Mama Sita was a formidable lady. As she marched through the markets of the Philippines’ capital, Manila, the stallholders would call out “Mama Sita is coming!” to warn their colleagues to brace themselves for some hard bargaining.
The business selling the sauces and soup-mixes that bears her name is also a force to be reckoned with. Mama Sita is distributed in 32 countries and has benefited from the Asian boom in recent years, generating double-digit growth. Customers are largely the eight million-strong Filipino diaspora, although China, where its oyster sauce is particularly popular, has recently become an important market.
The family business was founded by Doña Engracia Reyes (pictured above, left), who opened a restaurant called Aristocrat in Manila in 1936, but it was her daughter Teresita (pictured above, right) – who came to be known as Mama Sita – who laid the foundations for the modern business. Famously gregarious, she would spend hours in the kitchen cooking for the restaurant, making batches of food for family friends, creating recipes and, eventually, developing the products that are now bottled and sold worldwide.
The day-to-day business, which has expanded into pastes, packaged fruits and organic sauces, is now overseen by Mama Sita’s daughter Clara Reyes Lapus (pictured to the left) and her children. Clara’s son Kim is the general manager while her daughter Joyce (pictured to the right) is in charge of product development andpromotions. Joyce has been on national television and around the world conducting cooking demonstrations since she was 14. “I used to joke I was my mother’s unpaid employee,” she says. A second son, Mark – “the one with the golden taste” – is involved in approving new products.
Clara, meanwhile, spends more of her time running the Mama Sita Foundation, which helps farmers and suppliers. “It’s all about the circle of life,” she says. “The planting and gathering, the cooking and sharing, with the dining table as a zone of peace uniting families. It’s about the heritage of serving food that is affordable, delectable and sanitary, while at the same time keeping our suppliers happy by allowing them to have profits, too.”
The family has received a number of “attractive” buyout offers for the parent company, Marigold Manufacturing, from multinationals, but a sale is not on the cards. “When we started, there were no plantations in the Philippines for annatto [a spice],” says Clara. “We painstakingly cultivated these with our farmers. We cannot rush the growing of ingredients such as siling labuyo [birds’ eye chilli] to meet increased demand. We do not want to sacrifice the natural flavours of our ingredients for quick profits.