In 1994 Mike Cases brought his wife to Brunei, where the Sultan paid him US$3,000 a month to preside over the construction of Jerudong Theme Park, the sultanate’s version of Disneyland. Unlike most contract workers abroad, Mike, an engineer, and his wife, Aliw, had everything: free accommodation, electricity, water, and even utensils. They had the time of their lives in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital. Yet something was missing, and four years later Mike persuaded his wife to return to Dipolog City in Zamboanga del Norte, his hometown, to start his own business. “Kinailangan ko nang gawin ‘yung trabaho na gusto ko doon sa lugar ko,” he says.
On their return in 1998, Mike sold some of their properties and, with his savings, raised P1.5 million to start bottling sardines, taking advantage of Dipolog’s growing reputation as the Philippines’ top sardines producer. The next year, he incorporated Tito Mike’s Food Company, a name suggested by a six-year-old nephew, with his wife and three brothers as partners. He bought equipment and raw materials, and then set up a production facility in his parents’ backyard.
He met his first client by chance on a U.S. trip while looking for kitchenware, unaware that the pressure cookers he needed were being sold in Quiapo, Manila, at bargain prices. Indeed, his visits to the Oriental stores in the East Coast allowed him to meet a distributor, a Vietnamese-American who offered to buy his sardines to supply those stores. “Maraming Filipinos abroad ang gustong kumain ng pagkain natin dito,” he says.
He first shipped out 100 24-bottle boxes, pricing his sardines at P42 a bottle here and P45 abroad. He then signed up more exporters and foreign buyers after joining the trade fairs of the Department of Trade and Industry, and in May, he shipped 500 boxes of bottled sardines to Vancouver and Toronto and 300 boxes to California.
Cases concentrated on producing spicy and mildly spicy sardines on the advice of the Dipolog School of Fisheries, which had trained him to produce sardines commercially and told him that buyers preferred those to plain Spanish-style sardines in corn oil or tomato sauce. He was the first to produce a whole line of MSG-free products in Dipolog City.
“Ang sikreto ng sardinas na masarap [ay] hindi sa spices kundi sa sariwang isda,” he says, adding he only buys the freshest catch from a fishing village half a kilometer away and then prepares them immediately. Bottled sardines have a shelf life of three years, but can last up to 10 years if the seal remains intact. “Parang wine din ito eh. The longer sa bodega, mas masarap,” he says. “Ang advantage ng bote, nakikita mo agad kung maganda ang quality [ng isda] na binibili mo na ‘di tulad ng de lata.”
In 2003 Tito Mike’s became one of 16 outstanding businesses to be honored by Malacañang for turning from micro to small or medium enterprise. He and the other members of the In-glass Sardines of Dipolog Association, or ISDA, which he heads, have received a grant from the Department of Science and Technology to buy two heat-shrink tunnel machines, as well as P500,000 from the government’s Sulong program to buy corn oil, glass jars, and other raw materials at lower prices.
This year, Cases plans to stock as much as P5 million worth of bottled sardines to make the most of the fishing season from January to May, when fishermen catch 20 tons of fish daily and sell them for as low as P5 a kilogram. The rest of the year he makes spicy and mildly spiced bangus and slightly salted tuyo in olive oil, and sardines in tausi for the Chinese market.
Cases leaves the supermarkets to Dipolog’s seven commercial producers. He focuses instead on specialty stores, including those in Metro Manila where his sardines grace Baliuag Lechon outlets, and, perhaps soon, Pan de Pugon whose pan de sal, he says, is perfect for his Spanish sardines. He has only nine workers, but they produce the most of any outfit and pack 50 boxes a day worth P60,000 and as many as 100 when needed.
“Mag-build up ka lang ng quantity na komportable—hindi yung pipilitin mo na gumawa ng napakarami tapos magsa-suffer ang quality mo,” says Cases. “You must enjoy your business. Huwag kang hihiram ng malaking pera tapos maghahabol ka ng production dahil kailangang magbayad ng utang. Hindi ka na masaya, hind rin happy ang produkto mo.”
ONE TOWN, ONE PRODUCT
Sardines bottler Mike Cases advices migrant workers planning to put up their own business to take advantage of the government’s One Town, One Product (OTOP) program. “Mag-start sila sa paligid nila, sa bayan nila, at magtanong kung anong mga raw materials ang maaaring i-develop,” he says. “May mga government agencies na tutulong.”
OTOP-Philippines aims to promote entrepreneurship and create jobs by identifying, developing, and promoting products or services with a competitive advantage. The program counts local government units providing business counseling, skills and entrepreneurial training, product design and development, appropriate technologies, and marketing.