In the highs and lows of the local ice cream business (and life), Carmen’s Best founder and CEO Paco Magsaysay emerges stronger and wiser
By MARGE C. ENRIQUEZ
PHOTOS | JOVEL LORENZO
Two years after Pope Francis’s visit to Manila in 2015,international online Catholic publication Aleteia wrote about the favorite ice cream flavors of the last three pontiffs.
For Pope Francis, it’s dulce de leche, though he did take home cartons of Malted Milk, Pistachio, and Brown Butter Almond Brittle, courtesy of homegrown premium ice cream brand Carmen’s Best, on his way back to Rome in a chartered PAL flight.
Had Carmen’s Best ice cream maker Francisco ‘’Paco’’ Mag- saysay known the pope’s pre- ferred flavor earlier, he would have prepared the dulce de leche himself.
Singapore’s local food guide Eatbook also recommends Brown Butter Almond Brittle and the best-selling He’s Not Worth It, a comforting dark chocolate ice cream with cookies, nuts, and fudge swirl. The food guide ranked Carmen’s Best No. 3 in its 10 Best Dessert Places of 2020 in the Lion City. It also lauded the scooping station at Capitol Piazza for its‘’lusciously dense ice cream that is free from additives and water.
It’s silver lining in a year of difficulties and uncertainty. According to Magsaysay, sales of Carmen’s Best in Singapore have been sluggish, as in the Philippines, as a result of lockdowns and COVID-19 restrictions. Still, it’s been an achievement to survive the pandemic and to capture return customers, he says.
The 53-year-old entre- preneur cites 2018 as the peak year when his premi- um ice cream—a pint of which cost between P385 and P420—was flourishing in the outbound Manila business class sections of PAL, Singapore Airlines, Delta, and Qantas, as well as in hotels, resorts, restaurants, and cafés. Sales dipped in 2019 when the economy started to slip. By tradition, ice cream sales peak during summer and dip during the wet season and Christmas, when people would rather buy cakes and desserts. However, sales rebounded in early 2020, surpassing 2019. Then the lockdown decimated the food industry.
Carmen’s Best production was shut down, as well as its main sources of income—airlines and restaurants. When restrictions eased, Carmen’s Best in Power Plant Mall, which specializes in shakes, sun- daes and affogato, continued to attract its small but loyal customers, while its Alabang Town Center branch folded up due to lack of foot traffic.
From B2B (business-to-business) mar- keting, Magsaysay’s company pivoted to community resellers and recently to e-com- merce through Carmen’s Best social media and website.
‘’Community resellers have been active in selling online. They have a huge data- base, which has a wider market for our oth- er brands. We shifted to delivering straight to the customers,’’ he says.
Despite the high inflation rate, Magsay- say has kept a lid on the pricing. ‘’Carmen’s Best hasn’t had a price hike in four years.
It hurts when people say we are expensive. They don’t realize that food costs have increased. We make lower profit margins but offer better quality so that people keep buying our products.’’
New flavors, markets
While Carmen’s Best is made from fresh cow’s milk, its mid-range brand Arctic
Ice Cream uses the same ingredients as mass-market brands. Its unique selling points are its dense and creamy quality and the fact that it is sold in exact half-gallon containers (1.89 liters) at an affordable P295 each. ‘’Other ice creams can’t claim
to deliver half a gallon since the content weighs 1.51 liters for a lower price. We don’t mind if we have lower profit margins as long as we deliver a better product ’’ says Magsaysay.
Arctic Ice Cream comes in classic flavors like vanilla and chocolate and the Pinoy variants of ube, queso, and melon. The formulation is a trade secret. ‘’We know how to make things better’’ is all Magsaysay will say.
At of this writing, Arctic Ice Cream is sold online. Magsaysay notes the challenge of penetrating into retail as supermarkets and convenience store chains are locked into major brands.
Then there’s J&M Naughty and Nice Ice Cream. Coined from the initials of the names of his sons, Jaime, 28, and Miguel, 26, it’s the liqueur-infused ice cream line born out of patrons’ clamor for rum, Kahlua, and Irish cream. But to apply for a halal certification—a requirement of hotels and airlines—Carmen’s Best had to remove its liqueur flavors. J&M is distributed by Ralph’s Wines & Spirits and is like- wise sold online.
Magsaysay is proud that his brands surpass the standards of the Food and Drug Administration. “Others don’t follow protocols of food processing. In the past 10 years, nobody has complained about getting sick from Carmen’s Best,’’ he says.
Of his vision for 2021, Magsaysay is setting his sights on other markets. Car- men’s Best has already entered the AB market in Kidapawan, Davao, Zamboanga, and Cagayan de Oro. ‘’There’s no competi- tion for premium ice cream in these plac- es,’’ he says. Local resellers likewise have the freezers to store Arctic Ice Cream.
Accidental ice cream maker
Magsaysay never imagined he’d be in the food business. He was CEO of the family-owned Asian Vision Cable Holdings Inc. when his father, Senator Ramon “Jun” Magsaysay Jr., set his sights on agri-busi- ness. The older Magsaysay and his friends put up a dairy farm in 2007. At first, the younger Magsaysay nixed the idea since farming was a new field and the former senator had been in the cable television industry since 1972.
As the dairy farm progressed, the older Magsaysay asked his son to sell the products. Challenged with the excess inventory of milk, Paco saw a business potential. Incorporated in 2009, Carmen’s Best is named after his youngest sister Carmen, 24, now a financial analyst in New York.
He studied abroad to further his knowledge of ice cream. During his trials, he imagined that he was the target market—someone with disposable income and discriminating taste.
Magsaysay describes his position as founder and navigator. “When you start a business, you do everything—from production to selling, account, follow ups. You don’t have money to hire people. The maid helped with production at home. My driver did the deliveries. We started in 2011 and it was only in 2014 when I was able to pay myself. You have to love what you do. If not, why do it if you’re not getting a salary?’’
While he was building the business, Magsaysay faced another challenge. After taking up an ice cream course at the Penn- sylvania State University in 2013, he went on the campaign trail with his father. ‘’I felt this would be his last. I wanted to be there for him,’’ he says.
Running for re-election, the senator was upbeat throughout his provincial sorties while the younger Magsaysay felt fatigued. When he took his annual check-up, Dr. Joven Cuanang, then medical director of St. Luke’s Medical Center, told him to see a hematologist who, in turn, prescribed a bone marrow transplant. Magsaysay sought a second opinion from an oncologist. He was diagnosed with stage 2 leukemia and was told that he had three months to live.
‘’I didn’t feel any pain. I didn’t smoke or drink. I knew the Delgados (his moth- er’s side of the family) had a history of cancer,’’ he recalls.
The following year, he took his first cycle of chemotherapy at MD Anderson Cancer Center University of Texas, USA, since the medicines were not available locally. He completed his chemotherapy at St. Luke’s Medical Center in Bonifacio Global City.
‘’When I was sentenced with three years to live, I had this mindset to accom- plish as much as I could. I had to work my butt off so I could leave something for my kids,’’ he says.
During those years, he kept his nose to the grindstone. By coincidence, he wasn’t approached for media interviews.
“I didn’t want any pity. Everything hap- pens for a reason,’’ he muses. “When you are faced with death, your perspective changes. You become more patient.’’
In 2019, he was in remis- sion and has since been in good health.
Outside of the ice cream business, he wears another hat as president of Citadel (the abbreviation of his grand- mother’s name, Carmencita Chuidian Delgado), a real estate company.
After running the family cable TV and broadband business for 14 years, Magsaysay sits as a director. ‘’The business thrived during the lockdown when people stayed at home. We cover residences in Zambales, Batangas, and Quezon,’’ he says, adding that remote working and learning have increased the demand for broadband connection.
Asian in a Caucasian community
Magsaysay notes that Carmen’s Best Dairy Products is the business where he can run it on his terms. He adds that his leadership style was influenced by his having lived abroad.
When his mother, Isabel Delgado, and his father separated, he and his sister Margarita, now 55, moved to the States where he lived from ages 12 to 25. He received weekly letters from his father and spent his holidays in the Philippines.
He recalls the challenges of growing up as an Asian in a Caucasian community.
“I was raised in a country where my name was not known. In basketball games, I was the last guy to get into the court because I was Asian. I had to show that I was not inferior as people thought. I was willing to work harder to make the team win. In jobs, you are up against everybody. I had to prove myself.’’
After graduating in marketing from the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, he worked at the warehouse of Supercom Technologies, a Taiwanese monitor company. In his next job, MCI Commu- nications Corp., he joined the 40-man sales force where he always ranked No. 3 every quarter.
’My job was to get SME’s (small to medium enterprises) to use MCI for their long-dis- tance communications since Bell was dominating the field. This gave me the experience of working with start-ups.’’
He took advantage of his Asian roots by tapping a niche market—Koreans, Vietnamese, and Filipinos. ‘’My chances of closing an account with a white guy would be slim so I focused on the Asian ac- counts,’’ he says.
In the early ‘90s, the older Magsaysay asked him to come home and take over the cable business as the former was running for Senate. Back then, the cable television business was booming.
The dutiful son returned home in 1994 and managed Asian Vision Cable Holdings Inc. according to how his father wanted it.
‘’This is my father’s business. I didn’t want to prove that my way works best,’’ he says. ‘’He was a war baby plus he lived in Malacañang. The mindset of his generation is different.’’
Rules apply to all
In his ice cream business, Magsaysay’s straightforward communication style
is influenced by his Ameri- can training. “With me, it’s either black or white. Take the emotions out of business. It has taken me a long time to figure out what Filipinos mean to say since communication is indirect. I don’t play favorites. Rules apply to everybody. Still, it’s easier said than done. That’s when the Filipino’s understanding nature and compassion come in,” he says.
During the long lockdown in 2020, his workforce of 40 received full wages. “Our people saw our commitment while their friends, relatives, and neighbors were either laid off
or were on a no-work-no-pay arrangement. They became more dedicated to their jobs when they realized how lucky they were,’’ he says.
Today, despite the challenges, Magsaysay still gets a lot of press. ‘’I don’t have a PR. We built this business from scratch and it has been an uphill battle,’’ he says.
Everybody loves rooting for the nice guy.