They may not be on the Internet, but you can bet Cunanan has found its way to your family phone book. Bakery matriarch Maricel Lerma-Cunanan shares her ensaymada origin story and demonstrates how staying authentic and personable remains invaluable.

Every time you open up Instagram, it seems like dozens of small food businesses have found their way to the platform. This has certainly proved to be a fruitful strategy - the social media app showcases some of the most talented cooks and their delectable creations, luring us to scroll through delicious eats in search of our next bite. Yet, some of the oldest and most successful brands remain offline and continue to attract a committed and growing clientele by relying on word-of-mouth alone. How do they compete? How do they cultivate such a strong brand?

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Mrs. Maricel Lerma-Cunanan, matriarch of the eponymous Cunanan Bakery
Above Maricel Lerma-Cunanan, matriarch of the eponymous Cunanan Bakery

For Maricel Lerma-Cunanan, the matriarch behind the eponymous Cunanan Bakery, these strategies are the least of her concerns. “I have no intention to compete with anyone and I do not worry about competition” she reveals, noting that even she hasn’t the slightest clue about how Cunanan grew to such prominence in the phone books and group chats of gourmand lolas and titas. Upon rounding up some of the metro's best ensaymada, we found little to no trace of the brand online, mentioned only in a few articles - no Instagram profile, no Facebook page, nothing. At one point we were unsure if the bakery was even open. 

This sentiment is palpable throughout the bakery’s branding, or lack thereof - its signature light ensaymadas are wrapped in nothing but regular wax paper, packaged in bare white boxes. Similarly, the creamy yet delicate chicken liver pâté is presented in a plain white ceramic dish, and their inconceivably moist date and walnut bars (a highly addictive must-try) are tucked within elegant boxes that bear nothing but its product name. However, these decisions embody Maricel’s unwavering desire to sustain an air of intimacy between her bakery and her customers, and just the right amount of mystery. 

Read on to learn more about Maricel’s unexpected journey as a baker and how her unmarked ensaymadas grew to be one of the city’s most remarkable.

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How did you start baking and what drove the passion for ensaymada in particular?

The first time I baked ensaymada was in 1986; my two children had just started going to school on a full-day schedule, my husband was busy in the corporate world, and I found myself at home by myself. My husband asked me if I knew how to make ensaymada, a childhood favourite of his. Ironically, my mum actually enrolled in cooking and baking lessons while I was at college, but I had to skip the last of 50 lessons due to my final exams, and the last lesson happened to be ensaymada. However, I had come across my mum’s ensaymada recipe, and perhaps it was this lingering curiosity about the ensaymada that really inspired me to give it a shot. 

This first venture into what would be my long-running ensaymada journey consumed nearly nine hours to prepare and bake. By the end of it, I had produced one dozen large ensaymadas, each the size of a salad plate, dressed with butter and sugar, and embellished with a sprinkle of finely grated quezo de bola - exactly the way I like them. I gave my husband a taste, and sure enough, he was impressed with them. I then sent some to my grandmother and aunt, who ended up loving them too.

How did Cunanan Bakery start? What inspired you to open up shop?

Just in time for Christmas that first year, I baked ensaymada. My aunt ordered ten dozen large ensaymadas [yes, that’s 120 salad plate-sized ensaymadas] to give to her friends as presents that holiday season. I then had to learn how to wrap each one presentably and distinctly with wax paper since they would be given out as gifts. Soon after, my aunt was barraged with phone calls from her friends asking where she bought the ensaymada from. That was truly the beginning of our word-of-mouth recognition, which proved to be successful - everyone was looking for what they called Cunanan ensaymada. After a few months, our home kitchen set-up couldn’t keep up with the demand, so my husband bought me my first big oven. 

Years later, the village association informed me that they were planning to rent spaces in the new building that had just been built and asked me if I was interested. I decided that it was a good idea, as it meant my customers could conveniently pick up their orders or walk in and buy from the future Cunanan Bakery. My daughter Margarita Cunanan-Kwok took care of conceptualising the bakeshop with the help of a good friend, and she has been managing the store since its opening.

So that’s the story of Cunanan Bakery’s humble and unexpected beginnings. But most importantly, it really stems from my love of baking. Even though it’s now my profession, baking started out as a hobby to me, and it still is. I enjoy doing it!

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We have noticed that information about Cunanan Bakery is quite scarce on the web, yet you’ve got incredible word-of-mouth going for the brand. Why have you chosen not to go digital? How have you established such a strong brand without that?

Honestly, I am just as intrigued about this as you are. I had no intention of expanding the business at all. As I said, baking was just a hobby and an avenue to keep myself busy while the kids were at school and my husband was busy with work. But the calls kept coming. Customers would even specify that they want the usual white box with no label because it gives such a personal and intimate feel. Others shared that they loved the unique wrapping style, and many claimed that they could discern a Cunanan ensaymada with their eyes closed from taste alone. During Christmas time, some regular recipients insist on receiving nothing but Cunanan ensaymada.

I have not gone digital because I want to keep the ensaymada as personal as possible for both myself and our customers. Phone calls have a particular closeness that you just don’t get when messaging online. I am sufficiently happy with the word-of-mouth we’ve received because to me that is the best measure of how good your product really is. It is the reward I enjoy for fulfilling my passion of making my customers happy and satisfied.

What do you consider key to longevity, especially as a small business? What strategies have worked best for you?

First and foremost, consistency and quality are key to staying in business. In addition, listening to customers is of utmost importance to me - they actually dictated the sizes of my ensaymada. At first, I was only making large ensaymadas, those as big as salad plates like my first batch. However, some requested half the size, and so the small size was born. Later on, customers requested cocktail-sized bites for their younger children, for board meetings, and for parties or everyday snacks, so we’ve rolled those out too.

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How did the pandemic affect and change the way you operate from sourcing ingredients, to producing your baked goods, and curating your menu offering? What changes are here to stay?

We had to close the bakeshop in March 2020 when Metro Manila went under stay-at-home quarantine. Three months later, we re-opened the bakeshop but introduced strict safety and health protocols: we had to put a long table outside the bakeshop with necessary disinfectants and required all our staff and customers picking to wear face masks and practice social distancing.

Because of the reduced volume of ensaymada orders, I of course had to reduce the volume of raw materials as well - but thankfully, we were able to retain all of our staff. I feel I owe it to them for supporting me and my ensaymada, so I felt it my obligation to keep them and support them as best I could as well. 

Perhaps the most significant change we had to institute was the online payment system for the orders, as we did not want to handle any physical cash or cheques in addition to working with third-party couriers who were picking up orders.  As the word went around that the bakeshop was up and running again, customers swiftly started to call and place their orders. So now, beyond managing the store and overseeing the safety protocols for our operations, Marga also had to handle all the online payments.

What unexpected opportunities arose from the pandemic for you?

Though my focus remains on Cunanan Bakery, the quarantine period has given me some time to revisit my Mum’s recipes and experiment with baking different kinds of cakes, bread, and other food. At the moment, I’m not too sure about introducing them to the Cunanan Bakery menu - making the ensaymadas is already very tedious and time-consuming.

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Marga-Cunanan Kwok and Maricel Lerma-Cunanan
Above Maricel Lerma-Cunanan and Marga-Cunanan Kwok

What are the most significant challenges you’ve overcome as a brand/bakery?

I have no intention to compete with anyone and I do not worry about competition. I feel that my ensaymada will sell itself so long as I give the ensaymada and my customers my personal attention.

What advice do you have for other homegrown brands and bakers?

You have to love what you do - you have to love the taste of your products and put your heart into what you bake. Then, your products will shine!

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How do you think consumers can best support you and the F&B industry in the short term, and the longer term?

I would like to think it is the other way around. I would like to support my customers by giving them a product that they will enjoy and that they will love to eat. Moreover, I want to support my customers by giving them value for their money and of course, granting them my personal attention.

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What do you think the future holds for F&B in the Philippines, particularly for small businesses like your own?

There is so much room for small home businesses to expand. Because many restaurants and businesses downsized as a result of the pandemic, many people sadly lost their employment. But we’ve seen that this has also brought about tons of new businesses since these people now have the time and opportunity to start their own ventures or even seek training by joining someone else’s small home business. Considering many who have lost their jobs did come from the food and beverage or hospitality industries, they have a lot of experience to utilise in these future ventures.

However, finance will continue to be an obstacle. Although some have received compensatory retirement benefits, it’s not enough to support a family and a small home business at the same time. Unfortunately, I think that the availability of financing will continue to mitigate the growth of existing small home businesses and prevent the creation of small home businesses for many who’d like to do so.

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Cunanan Bakery is located at the Multi-Purpose Hall on Lily Street, Valle Verde 2, Pasig City, open daily from 8am to 5pm. For orders, please call +63917 674 2780 or +63917 528 2786.

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