“Villa Manila’s vision is to represent the next generation of Filipino-American flavours. Everyone is very passionate about representation [especially in the AAPI community]I thought it was time to create our first Filipino American food brand.”Fila Manila founder and CEO Jake Deleon told FoodNavigator-USA.
No stranger to the CPG world, Deleon spent time managing categories and building brands for Procter & Gamble and Starbucks, before setting out on his own to start an almond milk brand called Origin Almond which was sold at several major retailers including Whole Foods Walmart.
However, as a refrigerated beverage producer that relied heavily on in-store traffic (for example, a Whole Foods customer took a drink along with lunch from a hot bar), the brand struggled during the early days of the pandemic and was eventually phased out in 2020 with Deleon’s ability to sell the remainder of his inventory.
The origin story of Villa Manila
During the months-long lockdown in 2020, Dillion decided to embark on a new entrepreneurial venture closely linked to his Filipino identity. As a first-generation Filipino American immigrant born in the Philippines and raised in New Jersey, DeLeon was struck by the underrepresentation there of his homeland’s cuisine in mainstream American food culture, despite it being the second largest Asian American community in the United States (behind Chinese Americans), according to U.S. Census data. .
“My brain immediately went to the grocery shelves. If we’re such a big part of the American population, how is there about 0% representation of Filipino food on major grocery shelves?” It was a huge break” Dillion said.
“Most of the current players in the market tend to be imported brands that are really nostalgic but don’t exceed the quality standards of most US retailers.”
Using a trigger check, Deleon launched Fila Manila with the first products that were a line of sauces and pickles featuring the traditional Filipino flavors of Adobo, Caldereta (Filipino tomato sauce), peanut-based Kare-Kare sauce and pickles.
The products have been a huge hit online and in retail (Whole Foods picked up all three almost immediately), which Deleon owes to consumers’ increased interest in global flavors during COVID lockdowns when home cooking was the norm.
“The idea is that we’re going to take three of the most famous dishes in Filipino cuisine, and then we’re going to pack the sauce,”DeLeon said his version of the sauces was naturally gluten-free, vegan, and free of added sugar.
From this launch, Fila Manila has found a wide open category white space for reinvented modern Filipino food.
“We have already become the #1 Filipino food brand in the US in our category [Enhanced Natural Channel] And our channel, according to SPINS data… has achieved over 79% market share within six months of launch,”He said.
The pent-up demand for Filipino food
To continue his momentum, DeLeon relived his primary childhood memories to come up with the brand’s latest launch: Opi’s Coconut Jam, which was a part of nearly every breakfast he was growing up.
“We want to offer all these famous Filipino flavors, and we don’t want to be limited to delicious flavors,”He said.
While a new type of product for most US consumers, Deleon is confident that the profile of eg coconut jam (essentially reduced coconut milk that can be used like peanut butter on toast or in desserts) can appeal A wide range of consumers who are increasingly interested in international cuisine and flavours.
The brand tested the waters early for another new SKU, the Ube Purple Yam Jam, with a trial launch in March 2022 and sold out its initial stock within 30 minutes.
According to Deleon, based on SPINS data, Filipino food is the fastest growing subcategory of Asian food, overtaking the Chinese.
“If you look at where Filipino cuisine and culture is now, it’s where Korean and Chinese food was a few years ago. You have this huge demand and pent-up interest in Filipino food,”He said.
Both products retail for $11.99 each and are available online and at select retailers beginning this summer.
1200 stores by the end of the year
Fila Manila products are currently sold in nearly 500 stores nationwide and online through the company’s website and Amazon. And while DTC has been an important part of the company’s success so far, Deleon remains focused on the brand’s retail partnerships.
“I think the industry is changing quite a bit and the customer acquisition costs are a lot higher than they were a couple of years ago. We wanted to be where the consumer is and for our category it’s retail, specifically in the optimized natural channel and choose traditional and group as well,”He said. “By the end of this year, we aim to be in about 1,200 stores.”
Deleon added that the brand is working on new flavors for its existing product lines and has a flavoring launch scheduled for later this year.
“There’s a whole world of massive Filipino flavors out there in some pockets in the US but it’s not yet shared with the US mainstream,” he added.