Carmen's Best ice cream ready to go ASEAN
MANILA, Philippines – In a quiet subdivision in Alabang, a house has been almost completely taken over by an elaborate ice-cream-making operation.
The front porch is dominated by giant white coolers. Outside the garage is a small door where you must don a hairnet and take off your shoes. Then you enter a kitchen where 7 uniformed women are milling around, mixing vats of cream, scooping them into cups or operating machines.
But it's not the frenetic activity which catches you off-guard. It's the smell of something rich and creamy that overpowers you – not as a wrestler would overcome his foe, but as a seductress would captivate her victim.
If you had any doubts before, they're gone now. You are indeed in the home of Carmen's Best, a premium ice cream brand that is fast gaining a reputation as the best ice cream in town.
"I started it here in this house. We really weren't expecting much. In 2011, I started selling in the village. I'd go to church and someone would go, 'May bagong flavor ka ba? (Do you have a new flavor?)' That's when I knew I had something," says Paco Magsaysay, the brand's founder.
Since then, his ice cream has been selling like pancakes.
Sales continue to grow every quarter. Carmen's Best is stocked by several restaurants and grocery stores including select branches of Rustan's and Pure Gold.
Recently, it was in the spotlight for supplying the ice cream given to Pope Francis during his Manila-Rome flight on Philippine Airlines. They are now waiting for the decision on the bidding to supply more PAL flights.
They are growing so much that Magsaysay plans to move operations to a Laguna plant by March. The big plans don't stop there. This year, he hopes to take advantage of the ASEAN economic integration by exporting his ice cream to other ASEAN countries.
The enormous success of Carmen's Best wasn't built in a day but Magsaysay didn't have to start from scratch either.
Carmen's Best would not have been possible without a 27-hectare cow farm tucked between the mountains of Bay, Laguna.
Owned by his father, former senator Ramon Magsaysay Jr, Holly's Milk Farm supplies all of the fresh cow's milk from which 80% of Carmen's Best ice cream is made.
"The farm is his baby; Carmen's Best is my baby," says the younger Magsaysay.
The farm is home to 230 Holstein cows that each produce 12 liters of fresh milk daily.
Milk is any ice cream's defining ingredient. Carmen's Best owes its signature full-creaminess and roundness of taste to the farm's fresh milk.
Most local ice cream brands you'll find in the grocery are made from powdered milk or fresh cow's milk that goes through Ultra-high Temperature (UHT) processing or Extended Shelf Life (ESL) processing.
The two methods increase the shelf life of milk by killing "bad" bacteria. But they also end up killing the "good" bacteria that makes fresh milk taste fresh.
In contrast, the milk that goes into Carmen's Best ice cream is processed by the only fresh milk processing plants in the country, operated right there in the farm.
Equipment made in Israel heats the milk at a sweet spot temperature that kills pathogenic microorganisms but retains enough of other types of bacteria to preserve the milk's taste.
And then there's butterfat content which determines how "premium" ice cream is. The higher the butterfat percentage and the lower the amount of air used as fillers, the more premium and velvety the texture.
Typical ice cream has 10% butterfat and uses some amount of air. "Super-premium" ice cream like Haagen-Dasz and Ben & Jerry's are made with 16% butterfat.
Magsaysay didn't want the exact percentage in the article, but it's more than 16%.
'More discerning market'
For these reasons, Magsaysay is confident Carmen's Best will do well as an ASEAN export.
"I do a lot of traveling and I always eat ice cream and I've yet to eat ice cream as good as ours. I just can't wait for other people to try it," he says.
The plan is to introduce Carmen's Best to ASEAN countries where there is a good population of Filipinos.
"The Filipinos already understand how good Carmen's Best is and they know about it. Their family eats it here. So that's going to be our main market."
There are many other reasons why he wants to take advantage of the ASEAN economic community set to begin this December.
ASEAN economic integration means the harmonization and freeing up of the markets of all 10 ASEAN member countries. This means less tax when trading goods, streamlining of customs and other trade procedures, and less barriers in making investments.
Exporting within ASEAN is good for ice cream which is harder to transport over greater distances because it requires freezing, says Magsaysay. The business will also benefit from the lower tax rates and smoother flow of goods.
There is definitely room in the ASEAN market for premium products like Carmen's Best.
Home to more than 600 million people, ASEAN is an economic powerhouse and a growing hub of consumer demand, according to global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company.
Around 67 million households in the region are already part of the "consuming class" with the power to buy not just their basic needs but things they can indulge in.
Though there is no typical ASEAN consumer, economy watchers see a broad trend of increasing brand awareness and more focus on leisure activities.
Magsaysay has observed it among Filipino consumers.
"Ten years ago, you didn't see that many Filipinos going out at night, trying all these new restaurants. Today, the restaurants are full until late at night. The 'foodie' culture is growing. People are more discerning."
The success of Carmen's Best is evidence of a changing market.
Magsaysay says he was surprised with the number of Filipinos who now value quality products over price-sensitive products.
"If before we were thinking of just selling to the A market, it seems like we've gone down to the B and upper C market and it's a pleasant surprise and we're happy that we got in on time."
Entering such a diverse, unpredictable market as the ASEAN Economic Community may be as daunting as it is exciting.
But ASEAN entrepreneurs shouldn't be cowed.
Magsaysay says, "I always tell myself, 'If your dreams don't scare you, then they're not big enough.'" – Rappler.com