By Angel Dukha III
Overseas Filipino workers (OFW) who think of returning to the Philippines for good often look for a business to invest in. But in the case of Imelda Ahalul-Dagus, founder of Dennis Coffee Garden (DCG), not only did she find a new source of income, she also found a renewed sense of purpose.
For Dagus, who worked in Oman for 24 years, what started out as “replacement income” for when she returned to the Philippines quickly became her advocacy: to develop the coffee shop that was established by her grandmother in 1962 and to promote the local coffee industry of her roots in Jolo, Sulu.
“In search of a replacement income, I stumbled upon something which is more meaningful […] This is no longer about money, this is something bigger, it’s a legacy,” Dagus said.
Life abroad was good and allowed her family a sustainable income. When her children were grown and about to enter college, Dagus, who never thought of owning a cafe, decided to return to her hometown of Patikul.
At first, Dagus thought of investing her savings into a pampering business like a nail salon or a wellness spa but then she remembered the local coffee shop built by her grandmother, one of the first people to run a coffee shop in their province.
Revamping a coffee shop
The 50-year old advocate decided to take over the operations for what is now known as DCG, now in Zamboanga City, in 2015 despite having little knowledge in both coffee and in business. She claims that even after attending seminars on business and franchising, it was different from running a business itself.
She wrote to Pacita “Chit” Juan, president and co-chairperson of Philippine Coffee Board (PCB), who noticed their humble coffee shop and gave positive feedback about it when she visited Jolo.
Dagus expressed her desire to come home and find a replacement income. Her newfound mentor told her that the coffee shop could be successful if managed properly.
“Luckily I found a mentor who (advised me) to think about the benefits that (the) community will get, not just your own benefits. (And) think about legacy (and) pride that you will give to your own people, the Tausug tribe, by uplifting the cultural heritage,” she said.
The Tausug tribe is local to Jolo, and as DCG strives to promote everything local, they use kahawa sug, the tribe’s coffee, in their shop. Kahawa sug is traditionally paired with local delicacies, or bangbang sug, and drunk using two glasses where it is poured alternately to cool and to get its best flavor.
DCG was originally called Omar’s Place when it first started, but when her grandmother and business partner parted ways, it was renamed after the first-born grandson and Dagus’ brother, Dennis. Since people already knew it as Dennis Coffee Shop, she left the name, banking on its familiarity so customers could relate to it as the coffee shop they loved in their hometown just outside of Jolo.
Dagus modernized both shop facilities and quality of products, highlighting the fusion of old and new. Fortunately, customers accepted her idea of promoting street food, culture, local coffee, and delicacies. DCG now offer frappes, iced coffee, cappuccino, and lattes but patrons still prefer the local coffee, kahawa sug, in its purest form.
Dagus knew that DCG cannot promote kahawa sug unless they move out of their hometown so they decided to move to Baliwasan, Zamboanga City.
They also opened Dennis Coffee Express in a local mall which is a simplified version of DCG: a self-service shop offering the bestsellers, as well as coffee beans and other merchandise.
Promoting Kahawa Sug and locavorism
DCG has used kahawa sug ever since it opened in 1962. It continued using it when it was upgraded in 2015, and does so until today.
It is an heirloom of robusta that is smaller in size, strong, but without the bitter taste. They have consistently obtained their coffee from Patikul town in Jolo, Sulu where Tausugs reside and coffee drinking is a part of life.
Dagus also shared that despite kahawa sug being strong, she can still sleep even after drinking the coffee at night.
Sulu produces huge amounts of kahawa sug. However, it was not promoted by itself but is used by a big coffee company for their own products. The province has very fertile soil, which makes kahawa sug distinct compared to coffee grown in other areas.
Meanwhile, DCG promotes kahawa sug as a single origin bean, and solely uses it for their products. They help farmers strengthen their market through a buying station in the farm. They also encourage farmers to grow coffee because it actually has a huge market, which the farmers did not realize.
“If the Philippines grows more robusta, then we have to make use of it. We have to sustain and improve what we have. It’s like knowing your strength: you cannot change your strength, just develop (and) cultivate that strength,” she said.
Dagus is thankful for the success of DCG and especially owes it to a good foundation: a good supply of single origin coffee. Without kahawa sug, they would not have been able to thrive and promote Sulu coffee culture.
She also promotes locavorism; a term that she has embraced which means patronizing local products within reach to help the community grow and hopefully encourage customers to support the concept.
DCG offers traditional local delicacies called bangbang sug such as Jualan saing, or deep fried cardava banana (Musa acuminata × balbisiana) with sweet coco dip; Daral, crepe filled with rich bukayo, and Biyaki or steamed corn with grated coconut wrapped in corn husks.
“We don’t get supplies from Manila if it is available in Zamboanga or the nearby towns or regions. That’s how we do it. We support everything local first,” she said.
Advocacy to help the farmers
Dagus advocates for the proper training and education of farmers to boost production and opportunity for them.
Jolo produces a big amount of coffee but there is a lack of support for the farmers from the government. Tausug farmers who have lived in the area for a long time and cultivate coffee on ancestral land.
Neither DCG nor a landlord owns land or employs farmers, but DCG supports Patikul farmers who cultivate wild coffee trees by instructing them when needed and promoting healthy competition in their market.
Farmers traditionally have no control when it comes to the selling price of their harvest to a major buyer. However, DCG wants to help strengthen the farmers’ source of income. They have the capacity to buy coffee beans at a higher price for higher farmer profit due to the absence of a middleman.
Through a DCG buying station on the farm, farmers realized the opportunity in coffee. “We have also educated them about quality coffee like pick only the red ripe beans (and) don’t pick (unripe beans) because it will ruin the yield even when you roast them, it differentiates the result,” Dagus said.
DCG buys from the farmers yearly as harvest lasts from October to February, or during the colder seasons.
Sulu farmers need better facilities to encourage them to sell good quality beans only. DCG and other clients buy beans that are fully ripe and not broken, dried, nor eaten by insects. By opening the avenue of market opportunity, farmers now sort, produce, and sell quality beans for a better price.
“If you can only encourage these people in these remote areas to plant coffee because part of learning is to know how to intercrop as coffee only comes once a year […] and know what particular crops will grow well with coffee to help the growth then you will have higher and better yields and at the same time you will have something to sell all throughout the year,” she urged.
They also partnered with the Department of Agriculture, Department of Trade and Industry, and farmer cooperatives to further the knowledge of farmers and help provide facilities for better coffee production. In addition, they also work with Department of Tourism to “fill the gap” for tourists who seek something local in their area.
The company is Halal certified, which is vital for their location as Mindanao is predominantly Muslim. They are also working to receive organic certification for their products.
Today, DCG is an upscale version of the coffee shop from Jolo. Customers continue to patronize the brand to get a taste of local delicacies and coffee, now in an upscale setting. It is also now “coffee plus advocacy,” which makes all the difference.