Monday, February 16, 2009

Cafe Mary Grace: Homemade Goodness

By Francis Acero
In 1994, Mary Grace Dimacali, a homemaker and mother of five, had a dream of building her own business selling ensaimada and fruit cake she would bake from her own home kitchen. The problem was, she was a psychologist by training. She didn’t exactly have the tools to make the dream a reality. So she went to the US to learn baking at the Pierce College in Los Angeles. When she came back, she took a master’s degree in business from the Asian Institute of Management.

Upon graduating in 2001, her five-year plan was to take her ensaimada business, which was gaining popularity from her participation in food fairs that pop up at Christmastime, and translate it into a growing, sustainable enterprise.

A little bit under seven years, thirteen kiosks, and two cafés later, I find myself talking to the woman whose name has become synonymous with the best cheese rolls that can be found in Manila in her café at Serendra where she talks about life, food, family, and the community.

Francis Acero: Where did the idea of thiseverythingcome from?
Mary Grace Dimacali: I love baking! I’ve always had a natural love, a fascination, for what happens when you mix flour, sugar, and yeast. [Baking is] something great to do when you’re raising kids. So while the kids were growing up, I managed to steal some time, develop my recipes, and sell my products within the little village where I live.

I had gone to baking school and came back with tons and tons of recipes for American goodies, but I didn’t feel drawn to developing sourdough bread, croissants, and things like that. I wanted to develop something Filipinos love and that is close to their hearts—the ensaimada.

While my children were growing up, I wondered what business would allow me, while still making full use of my time as a mother, to explore possibilities in entrepreneurship. So I joined bazaars, which I did for the longest time—seven years.

How was that first bazaar like?
Oh, it was scary. It was at the Polo Club, and my son Gabriel, who now manages the kiosks, was with me. I wasn’t selling at all! Ang hirap [It was difficult]! It was a new product and people were wary of it. So my son says, “Mom, cut up your ensaimada and give samples to people!” So I did. I asked a waiter for a plate and a knife and a fork, and the thirty boxes I brought that day went so fast, I came home with nothing. That gave me the courage to do it week after week from September to December.

It’s hard work. It’s tiring. It’s not easy. You’re standing there, talking to people under the rain! I’m not kidding. Once, I set up a tent in Santuario (de San Antonio) and there was no more space inside so I had to set up outside in the garden and it was raining so hard, and there I was with my ensaimadas!

One time, I remember I didn’t sell so well at a bazaar, I had so many boxes left! I went to Magallanes church and I set up outside. I ended up selling all my boxes.

It’s funny. It must be in people to want to do this. What I was doing, you have to love it.

What made you love selling? Was it the people you met? Was it the look on their faces when they tasted your ensaimada? What was it?
I love to sell. It’s natural to me. In college, we had these fairs and we would have contests on who would sell the most halo-halo, the most barbecues. I’d stay there from opening until the late, late hours, just selling. It’s a natural thing.

If selling things comes naturally to you, then I guess this line of work is a lot of fun.
It’s a lot of fun, but at the end of the day, it’s very draining. I guess it was fun meeting people. You know, the kindest people would come by my table and buy a box from me because they wanted to help. Other times, they’d pass by and say, “Grace, next time na lang ha. I still have ensaimadas in my fridge.”

You’ve become quite known for the cheese rolls. How did they come about?
I started out making the ensaimadas with cheddar cheese. Then someone suggested that I make them with queso de bola, which I did. But then, not everybody likes queso de bola because it’s got such a sharp taste. The cheese roll is something designed for children to like quite easily.

The ensaimada and the cheese roll come from the same dough. Only the shape is different. The ensaimada is large and round, while the cheese rolls are small and elongated.

Right now the ensaimadas have cheese only on top but I used to make them with the cheese inside. Then we found out there was no difference in taste between ensaimada with the cheese inside and with the cheese outside, so we kept the cheese outside. It’s more appealing that way. Besides, queso de bola is very expensive. It’s P750 per ball.

I notice that the café has a different design than the kiosks. The kiosks are more “modern” while the café feels like your living room. Is that intentional?
That’s true. You know how you discover who you are through time? This café is who I am. When we put up this café, it wasn’t easy because we had all these influences around. There’s Starbucks, which is more modern, while Figaro’s also quaint. So I decided I’ll be me. With my sister-in-law Marilen and her daughter and my architect, Mike Chan, this is what came out.

Then there are these fantastic letters beneath the glass. They seem to be changing every time.
Yes. People love to write! Isn’t that great? They take pen and paper and they love the feeling of slipping these letters under the table. It started out with celebrities, and then people who come to the place and appreciate us, they just write their kind messages there. That’s how I grew—through the kindness of people. Some of the letters are in Trinoma as well. People leave letters there too.

What happens is that some people slip it in there themselves and sometimes, they just give it to us. Then the servers come in the morning and arrange them in a circle. It’s great feedback. We don’t only collect good feedback, we also receive constructive criticism. That helps us improve a lot.

You have these ink prints of old Manila on the table as well. What’s the story behind them?
If you notice, the café is quite Filipino. We have these ventanillas designed on the wall, too. [Ventanillas are these small windows above the main windows in a Filipino bahay-na-bato design that are opened to induce air to circulate]. We also have these crochet doilies aside from these ink prints of scenes from old Manila. That speaks of a bygone era. Before that we even had a mamang sorbetero [ice cream vendor] and other Filipino knickknacks to bring back memories of an older time.

Cooking is like writing, where food, like writing, changes with one’s influences. What are your cooking influences right now?
I love Italian cooking. I was in Italy recently, for two weeks. I love arugula [rocket], how they make use of it. I had a pizza with arugula on it, and it was so good! I’m open to other cuisine as well, but I decided to develop around the pasta and the sandwiches. I’d also love to explore other Mediterranean cuisine. I had the good fortune to be in Tuscany. Great, great cuisine. We also went to Provence. I wish I could go there again. That’s my dream, to take another course in cooking—Italian cooking.

What makes good food?
Balance. The flavors. You have four basic flavors. Sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. You take these four elements and you balance them so when the pasta lands in your mouth, it isn’t too salty; it isn’t too sweet. The flavors work together and come together. When they get there nicely, that makes good food.

Ingredients, of course. Use only the freshest.

Technique, too. How the flavors come together with the ingredients depends on your technique. Like when you make a pasta sauce, you stew it for a long time so the flavors come together.

Also a sense of health. My husband’s very health-conscious, so we have a lot of pasta that use olive oil. Of course we make ensaimadas and brownies, and people ask us if we can make a sugar-free version. I just tell them to eat moderately [laughter].

Aside from running this business, you’re also village president. How does your day go? How do you manage to squeeze everything in?
Ay, hectic. I meet my sales girls at eight in the morning. I continuously train them. I meet them at home to hone their communication, their speaking, their selling, and their product knowledge. We talk about problems and difficulties.

Then I’m in production, checking quality. Then I go to the café or visit the occasional kiosk. [My work is] really hands-on. I admire investors, actually, because they just hand over the money and forget about it. Me, I have all the problems!

I try to go to mass every day, though. I feel more grounded when I go to mass. I try to make it a daily habit. When I do, everything seems to fall into place. When I don’t, I get angry, irritable. There might be a thousand and one things going around you but when you go to mass, there’s this grace that comes to you that you can meet life’s challenges as they come.

Entrepreneurship is 24/7. I find I’m thinking and working, even into the late hours. I’ve never had a quiet, pleasant Christmas. That’s one thing about this business. I wish I could just enjoy Christmas, do the things that ordinary people do, but for me, I’m tired. That’s the payback of this business that I have come to love.

I heard you’re big on women empowerment right now.
We have this can-do board beneath one of the ventanillas. I’m an entrepreneur and I started from home, so now I put this can-do board for women entrepreneurs, so they can develop this skill and craft from the home.
I want this café to tell women that they can do it. They can become someone even if they stay at home, even if they decide to be homemakers and raise their children. If ever they find themselves on that path, it’s okay.

There are a lot of good things that come from being at home and raising kids. Who would have thought that at 44 I’d be running a business and taking up my master’s?

To the women out there, just be good at what you are: foremost, a mom. Be a good mom and pay attention to your kids. That time won’t pass by again. Now that my children are all grown up, it’s time to do this.

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