Nowadays, we see lechon manok stalls almost everywhere in the Philippines. Wherever there’s heavy foot traffic, there’s sure to be a rotisserie stand. But what is now considered a staple dish in Pinoy dining tables and drinking sessions was simply thought of as a food trend back in the mid-1980s.
Among the entrepreneurs who rode the lechon manok craze back then was a couple from Quezon City—Dwight and Dolly Salcedo. With a P5,000 capital they pooled from their savings and another P5,000 they borrowed from their parents, they put up the very first Baliwag Lechon Manok kiosk—not in Baliwag, mind you, but in Project 8, Quezon City.
“They were running a Betamax rental business in Project 8 and there happened to be a vacant commercial spot in front of it,” Sarabeth Salcedo Soriano, eldest child of Dwight and Dolly, tells ANCX. Sara, now the company’s VP for Operations, was only a toddler back in those days. “Naisip nila na dun ilagay ang lechon manok business, para hitting two birds with one stone.”
Initially, the Salcedos were only selling lechon manok and grilled liempo, which would come with atchara as side dish, but over the last 15 years, the Salcedo couple focused on expanding their rotisserie business. They currently have over 400 Baliwag Lechon Manok kiosks nationwide, and employs over 1000 people.
Since Sara grew up in the business, it was a natural progression for her to join the company after college. She focused on catering to mallgoers by offering lechon manok and liempo in food courts. “We sell them in single servings and also offer affordable combo meals to target students and workers,” she says. Today, Baliwag can be found in over 40 mall food courts.
The Baliwag name also extended to stand-alone dining establishments offering a full range of Filipino dishes. The first Baliwag Grill and Restaurant is located in E. Rodriguez Avenue, Quezon City but now they also have branches in Visayas Ave., Aguirre, Parañaque, Marikina, and Pasig. They will soon be opening a branch in Maginhawa, QC.
In order to become more accessible to consumers especially during the pandemic, they recently went into ready-to-heat food packs. Dishes like pork binagoongan, beef steak, kare-kare, beef caldereta, lechon paksiw, dinuguan, lengua, callos, embotido, and laing can now be bought in their kiosks and restaurants, or via food delivery apps like Grab and Food Panda. The dishes come in microwaveable packs and are good for 2 to 3 persons.
But why Baliwag?
It’s a nod to Mrs. Salcedo’s roots, Baliwag being her hometown. The place has a huge significance to the family and what the brand stands for, says Sara. Dolly Samson and her siblings were all born and raised there. So while Sara and brother Ira grew up in Quezon City, they’d go to Baliwag often to visit their grandparents and relatives.
“Hindi sya yung hometown na bihira lang puntahan,” says Sara. “[Before the pandemic] we’d really go there every week or every two weeks. We have a lot of relatives there kasi. Some of my uncles and aunts are still based there.”
The Samsons are a tight-knit family, the type who would always find a reason to meet and have a get-together—whether its a birthday, a graduation, fiesta, or any non-working holiday.
“We see each other a lot. We’re very clingy. Always naghahanapan—‘where are you?’” Sara shares. And whenever there’s a gathering, there’s always a salu-salo. “Food is a big part of our lives,” she says. Another thing that’s constant is their choice of food. “Hindi sila mahilig mag-experiment sa cuisine. It’s always Filipino,” she offers.
For Sara, food is the family’s love language. “Kasi when we miss someone or we think of someone, we send food. That’s how we show our love and concern—pag merong may sakit, nanganak, malungkot, nag-birthday, or we want to say thank you, we show it thru food.”
And since they’re a family of foodies, everyone’s opinionated when it comes to what’s on the table. “Ang hirap minsan pag magpapa-party ka sa bahay mo. Nakaka-pressure baka mapintasan ang pagkain mo,” Sara says, recalling the pressure she felt when she was still a newlywed and didn’t have a lot of cooking experience yet.
Food-tasting in Baliwag Lechon Manok is usually a family affair. “Iba-iba ng opinion. Ang daming observations and criticisms kaya long process pag may bago kaming product. Madaming palate na kailangan i-please,” she says. “Hindi pwedeng consensus lang. Kailangan everybody happy. Kung ano ang nakalakihan naming lasa, na sine-serve namin sa special occasions, that’s also the taste that we want to offer our consumers.”
This is why they strive to maintain a standard when it comes to the taste and quality of their food, says Sara. “Hindi pwede yung ‘di naman mahal, kaya okay lang na hindi masarap. Kailangan affordable at masarap,” she says.
But it’s not only their love for food that’s reflected in the Baliwag brand, but also their relationship with family members and friends. “Sa probinsya, kilala mo lahat ang kapitbahay mo. Pag naglakad ka, kilala mo lahat ng tao. Nakabukas lang ang gate, everyone’s welcome to come in,” she says. This practice extends to their company, claims Sara, where grillmen and cashiers can talk to their higher ups at any time.
Christmas in Baliwag
As in most Filipino households, Christmas is a much-awaited family affair for the family behind Baliwag Lechon Manok.
It’s a given there’s a buffet with all their favorite Filipino food, says Sara. And as is still commonly practiced in many Filipino gatherings up to now, there’s always “take-home.” “Expected na namin yun na may iuuwi kaming pagkain. Bilang na yun sa laki ng buffet,” she says, smiling.
It’s always fun and noisy, she says, these gatherings. “Our voices are really loud kahit pag nangangamusta lang—very enthusiastic and excited,” she says laughing. “We enjoy eating and talking.”
Which is what they’ve been missing since the pandemic hit. There have been pocket gatherings whenever the alert level goes down, yes, but no big family reunions so far. “I am hoping magkikita-kita na kami this Christmas, pero mukhang hindi pa rin. Maraming seniors e. Sana magkita na soon,” she says.
In the meantime, they send out pictures on the family messenger group to stay in touch and catch up. Being the food lovers that they are, they most likely send each other food, too. It is, after all, their love language.