"The vision for Fila Manila is to represent the next generation of Filipino-American flavors. Everyone’s so excited about representation [especially in the AAPI community], I thought it was about time someone built the first Filipino-American food brand," Fila Manila founder and CEO Jake Deleon told FoodNavigator-USA.
No stranger to the CPG world, Deleon spent time in category management and brand building positions for both Procter & Gamble and Starbucks, before striking out on his own to start an almond milk brand called Origin Almond which was sold at several major retailers including Whole Foods and Walmart.
However, as a refrigerated beverage product that relied heavily on in-store foot traffic (e.g. the Whole Foods customer picking up a beverage along with lunch from the hot bar), the brand suffered during the early days of the pandemic and was eventually phased out in 2020 with Deleon able to sell the remainder of his inventory.
Fila Manila origin story
During the months-long lockdown period in 2020, Deleon decided to embark on a new entrepreneurial project tied closely to his Filipino identity. As a first generation Filipino American immigrant who was born in the Philippines and raised in New Jersey, Deleon was struck by how little representation there was for his home country's cuisine in mainstream US food culture, despite being the second largest Asian American community in the United States (behind Chinese-Americans), according to US Census Data.
"My mind immediately went to the grocery shelf. If we’re such a large part of the American population, how come there’s almost 0% representation of Filipino food on mainstream grocery shelves? It was a huge disconnect," said Deleon.
"Most of the existing players out there in the market tend to be your imported brands that are really nostalgic but don’t really pass the quality standards of most US retailers."
Using his stimulus check, Deleon launched Fila Manila with the first products being a line of simmer sauces and marinades featuring the traditional Filipino flavors of Adobo, Caldereta (a Filipino tomato sauce), and Kare-Kare peanut-based sauce and marinade.
The products were a huge hit both online and in retail (Whole Foods picked up the all three products almost immediately), which Deleon owed to consumers' growing interest in global flavors during COVID lockdowns when home cooking was the norm.
"The idea is we would take three of the most iconic dishes of Filipino cuisine, and then we’ll bottle up the sauce," said Deleon who added that his version of the sauces were naturally gluten-free, vegan, and free of added sugar.
From that launch, Fila Manila found wide open category white space of modern reinvented Filipino food.
"We’ve already become the No. 1 Filipino food brand in the US within our category [Enhanced Natural Channel] and our channel, according to SPINS data... We achieved over 79% market share within six months of launch," he said.
Pent-up demand for Filipino food
To continue its momentum, Deleon tapped back into his core childhood memories to come up with the brand's newest launch: ube and coconut jams, which were part of nearly every breakfast he had growing up.
"We want to introduce all these iconic Filipino flavors, and we don’t want to limit ourselves to savory," he said.
While a new type of product for most consumers in the US, Deleon is confident that the taste profile of its coconut jam for instance (basically reduced coconut milk that can be used like peanut butter on top of toast or in desserts) can appeal to a broad range of consumers who are growing more interested in global cuisine and flavors.
The brand tested the waters early for its other new SKU, Ube Purple Yam Jam, with a test launch in March 2022 and sold out its initial inventory within 30 minutes.
According to Deleon, based on SPINS data Filipino food is the fastest growing subcategory of Asian food, outpacing 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 amazing pent-up demand and interest for Filipino food," he said.
Both products retail $11.99 each and are available online and at select retailers beginning this summer.
1,200 stores by end of 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 is remains laser-focused on the brand's retail partnerships.
"I think the industry is changing a little bit and customer acquisition costs are much higher than they were two years ago. We wanted to be where the consumer is and for our category it’s retail, specifically in the enhanced natural channel and select conventional and mass as well," he said. "By the end of this year we’re aiming 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 condiments launch slated for later this year.
"There’s a whole universe of Filipino flavors that are huge in some pockets of the US but have yet to be shared with mainstream US," he added.