Entrepreneur brings a bit of Cuba to Manila

By Roger Pe

When her family returned to the Philippines from years of staying in Los Angeles, Susan Garcia-Dalmacion thought of bringing a little bit of Cuba to Manila. By being a food entrepreneur, she thought it would just be perfect. After all, her family loves food and, with years of experience of being a chef herself, it’s something she would be happy doing.

The idea that popped up from her head became a reality and, soon, people were lining up in front of a quaint, little deli on Gallardo Street, Legaspi Village in Makati City that she and her happy family put up. Pepi Cubano, was born.

Pepi Cubano, who? Pepi Cubano is an inspiration from Dalmacion’s favorite Cuban sandwich. The business is named after her son Toti’s eldest son. “Because it carries her oldest grandson’s name, it goes without saying that the brand will always be protected. We also want the name to be always equated with positive vibes down to employees, whom we want to feel they are part of our family,” she says.

Temptingly special, scrumptious and crunchy as always, Pepi Cubano is an explosion of Caribbean ingredients prepared the Cuban way, down to the last authentic detail. “The fillings are always lovingly laid out inside the bun. Perhaps, that’s what makes it so deliciously irresistible,” Dalmacion says of her now-famous sandwich.

A few months into the business, reviews by foodies are flattering. Write-ups have been favorable, unsolicited endorsements are aplenty, franchising requests, as well as clamor for more branches around Metro Manila, are becoming persistent. If you Google the word, you will see a flood of positive remarks heaped on Manila’s newest food sensation.

The simple way to describe a Pepi Cubano sandwich is it is deliciously substantial. The way to enjoy it is when the bun is crunchy and hot while the fillings burst with meaty goodness and all the Caribbean flavors delight your senses.

“Years of enjoying these sandwiches in LA, combined with my experience in culinary art, enabled me to come up with the recipe we now serve,” Dalmacion proudly says.

The look, the shape, the taste, Pepi Cubano is a must-try for people who want fast but truly satisfying meal with a Cuban beat titillating you on the side. Pepi is an elongated bun filled with a generous amount of pork and ham, succulent enough to seduce the gods in heaven, as one customer said. With special cheese, pickles, jalapenos and mustard lavishly smothered on top, and premium butter pressed hard to make it look flat, the gustatory experience will make you crave for more.

You can choose a lot of fillings —from the buttery, melt-in-your- mouth Paddy Bistek to Choripan, a chorizo and relish-filled delight, to Cubano Lechon, a Pinoy-Cubano fusion that continous to be a hit, and then, there’s a lot more on the menu.

Does she have a secret recipe? Dalmacion says her roast pork, for example, is marinated in a secret sauce. “Even the way we arrange the fillings inside the bun is done with a whole lot of love,” she says. If anyone Googles ‘How to make a Cuban sandwich,’ it will be hard to capture the taste that Pepi Cubano offers,” Dalmacion says.

100% positive response

“People who are familiar with Cuban sandwiches and had them in the US [particularly California and Florida] say they taste exactly the way they are served in the US,” Dalmacion says. In Makati she has made a steady following from Cuban and Latin American communities.

A customer who broke his leg had the same sandwich delivered to his house while recovering. “We’ve had a number of chefs who visited us and it was always gratifying to hear them give positive comments,” Dalmacion adds.

Would she be open to franchising? Dalmacion says she hopes to expand quickly to make Pepi Cubano more accessible to more people around Metro Manila. “We do not want to rush into this. Maybe grow the business a little bit more and apply all the learnings from early stages of the business,” she says.

“Other than our food, our guests also love taking photos of Pepi Cubano vintage delivery bikes, [which we actually use] and the kombi [which we intend to use as a food truck]—all of them part of the total Pepi Cubano experience we offer,” she says. Great food, Cuban ambiance, music and decor make Pepi’s distinct personality the real deal.

If she were to make an ad for Pepi Cubano, what would her campaign look like? She wants to capture the personality of the shop, the vibrant colors of Cuba, Latin music, the total Pepi Cubano dining experience. Then she mentions, Chef, the movie that made people try Pepi Cubano. She would have Jon Favreau, the star and director of Chef, to endorse it. “That would be perfect but an unrealistic choice,” she says.