From grit to glam: Lita Urbina’s epic journey


Not everyone can say they built their fortune with their bare hands. Julita “Lita” Pecaña Urbina is one of the few who has that claim to fame.

As a young teen, she would observe her mother closely when she cooked for the family. Since she was a very homely child, she did not mind spending time helping her out and watching her experiment with new recipes. She chose to enroll in a business course when she entered college, but before she could even graduate from this course, she met and eloped with Ricardo “Carding” Urbina who — at that time — was studying medicine in Far Eastern University. Being the determined woman that she is, she eventually got her college diploma, but by this time, she was already a mother of four children: Jill, Jet, Guia and Grace. Her husband’s family sustained them until they both graduated and found employment.

She became a working mother when the Mayor of Laguna hired her as his secretary. Her husband, on the other hand, finished his medical course, passed the boards and joined the military during the martial law years. He was first assigned in Basilan before getting sent to Cebu. She did not join him in Basilan nor in Cebu, but her husband enrolled the four daughters in school when he brought them to Cebu for a vacation. She had no choice but to hesitantly leave her life in Laguna and move to Cebu, with her three-year-old son, Raki, in tow. She recalled that she arrived here with only P300 to her name, forgoing a job that paid her P700 monthly, as compared to her husband’s salary — as a junior officer, he was receiving only P550 monthly. They needed to shell out a P200 monthly rent for their apartment, so she had to make-do with P350 monthly for all the family’s needs.

Around 1975, she decided to seek out her cousin, Olga Panopio, to help find her a job and soon enough, she was working for the Borromeo family as a rooms supervisor in Montebello Villa Hotel with a monthly salary of P900 with meal privileges. She enjoyed this job but she decided to leave after a few years because her children (by this time she had six, John Paul was born in Cebu) needed her more.

She then opened a carenderia-style eatery in their rented apartment by the entrance of Camp Lapulapu because she believed that with a food business, her family would always have something to eat. This belief was her driving force in this decision, impacting the rest of her life in a way that was unimaginable to her when it started. She hired her “labandera” to help set up six tables in her front yard amid intense foot traffic. Soon, many customers from nearby and far away arrived, from students to professionals, to eat fast or take food out. Her daily routine was waking up at the crack of dawn and going to the market riding a jeepney, bringing her basket, making sure she had her five kilos of meat. She would start cooking at 6 a.m., and would finally open the eatery before 8 a.m., cooking several batches in a day.

After two years of hard work, she was able to acquire all four doors of the apartment complex from her Manila-based landlady through a bank loan from the now defunct Banco Pilipino. Once she owned the building, she rented the other doors to families of soldiers and by this time, so many offers for expansion were coming in. Soon, she found herself opening canteens in big ticket companies such as San Miguel and Royal Match. This presented a bigger challenge of ensuring quality food service at a reasonable price in all shifts, so she had some canteens open for 24 hours. Then San Miguel, who had about 2,000 employees at the time, convinced her to take a step in another direction — to cater to its executives at its penthouse.

At this point, she already included her children in her daily commitments and hired more people, but she fondly remembers that her first “kusinero” was their old family driver in Laguna, who obviously was also impacted by the ways of the elder Mrs. Urbina. All of these doors opening enabled her to aim higher, and at that time, her idea of ultimate success was to open a restaurant that would be air-conditioned, and thus in 1991, Café Laguna was born.

Their food place was housed in the lower ground floor of the apartment building. The family lived upstairs occupying the entire second floor. Lita was content, but the business grew exponentially to the point when her neighbors began to find the hordes of cars and the never-ending flow of customers bothersome. Realizing this, she had to reconsider an offer from Ayala Center Cebu which she initially declined. Wanting to stay conservative in her business decisions, it took some convincing from their people to convince her to take the plunge.

Raki, her elder son who worked in a bank, offered to resign and help the business full-time by deciding to return to school to formally train as a chef. He attended the prestigious Culinary Institute of America for a year, his training in the family restaurant’s kitchen was his pre-qualifier. When he graduated, he wanted to immerse himself in the best of Asian Cuisine as well. So, with his parents, they spent weeks in Thailand and Vietnam, establishing lifelong connections with reliable suppliers.

Today, the Laguna Group of Companies has four brands: Café Laguna, Parilya, Ulli’s and Lemon Grass with 12 outlets and five franchisees in Cagayan de Oro, Dumaguete, Davao, General Santos and Ormoc. They employ around 200 people whom they supported through the temporary closure of business during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Their original apartment building, now a four-storey complex, serves as the site of their corporate offices and their commissary.

In 2021, a tragedy struck the family when their beloved Chef Raki passed away at age 50. Being the shock that it was, it affected his mother quite deeply as not only did she lose a child but she also lost her partner in strategizing plans for the company. Looking back at that difficult time, Lita said she is truly grateful that all her other children pitched in while she was healing from the loss. A blessing came in the form of one of her grandchildren, corporate chef Juno Viado, having already trained with Raki a year before his untimely death. He is one of the seven third-generation family members that have been schooled and trained to ensure the continuity of their brand. The others are chef Kay and Krisha Viado, engineer Patricia and Denis Canoy, Julia Absin and Ricardo Urbina.

Now 82, Lita said with a joyful smile: “I’m blessed. The Lord loves me. I really cannot ask for anything more.” Asked what drove her to open her business, she replied, “out of necessity.” It was her honesty that made the difference. She stresses that point again by adding, “Everything is easy when you are honest.”


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