Thursday, June 27, 2019

Laguna native cooks with a passion

COOKING WITH PASSION. Lita Urbina has come a long way, from a small carenderia in Lahug, Cebu City to 15 restaurants in the Visayas and Mindanao. (SunStar photo/Ruel Rosello)

SUCCESSFUL entrepreneurs are passionate. They have the zeal and zest for work and people.

Julita “Lita” Urbina is no exception. Her passion for cooking has helped Cebu step up its game in the highly-competitive culinary scene.

From serving home-cooked meals in a small carenderia in Lahug, Cebu City in the late 1970s, Cafe Laguna has become a household name known for its quality Filipino food.

Later on, the family business added more brands--Lemongrass, Ullis Street of Asia and Parilya--to cater to requests of guests for other Asian dishes.

A native of Laguna, Lita got married at an early age of 18. She took a two to three-year leave of absence in college to take care of her growing family.

When she finally had the chance to go back to school, Lita bravely finished a business administration course, wearing various hats as a student, wife and mother of five that time —Jill, Greta, Gia, Grace and Raki. The youngest, John Paul, was born in Cebu.

In 1975, the Urbinas moved to Cebu when Lita’s husband, Ricardo Urbina, a military doctor, was assigned to Cebu. The children rode a C130 plane and Lita followed suit.

Inspired to help her husband augment the family income, Lita decided to capitalize on the very thing she already possessed--her love for cooking.

With a startup capital of P300, Lita transformed the ground floor of their two-storey apartment into a small carenderia.

She single-handedly operated the business, from buying ingredients in the marketplace as early as 3:30 a.m. to cooking them for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“We had a rough start at first. The income of my husband wasn’t enough to meet our needs, so I took the risk of opening up a carenderia,” said Lita. She initially sold menudo, bam-i and utan Bisaya.

The small eatery was named Mother’s Best, a name which stemmed from Lita’s rich culinary lineage.

“I guess I got my passion for cooking from my mother and grandmother. My grandma also had an eatery in Laguna,” she shared.

Mother’s Best was set up to initially cater to the soldiers housed in Camp Lapu-Lapu. But thanks to Lita’s superb cooking and word-of-mouth, her customer base grew, some traveling from other parts of the city to eat her home-cooked dishes.

Besides operating a carenderia, Lita’s name in the food business allowed her to serve in the canteens of private companies like San Miguel Corp. They also ventured into catering.

These business moves helped the family grow its income.

In 1986, Lita’s small eatery became a full-blown restaurant. Using the money she saved from the carenderia, Lita decided to renovate her place rename it to Cafe Laguna to remind them of the family’s roots and love story.

Lita invested in an air conditioning unit and transformed the eatery into a cozy restaurant. They also purchased the four-door apartment and converted the entire ground floor to cater to more customers.

Since then, Cafe Laguna’s growth soared. In 1994, Ayala officials invited them to open a branch at the Ayala Center Cebu.

Encouraged by the high foot traffic in the mall, the family took a big risk and expanded the business. Lita said they took P25 million from their business to build their stand-alone two-storey Laguna Garden at the mall’s Terraces.

With Cebu’s robust dining scene, the family further expanded its food business. Inspired by their travels abroad, they opened Lemongrass, Ullis Street of Asia, both located in malls, and Parilya at the South Road Properties.

Today, the group has about 15 branches located in the Visayas and Mindanao.

With high prospects in food, Lita’s advice for startups is to do things with passion.

“The food business is challenging. You have to do it with passion. Make your own signature brand because if you copy, you won’t succeed,” she said.

What was your first job?

After college, I was offered by our mayor in Laguna to work in his office. I worked as a secretary. Life was difficult back then. I had an early marriage, so I struggled between my studies and raising my family. The family income that time wasn’t enough, so I took the job right away.

When we left Laguna and moved to Cebu, I could not just sit around and wait for my husband to hand me his paycheck. We had a growing family and so I looked for a job and I was hired by Montebello Hotel as a room division manager. I worked there for three years and then I left.

Who inspired you to get into business?

I got into food business out of necessity. I just want to give my family, my children in particular, a comfortable life. I also had to think about bills and other expenses, so I had to help my husband.

Thank God, I cook well. I mean, cooking is the only talent I have, so I (thought I) better make use of it. In fact, I did not enroll in any culinary school. I just relied on my cooking.

When did you realize this was what you were meant to do?

When the business started to grow and we began expanding, that’s the time I realized that I was on the right track. People started noticing us and were writing good food reviews. I no longer doubted when I saw our family savings grow and met my family’s needs.

Why did you pick this type of business or industry?

This is the only industry I am familiar with. It’s the last to go because everybody eats. Food is also another venue to attract tourism. You can never go wrong when you put your heart into this business. Right now, we are enjoying high traffic from locals and foreign customers.

When I was young I used to admire white-collar jobs. Unfortunately, I wasn’t to fulfill it for myself. But God placed me in a better position. As I look back, recalling all the pains and victories we encountered, I realized it was God’s will that He put me in this business. I believe God has plans for all of us.

Where did you get the training you needed to succeed?

I did not enroll in any formal cooking class when I was starting. I just grew the business through experience and it was only later, when our business started to grow, that I became active in Cebu’s culinary scene. I am eager to share my experience and the best practices we have adopted.

How many times did you fail before you succeeded?

I only regretted that I married early but I am thankful at the same time because if it did not happen, I wouldn’t be able to discover my strengths and weaknesses. In fact, my husband calls me a superwoman. I became hardworking, patient and more passionate of my love affair in cooking.

In business you really have to love what you are doing so that it will love you back.


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