Ramar Foods

In the 1990s, Ramar Foods was challenged by a large Asian food manufacturer to give up its rights to Magnolia-brand ice cream. The brand has been popular in the Philippines since the 1950s, and as a California-based manufacturer of Filipino foods, Ramar Foods had negotiated an agreement in 1972 with the brand’s former owner to exclusively manufacturer and distribute the product in North America. When the brand changed hands, the new ownership tried to revoke Ramar’s rights. 

“At the time, we were still a small business,” recalls PJ Quesada, one of the third-generation owners of the company. “But it was our livelihood at the time, and it took all our resources to fight it.”

A court awarded Ramar Foods ownership of the Magnolia brand in North America, based on the argument of prior use. It’s an example of what the company is all about – a determination to protect itself, its culture and its products, no matter what the challenge is. Today, it faces multiple new challenges: how to appeal to second-generation Asians, branch into mainstream markets and translate some of its traditionally high-sodium, deep-fried foods for the health-conscious consumer all while operating its third and newest manufacturing plant completed in 2009. 

Leading the Way

Ramar Foods is one of the largest “popularizers” of Filipino food in North America even though it has developed outside of the typical evolution of specialty food manufacturers. In 2010, it partially funded a qualitative panel discussion led by the Asian Culinary Forum (ACF). The ACF flew in  Filipino chefs and invited local and national restaurant owners, including the author and owner of New York’s Purple Yam Amy Besa, to participate. “The question posed to the panel was ‘why is Filipino food in the United States not as popular as other Asian ethnic foods’, and the findings were very interesting,” Quesada says.  

“Historically, most ethnic foods start at the restaurant level before supporters of that food say, ‘lets venture into the retail realm,’” he continues. Quesada explains that Filipino food is often mistaken for foods from other cultures due to multicultural influences, including a 300-year occupation by Spain and a rich trading history with other southeast Asian nations. However, in America “Filipinos had a 20-to-30 year window to make Filipino food popular, but we missed our chance to do so,” Quesada says. “Filipinos tend to be very staunch in keeping our own recipes alive, but it’s been disastrous for popularizing our cuisine in restaurants.” Still, through serving the Asian supermarket chains and taking care of customers large and small, Ramar has been able to succeed as a Filipino foods company without the strong backing of Filipino restaurants. 

Husband and wife Ramon and Maria Quesada began Ramar Foods in 1969 at the beginning of the Filipino migration to the United States. The company grew through serving small Asian grocers, and then larger Asian grocery chains such as Seafood City, Island Pacific Supermarket and 99 Ranch Market. The larger chains are Ramar’s main customers; however, Quesada boasts that Ramar “has never had any minimum order limit and will still break cases,” to provide service for small, thriving independent stores. 

Currently, at least 80 percent of the company’s end-users are of Filipino and other Asian descent. However, as second-generation Asians adapt to American culture, Ramar Foods has risen to the challenge of meeting new consumer tastes. 

Catching the Consumer

“Because of the decline in immigration of Filipinos – which still happens but is nowhere near the amount of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s – in the next 20 to 30 years the Asian grocery segment will be drastically different,” Quesada explains. “We’ve been setting our sights on how to get to the second generation buyer, children of immigrants who over the past couple of years have been going to retailers such as Safeway, Kroger’s and Whole Foods. We decided the only way to capture the market is to follow them where they shop. We are rethinking how we approach new customers and how to connect with that audience.” 

Ramar is looking to connect with all shoppers. Its Magnolia premium ice cream, made with imported Filipino fruits and California dairy, is already famous among its usual customers, but is also popular in Canada. Ramar is currently working on extending the ice cream into frozen treat aisles at mainstream grocery stores. Quesada says the Ramar team will reduce the size so it won’t seem as big a commitment among novice buyers. It will change the packaging to engage the eyes of today’s buyers, but the ingredients and distinct Filipino flavors will remain authentic.

Ra­mar also creates buzz through carrying lines and product samplings in U.S. military commissaries throughout the world. “We are starting to experience growth in non-Asian consumers such as Hispanics and even Caucasians who recognize the value of our product,” Quesada says. “Placing it in military bases has been a big help with that because when they come home they look for the products here, as well.” 

To meet the growing health concerns, Ramar has introduced an all-natural line at the Winter Fancy Food Show in January. Many Filipino foods, such as lumpia (Filipino eggrolls), the company’s highest selling product, are high sodium, fried foods that the company has tweaked to meet the demands of a healthier palate. “We’ve gone and made the whole line all-natural, using better ingredients such as organic flour,” Quesada says. “We are one of the first Filipino companies to do this. We pulled the Whole Food’s ingredient blacklist as a guideline, handed it to our R & D team and said ‘here are the things we cannot put in our product.’ We had to rethink the development of our product.” Ramar translated the comfort of Filipino flavors into a healthier option without sacrificing on taste or key ingredients such as its lumpia that is still 70 to 80 percent meat, instead of a starchy filling and thicker wrapper.

Valuable Assets

Ramar isn’t alone in all its accomplishments. The company takes a proactive approach to choosing credible and valuable partners. It works with companies, such as Landsberg, an ISO 9001:2008-certified company that offers several services such as monitoring inventory levels, creating custom package designs, and fulfillment services. Landsberg has worked with Ramar for more than a decade providing consultation on various machinery, most recently a tray-sealing machine for microwaveable entrées. “They have primarily been [our] production machinery specialist,” Quesada says. “They are part of our multidisciplinary approach to choosing suppliers that have diverse strengths.” 

However, Quesada says Ramar’s most valuable assets are still its employees – its true secret to success.

“The biggest thing I learned is our secret is our people,” he stresses. “We have an amazing group of talent within our organization. We’re a family business in many senses. We have a lot of families in our business working in various departments, so everyone is family here. It’s the kind of environment that’s allowed us to be innovative with our products.” 

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