One of the things that most Filipinos miss when they move or stay abroad is local flavor. Some favorites including lechon, pancit, and chicharron, and even food chains like Jollibee, Max’s, and Gerry’s Grill, have now reached foreign shores to satisfy the craving for Filipinos. Pinoy sorbetes are one of the childhood staples that Filipinos seem to crave for life. For a business owner, Kamille Rodriguez, it was this craving that paved the way for her and her husband’s culinary pursuit, Sorbetes ni Manong Jelle right in the middle of Belgium.
The Story of Sorbetes ni Manong Jelle
How did the idea of Sorbetes ni Manong Jelle in Belgium come about?
We initially started making ice cream a year prior to beginning our business. My husband Jelle, who is a pastry chef, was interested in making ice cream at home. So, we bought a small ice cream machine for personal use. He kept on experimenting with flavors. Eventually, I asked him to make some Pinoy versions because I missed those flavors and Filipino ice cream is not readily available in Belgium.
His very first Filipino-flavored ice cream was Ube. Then we made Mangoes, Durian, Avocado flavors, and so on. We let our family and friends taste his product and we got a lot of positive feedback. Eventually, those friends urged us to sell the ice cream to the other kababayans in Belgium, thus Sorbetes ni Manong Jelle was born.
How do you come up with your flavors?
Our main flavors are already common in the Philippines, but sometimes, we release limited editions, and we try to be creative with them. In ice cream you just need a good canvas or ice cream base, the rest is left to your creativity. I was born in the Philippines, so most of the time, the flavors that we create come from my childhood memories.
We want to recreate flavors that will truly bring us back to the Philippine Island. For example, when I was a kid, I always ate avocado with condensed milk, Choc Nut, enjoyed an ice buko on a warm sunny day, and drank Milo during merienda. Those memories bring so much happiness to me, so the idea is to share these “throwback” flavors for our kababayans here in Belgium came about. Especially now with COVID-19, most of us have not been able to visit the Philippines.
How long does it take to develop the flavors?
It depends really. If I think that if I, as a customer would pay for my product and if I think it’s worth my money”, then we will release the product for sale. Making the ice cream itself takes 2 days. We make everything from scratch – from making the ice cream base, aging the base, to churning it in the machine. Creating the recipe depends on how the end product would taste. Sometimes, we make it “right” right away. Sometimes it takes us weeks to find the right balance of ingredients. Sometimes, we just throw the idea because we could never recreate the product. I remember we got one client who requested us to make a Puto Bumbong version sorbetes, but I could never recreate the authentic feel and flavor. So, we never released it.
What was the biggest challenge of opening your business in Belgium?
The biggest challenge is sourcing our raw ingredients. We want to be as authentic as possible and use real food products/fruits. We first started buying our ingredients from small a tindahan and an Asian shop here in Belgium. Eventually, our production increased, and they could keep up with our demands. So, we started looking for a direct distributor and have ordered our ingredients from them.
What’s your best seller? For Filipinos and Belgians
Our best seller is definitely Ube for both Filipinos and Belgians. We also make good Vanilla and Pistachio. We are also the first one to offer sticky rice-flavored ice cream here in Belgium. Those sell out fast, too.
What are some of the reactions of Belgians when they taste it?
The Belgians are always curious about our product. I remember when we started selling at a big event in our city without a bike, half of the flavors we offered were Filipino flavors. They were always asking for an explanation, we happily explained our product (why our sweet potato is purple, what is durian, how jackfruit looks like, etc.). They ended up buying and were eventually contented and happy with the ice cream. As I mentioned, Ube is our best seller and for non-Filipino flavors, Rum Raisin has a lot of positive feedback. We also have some non-Filipino Flavors for the hesitant Belgians – some of them are not adventurous enough to try new flavors.
We always (as much as possible) try to incorporate “Philippines” in our product. Like our Rum Raisin (technically not a Pinoy flavor). We use Filipino-branded Rum from Negros for this product. We only use Filipino Mangoes for our products. In fact, we recently joined a national Gelato competition in Belgium. We didn’t win but we got a lot of curiosity and positive feedback on our flavor, Ube Cheesecake.
What is your advice to Filipinos who live abroad, wanting to start a business?
Never give up. Work hard and be passionate about it. The clients will know and appreciate your passion for your business. And very important— ask for help if you need it. We have received a lot of help from our fellow kababayans (for no fee). They just want to help us succeed.
It is indeed hard. Time management plus splitting the tasks is the key. Luckily, we have a very good support system here. We started our business with a lot of passion already, we just have to maintain it. Hearing happy, contented clients is what drives us to do more and better. We always set a goal in everything we do. Once we reach it, then we set another goal. We just fulfilled our goal last year, which is to purchase a commercial ice cream machine and a kariton bike. Our current goal for 2022 is for more brand awareness and hopefully, our own production area and ice cream shop.
With the success and satisfying feedback that it has been getting, Jelle and Kamille are excitedly planning for the future as they share the flavors of pinoy sorbetes—one cup at a time!
If you are in the area of Belgium, make sure to check out Sorbetes ni Manong Jelle!