The decade of the Fifties signaled the rise of consumerism in the United States – the Diners Club credit card was introduced, the first commercial color TV program was broadcast, Hugh Hefner published Playboy magazine, LEGO toy bricks debuted, and Ray Kroc opened McDonald’s. And in Manila, the post-war relief efforts precipitated a new period of prosperity, as financial rehabilitation from the US sought to revitalize a ruined and devastated capital. Amidst this economic boom, and well before Starbucks, Costa, Tim Hortons and artisanal third-wave cafes broke ground (and certainly at a time when drinkers liked their coffee hot), Commonwealth Foods, Inc. launched the unique “brewed coffee taste” of its Cafe Puro roasted ground coffee.
And so, walking into the Comfoods offices in Senator Gil Puyat Avenue, Makati last week was like travelling back in time to this bygone era. From the reception area to the jalousied hallway panels to the old-fashioned Underwood typewriter and the vintage coffee percolator-turned-water pitcher, the circa-1960 building brought back memories of Cafe Puro, Cafe Bueno, Cafe Excelente and Le Cafe, the dominant brands of what was then the largest coffee processor in the Far East. It was difficult to imagine how a low-keyed family occupying a modest and unostentatious establishment was a leading pioneer in the coffee trade.
“Underwood” typewriters and “Smith Bell” adding machines, most still operational, are among the archetypal office equipment that still adorn the Comfoods Building. Wooden tables, shelves and cabinets so typical of the period stand in juxtaposition to computers, high-speed printers and other concessions to office modernity.
And in a room that housed some of the company’s memorabilia were specimens of old and new glass containers of the broad range of products of its Coffee Division (roasted and instant coffee), Philfood Division (“Ricoa” brand cocoa and chocolates) and Fibisco Division (biscuits and cookies).
An early-model “Cafe Puro” glass jar with handle has a broken plastic lid where the Comfoods logo – a stylized “C” with a plant outlined as an “F” – is embossed. When instant coffee was introduced in 1956, it was advertised as a “Jet Process” where “flavor cells” liquify the very instant that hot water is added, resulting in the full-bodied flavor and rich aroma of Cafe Puro.
Comfoods produced many decorative coffee bottles that could be re-used as drinking glasses in several motifs. The most popular were the collection of folk dance designs such as “Pandanggo Sa Ilaw,” “Singkil,” “Maglalatik,” “Itik-Itik,” “Jota Cavitena” and “Bontoc War Dance.” An anniversary promotion in 1966 offered a special sparkling crystal design with a flip-off cap. This particular specimen is decorated with a Three Kings motif, and may have been a Christmas-themed issue.
Cafe Bueno was positioned as “less caffeine,” with its commercials touting that imbibers will not experience “coffee nerves” from the soluble drink because just enough caffeine has been removed. The “Cafe Bueno” bottle here stands beside a modern “Cafe Puro” utility jar.
The “Le Cafe” brand was heavily advertised in the early 1970’s as “bold in taste, bold in aroma,” and endorsed by television personalities like Elizabeth Ramsey and the inimitable Ramon Zamora in his quintessential faux “Nazi” portrayal.
The 2016 packaging of the Collector’s Edition “Cafe Puro” came in a Mason jar, a tribute to the re-emergence of this bottle type in recent years as the container of choice for many consumer products. Originally patented in 1858 by John Landis Mason as a molded glass jar for canning and food preservation, this was manufactured for many years by The Ball Corporation, but is now made chiefly by Jarden Corporation.
Comfoods was the result of a conglomeration in 1968 of three separate companies – Commonwealth Foods, Inc. (1951), Philippine Food Industries, Inc. (1956) and Filipinas Biscuit Corp. (1959) – which were reorganized as divisions in the merged entity. The Coffee Division commenced the production of roasted ground coffee in 1952 (the original coffee facility still stands in Makati), and instant and soluble coffee in 1956. Early print ads claimed that Mr. C. DeWitt Dyckman, “the world’s foremost coffee expert,” had been brought to the Philippines to direct the blending and processing of Cafe Puro.
A landmark Cafe Puro 3D outdoor sign at the top of the Metropolitan Theatre displays a gigantic floating coffee pot pouring out a fresh brew into a cup.
The Philfood Division became the first Philippine company to enter the cocoa and chocolate processing business, and its plant continues to be located at EDSA, Mandaluyong. In addition to producing cocoa powder and chocolate syrup, it also manufactures the iconic “Curly Tops” and “Flat Tops” from our childhood days.
The “Ricoa”brand of breakfast cocoa was especially soothing during rainy days. Pre-dating Signature Hot Chocolate (Starbucks), The Angelina (La Creperie), Taza de Xocolat (Xocolat) and Hazelnut Hot Chocolate (Wildflour), it is now packed in cans, cartons and aluminum bags, and the original glass bottle containers are a relic of the past.
For a time, Comfoods used large generic glass containers – the lowly “garapon” – for its “Hit” candies.
“Curly Tops” originally came in small brown doily cups packed in a tray of 12. The “swirl” on top of the fudgy chocolate accounted for its name, and its sides were fluted. Advertised as “Rich chocolate for chocolate lovers,” a minor controversy exists these days about why the curl has disappeared.
The “Fibisco” brand gained popularity in the 1960’s for its “English Quality Biscuits,” which apparently stemmed from the fact that English consultants originally set up the manufacturing facility using UK-made equipment. “Choco Mallows,” “Ginger Snaps,” Marie,” “Hi-Ro” and “Soda Crackers” in the classic tall square tin were among the popular products of the company for this snack line.
The individually foil-wrapped “Fibisco” chocolate-covered biscuits were a favorite exchange gift for Christmas parties in the 1960’s.
A not-so-known fact is that Reliance Commercial Enterprises, Inc., a separate retail trading arm of the group, was responsible not only for importing the “Sunkist” brand of oranges, but also “Canada Dry” sodas (these were originally distributed during the pre-war era by Zuellig-owned Kuenzle and Streiff) and Vat 69 whiskey.
“Canada Dry Pale Ginger Ale” was originally created in 1904 by Canadian pharmacist John McLaughlin, and gained popularity in the US as a mixer during the Prohibition era. Expanding worldwide in the 1950’s, its product line in the Philippines included Soda Water, Tonic Water, Orange, Uva (Grape), Hi-Spot, Spur and Kola Champagne
Vat 69 is a Scotch blended whisky manufactured back in 1880 by William Sanderson & Son Ltd. in Scotland. Originally in an iconic green bottle with a bulbous neck, the brand was the result of the decision of taste experts to judge the cask (or vat) No. 69, among a hundred different casks of blended whisky, to be the best of the batch.
Second-generation family member Grace Huang poses with her classmate Nenette Coronel in front of a shelf displaying some of Comfoods’ glass jars and containers over the years.
“Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure (Puro), whatever is lovely, whatever is of good (Bueno) repute, if there is any excellence (Excelente), and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” [Philippians 4:8, New American Standard Bible]
Recalling this passage where Paul exhorts the churchgoers at Philippi to live a life based on Scripture, it is perhaps not merely coincidental that Comfoods, where integrity and restraint are paramount in all business considerations, chose the three virtues of purity, goodness and excellence to emblazon their main product line.