Ramar Foods Inc.

Bringing the flavors of traditional Filipino cuisine to U.S. consumers
Written by: 
Molly Shaw
Produced by: 
Sean Barr

Many food trends come and go but there’s a movement coming out of the South Pacific that’s sure to stick around as the flavors of the Philippines reach U.S. shores and become increasingly popular among consumers. One company that’s pioneered the entry of Filipino cuisine is Ramar Foods, a third-generation, family-owned manufacturer and distributor of Filipino food, made famous for its tropical flavored Magnolia Ice Cream brand.

Today, Ramar Foods is the leading producer of Filipino cuisine in the U.S. and the company is growing, making a stake in the Filipino food business in more avenues than just ice cream. The company is establishing a major market for a range of signature items such as lumpia, a Filipino version of an egg roll; dim sum dumplings, including steamed pork and shrimp shumai; skewered meats and even lesser-known ingredients such as calamansi, a tiny citrus fruit that’s starting to make rounds in top restaurants and bars across the country.

No matter the product – sweet or savory – one thing is for certain and that’s the passion behind Ramar Foods, something that’s been carried on for three generations. “We’re manufacturers and distributors, but at our heart, we’re eaters – we all share a passion for great food and we want to share that with our customers,” says PJ Quesada, vice president of Ramar Foods.

Generational progression

Named after founders Ramon and Maria Quesada (Ra+Mar), Ramar Foods began in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s. “At this time there was a large influx of Filipino immigrants coming to the Bay Area due to an unstable political situation in the Philippines,” recounts Quesada. “My grandparents came to the U.S., to what is today Silicon Valley with their 11 children and started a small stand at the local flea market.”

“My grandmother, Maria, was the entrepreneurial one,” continues Quesada. “She started investing in many opportunities from small fast food restaurants to real estate. Eventually, she and my grandfather opened a small mom-and-pop grocery store where they imported products from the Philippines, selling sauces, seasonings, fish and other hard-to-find Filipino ingredients. They also started selling hot food – Filipino dishes such as lumpia and empanadas.”

This blossomed into three specialty retail stores and a small distribution network in the early 1970s. “Around this time, my father, Primo Quesada, my grandparent’s sixth child, began to get involved in the family business,” says Quesada. “He saw a great opportunity in the distribution side of the business and growth in the Filipino/Asian foods market segment. He had a vision and turned the company into a full-grown manufacturer of fine Filipino and Asian specialty foods.”

Ramar Food’s first claim to fame as a manufacturer was its highly successful line of tropical ice cream products. “In the early 1980s, we built our first manufacturing plant in Oakland and started making our ice cream in our own facility,” recounts Quesada. “Magnolia Tropical Ice Cream became a cornerstone of our business and still is one of our most successful products today. In 1989, we opened our first meat processing facility to make lumpia and cured sausages, which are now staple products in the Asian grocery segment.”

With business booming a decade later, Ramar Foods moved northeast of San Francisco to Pittsburg, California. “We moved into a 15,000-square-foot facility and since then we have opened another new state-of-the-art processing facility for lumpia and cooked products such as sausages, steamed buns and dumplings,” adds Quesada.

Even through vast expansion, Ramar Foods remains 100 percent family-owned. “I started working in the factory at 5 years old,” says Quesada. “I definitely learned about a hard day’s work at an early age, and I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world.”

As the second generation is mostly retired, Quesada runs the operation alongside his sister, Susie Quesada, president of Ramar Foods. “Our brother is also working on the ground level as a marketing coordinator,” he adds.

Gaining ground

Learning the business from an early age has allowed the third generation of Quesadas to help take Ramar Foods to the next level. Today, the company employs close to 200 people across offices in northern California, Los Angeles and Hawaii, with ever expanding international distribution.

“Our frozen food products are made using family recipes and sold all over the country, even in Alaska,” adds Quesada. “We sell to the majority of Asian grocery retailers across the country and a few major chains. Our all natural Kusina product line includes appetizers and snacks such as chicken empanadas and lumpias, and is available in select natural grocery stores, while the Kusina Filipino entree line can be found at A&P stores on the East Coast. “The Kusina line is our Filipino food gateway brand,” says Quesada. “Kusina is made with the mainstream shopper in mind, who may have never tried Filipino, but is looking for something delicious, convenient and made with health-conscious ingredients.”

“Our Magnolia Ice Cream has a broad distribution range as our most popular product line,” continues Quesada. “This brand is found in stores such as Fresh & Easy Markets, HEB, Ralph’s, which is a division of Kroger, and select Whole Foods Markets in Northern California.”

The next big step for Ramar Food’s successful Magnolia Tropical Ice Cream is a newly launched retail quick-serve concept. “We now have 20 flavors and are bringing in traditional shaved-ice desserts from around the Pacific. The first location is Waipahu, Hawaii, on the island of Oahu and we have plans to open more on the West Coast, but we still have a lot to learn about the quick-serve industry. So far, this is a really exciting concept for Ramar Foods.”

A new take on the classics

As a pioneer in bringing Filipino foods to a broader consumer base, Quesada says he sees Ramar Foods continuing to push the envelope in the segment as popularity mounts. “We have spent the last few years working on a gluten-free line of lumpia that would have the same taste and texture that you would find in the original version,” he says.

Ramar Foods is also a proud sponsor of one of the largest gatherings of Filipino chefs in the industry, an event called Savor Filipino. “The last summit was held in San Francisco,” recounts Quesada. “This event brings top chefs in the industry together and lets them put their touch on traditional Filipino dishes. The 2014 event hosted 30,000 people and we’re in the midst of planning the next event for 2016.”

Quesada says the millennial generation is really driving new flavor profiles and preferences, creating serious opportunities in the Filipino/Asian foods sector. “We watch how these ethnic food trends become movements, lasting much longer than a trend and there are signs that Filipino flavors are more than a trend, but a mainstream demand,” he says. “We were one of the early pioneers and we will continue to be.”

As a third-generation, family-owned company, Ramar Foods continues to bring the best of its Filipino influences to a wider consumer base, furthering expansion in the specialty foods market.

Strategic Partnership(s): 
Pacific Agri-Products Inc.