Kamuning Bakery: The Little Corner Bakery That Could

Despite a devastating fire, Quezon City's OG bakery is still serving your daily bread.

by Andrea Portugal
Apr 18, 2019
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(SPOT.ph) There is something mildly disconcerting about walking into the partial ruins of a bakery café and finding yourself at the tail end of a forum on Philippine economics—complete with a full house of members of the press and no less than the Department of Trade and Industry Secretary as well as the assistant secretary of National Economic and Development as resource speakers. It simply isn’t what you expect from your corner café at a time when we’ve grown accustomed to well-designed, made-for-Instagram cafés that serve equally well-designed, made-for-Instagram food and beverages. This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but when you step into what now seems to be a counter-cultural space, it jars you a little. And then it gets you curious.

How does a burnt-down 80-year-old panaderia-slash-café manage to thrive in an environment that puts a premium on put-together spaces, styled to have every angle become worthy of going viral on social media? If anything, this is the story of The Little Bakery That Could—and, in fact, is still at it.

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Kamuning Bakery was built in 1939 as part of Manuel L. Quezon’s vision of establishing the land that is now Quezon City as a proper city. The bakery-café’s current owner, realty entrepreneur and columnist Wilson Lee Flores, recounts the story in such vivid detail, you’d think he was there himself. “This bakery is the oldest in Quezon City,” Flores narrates in Filipino.

Classic breads from Kamuning Bakery are still baked according to 80-year-old recipes from the 1930s, passionately preserved by owner Wilson Lee Flores. (Left to right) Cinnamon Roll (P30), Kalihim (P15) PHOTO: Marikit Singson

“Don Alejandro Roces was a newspaper tycoon and a good friend of Manuel L. Quezon. Buddy-buddy sila.” The story goes that Roces helped negotiate and close the deal on the transfer of land from a private owner to the government, thereby becoming a co-founder of Quezon City in the process. “How did the bakery factor in? Roces was a regular customer of Los Baños Bakery, a bakery in Singalong, Manila. Parati siyang namimili because he liked the bread there—traditional Spanish and Filipino bread, cakes, and cookies—so he said, ‘Quezon City needs a bakery—a good one.’”

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Since its establishment in 1939, the panaderia is one of the few remaining landmarks in Kamuning that has withstood the test of time in a constantly changing urban landscape. 
PHOTO BY Marikit Singson

“How did the bakery factor in? Roces was a regular customer of Los Baños Bakery, a bakery in Singalong, Manila. Parati siyang namimili because he liked the bread there—traditional Spanish and Filipino bread, cakes, and cookies—so he said, ‘Quezon City needs a bakery—a good one.’”

Even though damage from the fire ruined the baking area, assorted breads are still served fresh daily.  
PHOTO BY Marikit Singson
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Roces then invited Atty. Leticia Bonifacio Javier, the daughter of Los Baños Bakery’s proprietors, to set up shop in the exact corner where Kamuning Bakery still stands today. Flores shares, “Don Alejandro Roces said this would be the first neighborhood of Quezon City, Barangay Kamuning, which was originally called Project 1.

He told her [Javier], ‘Itong exact pwesto na 'to, dito ka magbukas ng bakery mo. It’s a nice place to put up a nice old bakery, a branch of Los Baños Bakery.’” Rather than open a branch however, Javier envisioned creating her own brand of breads and pastries and so, inspired by the sprawling Kamuning trees around the area in the late 1930s, Kamuning Bakery was born.

In spite of mismatched dining sets and damaged walls, the dining area is open for guests who’d like to enjoy their merienda and coffee in the coffee shop. Bright greens liven up the charred parts of the bakery, giving it a unique air of resilience and an authentic vibe. PHOTO: Marikit Singson

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Out of the War and Into the 21st Century

Eighty years is a very long time for a small business to be in operation, and while Kamuning Bakery has been a silent witness to the changing landscape of Quezon City and its local culture, it’s got quite a colorful history of its own. In the 1940s, Javier lost both her husband and her father in the Battle of Manila during World War II. Widowed and a young mother of three children, she pressed on as the proprietress of Kamuning Bakery, gaining loyal customers and fame for keeping to the traditional style of baking bread. The 1950s, however, saw the beginnings of what would become the age of mass production and in the decades that followed, home-based bakeries that used wood-fired ovens or pugon were slowly edged out by larger food manufacturers and bread factories equipped with modern technology.

The bakery’s two original pugon ovens survived the fire and will be fired up again once the baking area is restored. 
PHOTO BY Marikit Singson
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“When Leticia passed away, her children tried to keep the bakery in operation for more than 20 years,” Flores shares. Javier's children did their best to keep the corner bakery afloat, but by around 2013, they decided it was time to let it go.

As fate would have it, they reached out to Flores, hoping he’d be able to help them sell the property. Instead, Flores offered to acquire the property himself in 2014 and keep Kamuning Bakery in operation. “I am a real-estate broker who likes to write. I like history, I like food. When I realized that what they wanted me to sell was the old bakery I would read about from Doreen Gamboa Fernandez (the food critic) I said, ‘If someone else buys this, they will just tear it down and turn it into a rental place.’ Sayang naman 'yong history. Sayang 'yong tradition.”

Kamuning Bakery offers over 40 kinds of breads as well as a variety of cookies, pies, and cakes. Apart from preserving original recipes, Flores encourages his bakers to experiment and try new things—suggestions from customers are also welcome. 
PHOTO BY Marikit Singson
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The Monggo Swirl (P100) is a cross between sweet hopia and good ol' pan de sal.  
PHOTO BY Marikit Singson

Driven by the simple desire to preserve a piece of cultural history, Flores embarked on reviving Kamuning Bakery with no baking skills.

Apart from renovating the entire bakery, one of the first things Flores did was pin Kamuning Bakery on the social-media map by creating and managing its Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. “I love social media,” he says with a big grin. “I’m an addict of Instagram and Twitter. Check how many tweets I have, magugulat ka.” A quick look at Kamuning Bakery’s feed on Instagram (@kamuningbakery) would have you scrolling through snapshots of bread, pastries, newspaper clippings, and photos of famous personalities in show business and politics.

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Kamuning Bakery also offers pies and cakes including their Egg Pie (P300 /whole, P40/slice) and Plain Cheesecake (P400/whole). 
PHOTO BY Marikit Singson

“Through social media, people came to know about Kamuning Bakery. Those sukis who had grown up [going to the bakery] were surprised that it was still in business, so they would come all the way back here. Nakakatuwa,” Flores shares.

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“All kinds of people come here. Cory Aquino used to be a suki. Gloria Romero, Charo Santos...ah, and Pepe Smith grew up buying bread here. Levi Celerio, the National Artist, would walk over here to buy bread. Nonoy Zuniga, the singer, told me that even though they’ve transferred five times, he still buys bread here, from childhood up to now. Pete Lacaba, the poet, told me that Nida Blanca brought him here and Susan Roces loves our egg pie. The former chairman of Bases Conversion and Development Authority under Cory, Rolando Gosengfiao, used to come here every Sunday to buy bread even when he lived in BGC because when he was a kid in the 1950s he used to live in the neighborhood, and he would buy bread every morning before going to school and resell it in the streets. I got to hear all these stories while reviving the bakery.”

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“Through social media, people came to know about Kamuning Bakery. Those sukis who had grown up [going to the bakery] were surprised that it was still in business, so they would come all the way back here. Nakakatuwa,” Flores shares.

With Flores at the helm, Kamuning Bakery was back in business, catering to old and new suki customers alike. He hosted non-partisan forums on social and economic issues called the Pandesal Forum, implemented a permanent discount for all teachers in honor of his mother who was a teacher, and celebrated World Food Day (which he dubbed as “World Pan De Sal Day”) by giving away free bread all day long.

“Burnt down but recovering” is how Flores describes the bakery. His first instruction was to save everything that could be saved. “When I rebuild it, I want to use the burnt parts to remind people of what it used to be,” he explains. PHOTO: Marikit Singson

Plot Twist: The Fire

A few years later, in the early hours of February 6, 2018, a fire that started in the establishment next door spread to the bakery, leaving it almost completely destroyed. No one was hurt but only its façade, the two original pugon ovens, a bookcase, and the narra tree by the entrance survived.

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He felt grief, but wasn't one to stay disheartened for too long, so Flores opted to continue with operations. In the months that followed, bread was baked from his office nearby and then sold in makeshift stalls right outside the bakery’s ruins.

Blackened bricks add a kind of charm to the pugon ovens that Flores isn’t keen on covering up. His optimism is contagious and his passion for protecting a humble piece of history, even more so. 
PHOTO BY Marikit Singson
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Though he isn’t a baker himself, Flores is determined to keep both the traditional bakery concept as well as the traditional methods of baking bread alive thru the restoration of Kamuning Bakery. 
PHOTO BY Marikit Singson

“I sincerely believe that the history of a people, or a country, or a nation, isn’t just in the history books,” Flores says, speaking at length about his love for history and for food. “Hindi lang siya nasa museum. It’s not only the stories of heroes and politicians that make up history. I believe people, the way they cook and eat, is very important to the history of a people or a nation. So natutuwa ako na there’s this very old bakery with a lot of interesting stories, and I need to retain it. Even if it’s burnt, I want to retain the old walls and the other parts that can be preserved, because when I rebuild it, I want all of that to be part of it. I want to restore it.”

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A carpenter’s random white paint streaks meant to cover an ashen part of a wall becomes an accidental piece of artwork that Flores intends to keep permanently. “I even told the carpenter that he should sign his name. PHOTO: Marikit Singson

Burnt Down But Recovering

By Christmas Eve in 2018, a partially restored Kamuning Bakery opened its weathered doors to the public again, much to the delight and relief of its suki customers. At present, a great white tent serves as a roof over the café’s broken brick walls while restored original batibot dining sets that survived the fire are back on the dining floor. Flores is hosting his well-attended Pandesal Forums in the café again, albeit with a more al-fresco vibe, proving that one doesn’t always need a big budget to produce such events. “I just put plants all around the space so that it doesn’t look too empty,” he says.

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“The formal Filipino name of this bread is Kalihim,” Flores explains. “This used to be the secret of small panaderias all over the country. Instead of throwing out unsold bread, they’d recycle them as filling, like pudding. This was the secret of panaderias, hence Kalihim." 
PHOTO BY Marikit Singson
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Bread fans will love Kamuning Bakery's Ensaymada (P25/special, P7.50/regular), Cinnamon Roll (P30), and Pan de Suelo Jumbo (P18). 
PHOTO BY Marikit Singson

Apart from preserving the establishment itself, Flores is bent on preserving the traditional Filipino way of baking bread by endeavoring to get more young people to learn it. “I ask everybody in the office and everybody I know to ask their relatives in the province if they want to work here. Kinukulit ko!” he laughs.

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“When I saw our bakers [at work], I said we cannot lose this. Ayoko mawala 'yong tradition. There are jobs that go extinct because people don’t want to do them anymore. Like farmers and fishermen, bakers have to wake up earlier than the whole country. Before, with traditional bakeries, you had to wake up at around 2 or 3 a.m. to start baking. Our bakers have to sleep very early, wake up very early, and then do simple humble work that I admire very much. Our old bakers aren’t formally educated, they came from the province when they were young. Pero bilib ako. ‘Di ako nambobola, they can do anything. Wala kaming thermostat sa pugon, pero pagpasok niya ng kamay niya, alam na niya 'yong degree. Alam niya 'yong timing without the timer. They can do anything a European, Korean, or Japanese can do. Galing.”

Their freshly brewed coffee, made from Benguet beans, is perfect with their wide selection of pastries. 
PHOTO BY Marikit Singson
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“I want Kamuning Bakery to not just be a place where you bake bread, but a place where you remember history and memories of childhood. We will rebuild it somehow. I am optimistic. Life is always (should always be) optimistic.”

Kamuning Bakery's Sansrival (P1,000/whole) is great for potlucks, too! 
PHOTO BY Marikit Singson

Flores believes that small traditional bakeries will never be totally obsolete. His passion is to preserve as much of our culture as we can no matter how small or seemingly mundane that piece of culture is, like say, bread. “In Singapore, even the old shophouses are preserved even if they have no special history. They preserve them to preserve the memories of the look and feel of the place. Otherwise, all the cities in the world would look the same.”

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On the timeline for the full restoration of the bakery, Flores has no specifics. “Against all odds, maybe in one or two years. Little by little, bit by bit,” he says smiling. “I want Kamuning Bakery to not just be a place where you bake bread, but a place where you remember history and memories of childhood. We will rebuild it somehow. I am optimistic. Life is always (should always be) optimistic.”

As we wrap up, someone from the bakery’s staff tells us about how the narra tree by the entrance had lost all its foliage in the fire. “But the leaves started appearing again when the bakery reopened in December,” she says with a twinkle in her eyes.

Photos by Marikit Singson

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