By Abigael Mei Yaokana / Office of the Director, DTI-EMB

NO doubt about it: Food plays a huge part in the Filipino tradition, with the dining table becoming the heart of every Filipino home. In fact, a household feels empty when the family doesn’t eat together. No fiesta or even a small gathering is complete without scrumptious meals being served.  Our love for food is undeniable; it is a love affair that every Filipino values.

Clarita Reyes-Lapus is from the Reyes clan that established the beloved Aristocrat Restaurant and the famous Mama Sita products. Though a graduate of architecture, Reyes-Lapus didn’t pursue her field of study. She wanted to have a deeper involvement in the family’s food business.

“The world is my kitchen,” she said of her decision. Her family’s passion for food is what led them to build an iconic business that has earned them loyal patrons for the past 80 years.

She said her mother, Teresita Reyes, known as Mama Sita, developed an attachment for Filipino food. “It was in 1970s when we went to the United States and my mom saw our kababayan eating just junk food. This made her decide to bring Filipino food to them.”

The matriarch founded a small company that sells ready-made food mixes after a brother-in-law, during a family gathering, commented on how making an authentic sinigang sa sampaloc can be time consuming. Hence, the Marigold Manufacturing Corp. (MMC) was officially established in the 1980s with sinigang and kare-kare mixes as their first products.

Coming from a family that has been in the food business for a long time, Reyes-Lapus wasn’t exempted in facing challenges after she took over the company.  “I would personally drive to supermarkets to deliver the products, but the long credit terms were not very ideal for a small company like ours,” she said.

There were also problems with bulk buyers who didn’t pay her and in dealing with consolidators.

“I remember seeing Mama Sita boxes displayed beside walis tingting, which were sold in retail stores,” she said.

Just like everybody who wanted to expand their business overseas, she joined numerous trade fairs organized by the Department of Trade and Industry’s  Export Marketing Bureau, where she met more buyers and distributors. With exports constituting 90 percent of its total business, Mama Sita products can be found in over 50 countries.

“Our company still continues to innovate and develop new products,” she said.

She added that the entire clan helped grow the business. “My husband is a biologist and is researching how to develop our local ube [purple yam], while my brother-in-law, an engineer, fabricated the machines we use today.” Her siblings also helped promote the products abroad by organizing cooking demos for the Filipino communities using Mama Sita products.

Reyes-Lapus, who founded the Mama Sita Foundation with her husband, considered the secret to her success to be “supporting local farmers and the poor”. This she got from her mother, who grew up and learned invaluable lessons in kitchens and marketplaces, in farms and wayside eateries. •