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DNX Business: Oven spring in the east: A look inside Jonathan Lo’s bread and pastries super factory

(Part 1 of 2)

Jonathan Lo did not create neither the earth nor air nor water nor fire.

But he did something magical with it along with flour, yeast and sugar.

East of Bacolod City, in a village called Vista Alegre, literally “beautiful view” in Spanish, hundreds of Negrense delicacies like piaya, butterscotch and biscocho roll off the lines since 2017 – baked goodies created by both hands and machines in a sprawling complex facing the Mandalagan Mountain Range – a view expats would pay for but a daily sight for hundreds of workers.

The super factory of Jonathan Lo's Merzci Bakeshop. | Photo by Rodney Jarder Jr.
The super factory of Jonathan Lo’s Merzci Bakeshop. | Photo by Rodney Jarder Jr.

It is inside the sprawling Merzci production facility, the heart of a modern design building that Anecito Milano works in most days, flipping piayas on the griddle.

Like Manny Pacquiao, his hands are taped everyday before he handles the spatula and the piayas.

His plastic gloves are taped at the wrist “so they won’t come off,” Anecito says in Hiligaynon.

 A baker loads molds filled with dough of toasted mamon (Filipino sponge cake) on stainless steel trolleys that will bring these straight to the ovens inside a modern production facility in Vista Alegre village in Bacolod City, Philippines. This facility produces pasalubong products by Merzci, one of the biggest brands based in Bacolod.
A baker loads molds filled with dough of toasted mamon (Filipino sponge cake) on stainless steel trolleys that will bring these straight to the ovens inside a modern production facility in Vista Alegre village in Bacolod City, Philippines. This facility produces pasalubong products by Merzci, one of the biggest brands based in Bacolod.

His official title is “griller” but he could very well be called master flipper as he tosses half-baked piayas on their uncooked sides and takes them off the grill minutes later.

Nearby, in a delicate medley of man and machine, Vivencio Egonia and Rexis Baldevieso, both bakers, pick the raw piaya discs – a blend of the sesame seed-coated dough and muscovado filling from the “encruster,” a machine that Arnold Schwarzenegger might have brought from future to this century.

(WATCH also the video: KAON ‘TA | Pilot episode)

“It is simply a roller that also wraps the dough around the filling,” Alice Beba of the firm’s research and development arm tells DNX as she explains the nature of the machine that combines a roller, a funnel, and a seeming guide rod.

Merzci factory assistant prepares the dough for processing. | Photo by Rodney Jarder Jr.
Merzci factory assistant prepares the dough for processing. | Photo by Rodney Jarder Jr.

Near Vivencio and Egonia is a device on top of the exit roller that can best be described as a stamper, a metal disc attached to an arm that stamps down on the dough ball to turn it into a disc.

The two collect these and stack it on a plastic tray.

It is a delicate timed process clocked at 95ppm.

That’s piaya per minute.

Alice says this is a result of their time and motion study on their production line to ensure productivity.

Too slow and the grillers would have more downtime.

Napoleones by Merzci. | Photo by Rodney Jarder Jr.
Napoleones by Merzci. | Photo by Rodney Jarder Jr.

Too fast and the piaya dough would fall off the roller like lemmings.

Jonathan Lo started as a baker, training as one in the United States and opening his first bakery at the Libertad or South Public Market, one of the main public sources of fresh produce in Bacolod City.

(WATCH also the video: How is Napoleones made?)

Inside the Vista Alegre facility, however, the pastries still evoke the nostalgia of Negros Occidental’s roots as the sugar-producing capital but also point to the future of these becoming mass-produced delicacies for a world market that can well be a symbol of diversification for this province long tied to the sugar industry and the vagaries of its production process.

The factory screams world-class before one steps onto the production floor, a high-ceilinged facility roughly the size of two basketball courts.

The famous Merzci Piaya. | Photo by Rodney Jarder Jr.
The famous Merzci Piaya. | Photo by Rodney Jarder Jr.

Guests, the DNX team included, have to disinfect before wearing hair nets and put on plastic shoe covers.

The curved bench is made of stainless steel, just like the ones people sits on past the X-ray machines in international airports.

The wider than usual entrance to the production floor has strip curtains, bright yellow ones that we learned quite interestingly from marketing chief Femmy Magbanua, are designed to keep the flies out and the air conditioning in.

“It’s quite heavy for the flies to knock out of the way and dense enough to keep the cold in,” she says.

Merzci Siopao Asado. | Photo by Rodney Jarder Jr.
Merzci Siopao Asado. | Photo by Rodney Jarder Jr.

Femmy has seen the evolution of Merzci from its early days as a bakery to what it is now: a super baker of sweets and baked goods unique to Negros Occidental that have easily become icons for the province.

Jonathan Lo perhaps knows the ways of the artisan baker, an alchemist of sorts using flour and water who can bake unleavened bread and sourdough, a premium type of bread now sold in high-end stores.

Merczi’s factory is no longer for the brick-oven-one-loaf-a-day operation. It is built for the mass market, churning out thousands of pasalubongs – the Filipino word for generally anything that refers to the traveler’s gifts for those left at home.

Femmy says all the pasalubongs products are processed here, from mixing to baking to packing, a process repeated for the most part of the 365 days in a year.

FRESH FROM THE PAN | A factory assistant carefully puts napoleones into a packaging box which will be displayed in Merzci pasalubong centers. | Photo by Rodney Jarder Jr.
FRESH FROM THE PAN | A factory assistant carefully puts napoleones into a packaging box which will be displayed in Merzci pasalubong centers. | Photo by Rodney Jarder Jr.

At the back, one of its famous delicacies, banana chips, is also processed in a separate factory.

Baking, unlike cooking, requires more science than art. Measurements have to be exact, temperatures precise and time is something one has to respect.

On the Merzci production floor, all the machines are made mostly of stainless steel, from the four-bag mixers, encrusters and griddles, even the trolleys where trays of dough or baked products sit for proofing or cooling.

“We don’t need to proof these,” Julius Valecuatro says as he helps his team load toasted mamon dough placed in molds to be sent directly to the ovens.

DNX reporter Nikki Magbanua takes photo at Merzci Homesite factory show room with her pasalubong from Bacolod packs.
DNX reporter Nikki Magbanua takes photo at Merzci Homesite factory show room with her pasalubong from Bacolod packs.

Julius, who leads the toasted mamon team, says sweet products don’t need proofing, the time for dough to rise, because the sugars are what would make the dough achieve the oven spring brought the fire as in the case of mamon or the Filipino sponge cake.

(To be continued)

Julius D. Mariveles
Julius D. Mariveles
An amateur cook who has a mean version of humba, the author has recently tried to make mole negra, the Mexican sauce he learned by watching shows of master chef Rick Bayless. A journalist since 19, he has worked in the newsrooms of radio, local papers, and Manila-based news organizations. A stroke survivor, he now serves as executive editor of DNX.
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