By Sahlie P. Lacson

Stories of long ago usually regard tuyo (dried herring) as a poor man’s viand. In fact, the word ‘tuyo’ is commonly associated with the word ‘tagtuyot’, meaning drought, or a hard life situation. But not for everybody, as more and more people now find the lowly tuyo more of a heritage recipe worthy of preservation, rather than a reflection of one’s status in life.

Filipinos have been known for our closely-knitted family ties. Traditionally, weekends are spent on lunch and dinner get-togethers after a full weekday’s schedule. And almost always, more than the catching up and storytelling, it also results in business ideas.

This is what happened to April Lacson-Justiniani, who owns Ading’s Kitchen.

Chef April Lacson-Justiniani is one who wears many hats – she owns and manages Ading’s Kitchen alongside co-owning a restaurant and a catering business, besides being a wife and a mom of two.

Originally Ading’s Gourmet Tuyo, Ading’s Kitchen started in 2014 out of Justiniani’s casual outings and social gathering with family and friends, where she and her mom would usually prepare her lola’s tuyo and aligue recipe. Having tasted the dish, they encouraged her to share the recipe to the public. This paved the way for a home-based business.

“As how growing up in the province is, we too have a close-knit family who would spend hours bonding at the dining table. We love to talk and eat. My family’s love and passion for food was what inspired me to venture into this business and I wanted to share the same inspiration with everyone who would have a taste of these delicacies: quality products that have strong ties to the past and the rich flavor of our history,” says Justiniani.

The homey Ading brand was inspired by her daughter, Adi, adding “ng” to her name from her grandmother’s nicknames, Lobing and Eding. The “ng” produces the very endearing sound Negrenses are so well known for.

Justiniani’s initial capital was P20,000. She says that it is more of a family effort when she was just starting– they were her marketing team and taste testers. She did the branding as well as incorporating the techniques she learned from the culinary school she attended to preserve the products without using any preservatives.

“It started with family and friends and they would post the product on social media that led to a lot of inquiries and orders online. As it was slowly making its way through the Bacolod market, I tried my hand at local trade fairs for further exposure,” says Justiniani.

Justiniani maintains an office at home. The processing area, which is FDA-approved, is located in their sugarcane farm in Talisay City, Negros Occidental, where she also grows most of the ingredients for her products. She has three main workers and would hire their female farmers for extra help when sugarcane season is over. In a way, this helps augment their worker’s income during lean periods.

A lady wearing many hats

Justiniani is a lady who wears many hats: she owns and manages Ading’s Kitchen alongside co-owning a restaurant and a catering business, besides being a wife and a mom of two. She said that her work has been quite a challenging journey, but all totally worth it.

Justiniani graduated with a Bachelor of Science Majoring in Hospitality Management; after which she then enrolled at the Institute of Culinary Arts De La Salle-Bacolod and graduated top of her class. After graduating, Justiniani worked in Le Chique, a five-diamond restaurant in Cancun, Mexico where she learned most of the valuable techniques she was able to apply to their current line of products. When she came back to the Philippines, she tested the market with Ading’s Gourmet Tuyo by joining trade fairs, which gradually made a name for itself. After two years, she, together with her partners, opened a restaurant where their products were displayed apart from consigning with different food establishments. They were also able to build a mini factory on their farm.

“I was pregnant when I started with Ading’s Kitchen, [and] a catering and restaurant business was also in the works. I guess hard work, dedication, and a very supportive husband were the reasons [I am] where I am today,” reminisces Justiniani. Although as in any other businesses, obstacles are always present. “In my case, I had to do it all by myself – from sourcing our ingredients, financial management, HR/admin, marketing, branding… everything! It was a one-woman show. In the end, it was all worth it. I am happy and proud of the outcome,” Justiniani shares.

Specialty product

Ading’s Gourmet tuyo remains the best seller, although surprisingly, her Blue Crab line of crab meat and aligue (crab fat) is catching up in terms of sales.

“I was only maintaining one product for over three years, the gourmet tuyo, but I realized, since Negros Occidental is [very] abundant in natural resources, why not put it to good use. I eventually tried innovating simple recipes and somehow elevated their tastes to international standards,” shares Justiniani.

Aside from the gourmet tuyo and aligue, Justiniani also showcased a variety of products that originated from their family’s heirloom recipes. To date, their product line includes: Ading’s Gourmet Tuyo – the company’s pioneer product made of dried shredded herring with olives, capers, and garlic-vinegar sauce in olive oil; Ading’s Blue Crab Paste; Ading’s Guinamos – salted baby shrimps with garlic bits; Ading’s Blue Crab Meat in two variants – talangka and Cajun sauce, both in olive oil; Ading’s Smoked Bangus with sun-dried tomatoes in chili olive oil; Ading’s Chorizo de Cantimpalos (Spanish style chorizo in olive oil); Ading’s Inasal marinade; Ading’s grilling oil; and Concepcion Black Peppercorn. Currently, they are in the process of making frozen products and cheese and wine pairing spreads.

Asked as to the differences between products, Justiniani answers, “Each and every product is unique. I always go back to our heritage, the way our grandmothers cooked back then and innovating it using techniques I used when I was cooking abroad.”

Justiniani relays that their products are considered a five-generation collection of recipes from their family with each product having a story to tell. (Justiniani came from the four generations of Gonzagas and Lacsons, considered one of the most influential families in Negros Occidental.)

For example, Ading’s gourmet tuyo, as told by Justiniani, tells of their family Sunday lunches at their lola’s, where she showed them her loving care by spoiling them with food. “I could still remember her asking the helpers to take out the seeds from our watermelons so we can easily enjoy eating them. I guess this is how I came to create my gourmet tuyo – deveining and shredding the herring, making it conveniently ready to eat, somehow extending the care I experienced from my grandmother to those who would get a taste of this product,” Justiniani states. “My mom added capers since she loves it and I, being a culinary graduate, used some techniques in order to extend the shelf life of products without the use of any commercial preservatives.”

Herring, spices, onion, and garlic are the natural ingredients she puts in the recipe. Ading’s product line is rich in protein, minerals, vitamins A, B2, C, and D, and has low fat content. It also provides high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids that play an important role in normal brain development and functions. The benefits of olive oil used, on the other hand, include possible prevention of colon and breast cancer, diabetes, and heart problems.

Source of raw materials

Most of the raw materials are sourced locally. “My staff are the wives of our farmers who are tasked to help the farm as well, but when the sugarcane fields are closed for the season, I hire them to help me with Ading’s production,” says Justiniani. Through this, they have extra work to augment their income. Justiniani considers this a symbiotic relationship between them. Moreover, they also get to help the local farmers and fishermen in neighboring cities.

Ading’s Kitchen produces a total of 1,000 jars per week – that’s more than 80 kilos of dried fish per seven days. “We only use the best ingredients for our products,” assures Justiniani.

The raw materials are delivered to, or are sourced from, their farm and a designated checker is assigned to check and make sure that all ingredients are of best quality. After which, the process of cooking, pressure canning, and labeling is followed. They usually open one bottle from the batch for taste test and once it’s passed, they are packed in boxes for distribution.

Products’ remarkable traits

“I believe we are the first ones to bottle shredded tuyo and incorporate olives and capers to the mix. In the market, you would usually find whole tuyo in garlic vinegar sauce so we innovate to offer a unique and one-of-a-kind product,” says Justiniani.

In terms of packaging, Justiniani opted for the vintage feel, considering the product line’s beginnings from a five generation recipe, and added a few colors and significant drawings to represent its innovation.

Their products are commercially available in their restaurant, Don Mariano Coffee + Kitchen, and in The Negros Showroom at Robinsons Bacolod. They also accept orders online through their website and through mydomesticity.com. Their earnings through trade fairs, though, are more than sufficient to make the business a sole-sustaining form of livelihood for them.

“We have a high demand all year round, but we are busiest especially during Holy Week and Christmas,” states Justiniani.

Justiniani hopes to export their products as soon as she completes the necessary documents.

Being a Negrense, Justiniani says that she would have to go with Ading’s Gourmet Tuyo when it comes to a product she is most proud of: “This product started it all and even won me several awards.” It won the Sabor Negrense Award-Best of Negros in Processed Food and Pasalubong category in 2015 competing against 19 municipalities and 13 cities, and is also a two-time Gold Winner (2016 and 2019) at the Bulawan Awards Deli Category.

Coming in second for Justiniani would be Ading’s Blue Crab Meat in Aligue sauce, an authentic Negrense product as Negros is known for blue crabs, best served over crostini, salad, pasta, and of course, rice.

An inspiration for others

Justiniani believes that her story could be an inspiration for others. “I am blessed that my passion for culinary arts and experimenting on new and exciting techniques of cooking have paid off.” She admits that not everyone is so lucky to be enjoying their work and eventually earn from doing what they like best. “I hope my story will be an inspiration, especially to mothers. That when you embrace something you are very passionate about, be it a simple hobby or interest, it can go a long way as long as you put your heart into it, and with the aid of social media in this digital age, a small business could eventually flourish,” advices Justiniani.

As a way of helping others in the community, Justiniani says, “First and foremost, the business has harnessed the potential of housewives of the community in our farm as, primarily, our workers are the wives of our farm employees. Moreover, the raw materials we use come from local sources which give additional income to the community. We also educate the farmers on what products to plant that we need as ingredients and these are usually high-value products.”

You see, starting small and maximizing whatever resources are available on hand, can become a profitable endeavor with hard work, passion, and determination. We are sure Justiniani is just one of those who made a big fortune out of what others call the ‘lowly tuyo.’ (Photos courtesy of April Lacson-Justiniani)

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s March 2020 issue.