lahug and visited Tita Belen at her house in Barangay Sambag Uno every week.

“We do not know how to cook. When we visit her in the house, we just ate. She fed us all the time. We know what her empanada tastes like,” said Irish.

Irish resigned from her job in early 2017 to rest from work and planned to learn Tita Belen’s chicken empanada recipe when the school year ended on March 2017.

Sadly, the plan did not materialize because Tita Belen passed away on January 31, 2017 before she could pass on the recipe to the couple.

The recipe was never written.

From scratch

“When she died, we shipped all the baking materials to Iloilo, where my older sister, Sheila Mae, lives. My sister is the one who loves baking,” said Gary.

Three months after Tita Belen passed away and with no work to keep her busy, Irish decided to make empanada and learned the recipe from scratch through research.

She learned about the dough from Gary’s younger brother, Edgar Clinton; the filling from Sheila Mae. They also asked relatives, who previously worked with Tita Belen.

Irish and Gary found themselves making the product that they used to just enjoy eating.

From May to December 2017, Irish said they started to accept occasional orders.

On December 2017, the couple also moved from Cebu City to Lapu-Lapu City. This gave them more human resources and the network as Irish is a native of Lapu-Lapu City.

They also went back to Tita Belen’s previous customers and established relationships with them

“They were looking for the empanada but they did not know who to contact,” said Gary.

Irish said they have made and delivered more than 5,000 empanadas since January 2018.

For Irish, a person who was used to be the consumer and not the maker, this is a big feat.

“Learning about the recipe from scratch has been enriching for me. It is really our way of honoring her because she was so good to me, to us,” said Irish.

Gary said observing his wife make empanada and the commitment and hard work she puts in a product that was his mother’s legacy is an inspiring example.

With growing interest about the empanada, the couple hired in January 2018 a regular assistant to help on the production side. But it is Irish who prepares the dough and the filling.

They also hired a driver to deliver orders to Cebu City and Mandaue City.

Irish said they have since learned to utilize the power of social media in marketing the chicken empanada.

“It is a new experience for us because we are educators, not business management graduates. But we are learning the ropes of the business. We hope to learn more along the way,” said Irish.

Store opening

Gary and Irish live a simple lifestyle with an attitude of only spending for the items that are absolutely needed.

In 2008, when they decided to be in a relationship, they set portions of their monthly salary to buy a lot in Barangay Talamban which they fully paid in 2013.

For their April 2016 wedding, they had an account dedicated for savings.

For two people who used to work together in a student organization, running a business together is both exciting and nerve-wracking.

But teamwork is what they do best — and this is what they do in managing a business currently in infancy stage.

One Sunday, Gary said they set up a table outside the Virgen dela Regla National Shrine in Poblacion, Lapu-Lapu City to check if people would be interested to buy the product.

Within one hour, they sold 50 pieces at P10 each.

She may not be physically around to see it, but Gary and Irish are still opening a Tita Belen’s Empanada store on August 8, 2018 on her 60th birthday.

Irish said they are now working on the necessary business papers in preparation for the opening.

“It was her dream to have a physical store so we are going to make it a reality,” said Irish.

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