Pam Lim Cinco's Origin Story Is As Sweet As Her Sweets Business, Risa Chocolates!
Before the Philippine chocolate scene exploded onto every serious foodie and casual diner's periphery, there was a plucky, then-pregnant marketing professional-turned-full time entrepreneur by the name of Pam Lim Cinco who had a dream.
Hers is a name that you should know by heart if you've ever bitten into a delicious chocolate bar made exclusively from locally sourced cacao beans, or sipped on a heartwarming mug of hot choco on a rainy August afternoon. Pam's story is, after all, a precursor to the burgeoning of the local cacao and chocolate industry; if it weren't for her and her peers' tenacity that inspired the movement, many a taste bud would still be a stranger to the world-class flavors of Filipino chocolate.
Risa Chocolates' Pam Lim Cinco
"[One day], I woke my husband up and told him, 'Get up. We're going to the Department of Science and Technology (DOST).' And when he asked me what I was going to do, I said I was going to talk to the Secretary. So I went there and of course, the guard stopped me because I didn't have an appointment. I told him my story and I said even if I needed to give birth here, right now, I will not leave without an answer," Pam begins with a laugh underscored by the residual intensity of the moment.
"So I got to talk to the secretary of the DOST Secretary! When she asked me what I needed, they told us to go to Set Up, an arm of the DOST that helps entrepreneurs acquire the technology they need," she continues. Set Up is also known as Small Enterprise Technology Upgrading Program.
If Pam's opening anecdote raises more questions than it provides answers, that's because this was a multi-faceted mission that was years in the making and culminated in this, a movie-worthy standoff between an aspiring chocolatier and the group of people she crucially needed on her side, but couldn't (or wouldn't) listen.
Backtracking her steps, here's what happened before the now-legendary moment:
For 14 years, Pam was a marketing professional in the corporate setting. It was as stressful as one might imagine, and baking was her stress buster—baking with chocolate in everything that came out of her kitchen, in particular.
The light bulb went off above her head and she realized that the hobby was something she wished to explore further, perhaps formalize it as a business and retire from corporate life entirely.
"So I started studying chocolate, and at the time, there were only 5,000 pages on the Internet so there wasn't much to research on. Even the chefs that I would talk to, they would all talk about imported chocolate, but to actually make [chocolate] from cacao beans, no one knew. But the life-changing book for me was Simply Sensational Desserts by François Payard where he kept talking about using the best chocolate that you could find to bake. I asked, 'What did he mean by that?' because in the Philippines, we used to all have the same chocolate," she narrates.
A little more investigating and the curiosity pushed her to make game-changing realizations about the Philippine chocolate industry as a whole: despite the Philippines being a strong cacao-producing country, there was barely a market for it, no one interested in investing heavily in it, and certainly no one out there advocating the locally sourced cacao to be used for one hundred percent Philippine-made chocolate.
It was an underdog in the agricultural world, so to speak.
In the process, Pam—perhaps without her realizing it—was transformed; this casual baker had a fire lit in her, one that would lead her to go waist-deep in finding a solution to this untapped opportunity of her country.
She knew what she needed to do: whip up delicious treats made from the chocolate she loved to a fault as proof of latent potential. But first, she would need something extremely important, a piece of equipment that was the only thing that could transform cacao into usable, cookable chocolate.
"I researched and researched, talked to as much people as I could from farmers to chefs, and I even went to libraries. I found a book that showed a blue print of a chocolate machine. Nilalako ko 'yun! I would bring [a copy of it] to every engineer I knew to ask if they could make it for me, but I was told that it was too complicated and that I needed an actual machine to copy from," she explains.
Backed with a genuine desire to demonstrate that her idea could be beneficial for the Filipino farmer and the country's culinary scene as a whole, she directed her efforts towards a different group.
When engineers couldn't help Pam, she (quite literally) knocked on the doors of the DOST and Department of Trade and Industry. Humoring her for the most part and never quite following through with her inquiries, neither department was helpful at first—and that leads us to where we began.
"I had [already] attended several of DOST's shows [at that point]. I told them that I kept giving my email address and calling but that they haven't gotten back to me about the machines I want. I was pregnant and so annoyed," she continues.
And after proving just how serious she was about her venture on that fateful day when Pam stood her ground at the DOST office, her life changed, permanently and for the better.
"I [also] started calling the Department of Agriculture about it and one thing led to another. I was able to find a way to get our own machine, which you really need. You can't just get a cacao bean and then pound it... Everything was by the books, and I would experiment," she says, this time with a tone of triumph.
Likewise, Pam also received support from Set Up, a "nationwide strategy encouraging and assisting micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) to adopt technological innovations to improve their product," according to their website.
In a few months, Pam would be the proud owner of a bulky cacao-to-chocolate machine, one that became the crowning glory of her home kitchen, which set everything in motion.
We wanted to take a solo shot of our Usec @bernsrp , but she insisted on taking this shot with our creation so it can be promoted. This is our Agriculture Undersecretary who chooses to take the sidelines so that Philippine produce and farmers can take the spotlight. Just how amazing is she? Thank you, @bernsrp and the DA Team for your tireless support and hard work for our country! #MadridFusionManila2017 #ParaSaBayan #departmentofagriculture #itsmorefuninthephilippines
It was in her own home that she began experimenting with her signature chocolate flavors—chili, pastillas, and butter included—that her thousands of social media followers know her brand for, and where she whipped up her brand image and business name, too.
"The advocacy right now is to bring Philippine chocolate out and to bring joy. That's why we're named Risa; it means laughter. When you encounter our products, we want you to be happy about them," Pam expounds.
With a bite-sized arsenal of products on hand, Risa took the next step: introducing her products to the public and keeping her fingers crossed that an uninitiated Filipino audience would receive her products with open arms. Closing her eyes and bracing for impact, Pam joined the bazaar circuit, allowing adventurous shoppers to try her then limited supply of yummy bites.
Risa was a hit. By taste alone, people were in love with Pam's unique flavors and when she revealed that they were Philippine-made and produced with the help of local cacao bean growers, eyes widened in interest and it became clear that Pam had done right.
Selling out at events and in stores that offered her products became a regular occurrence much faster than her home kitchen in Las Piñas could keep up with demand. She eventually moved the business to a commissary, solidifying the fact that Risa Chocolates was on its way to becoming a force to reckon with.
Fast forward to 2019—a year when Risa Chocolates had already expanded to conquer bazaars, became a regular at novelty shops that patronize uniquely Pinoy products, and amassed a loyal on-ground and online following—and curiously, Pam still doesn't consider all of her accomplishments as hugely noteworthy.
"You never think of this an as accomplishment because every day, you still want to do so much more. But so far, it's that we got the chance to survive after all the years and to keep pushing for the advocacy of Philippine chocolate. If there's any accomplishment in this—but I wouldn't call it an accomplishment because there's still so much to do—it would be that I'm part of [the group who] promotes Philippine chocolate, because we're now a lot! [Risa Chocolates] was one of the first."
She goes on to point out how Risa Chocolates rose to popularity alongside other local chocolate brands, many of whom are her industry partners and real-life friends. They keep close relationships, she explains, and are collaborative, rather than competitive.
At the end of the day, they're in it together and work towards the same cause with Risa leading the way.
Risa Chocolates at Rockwell's The Grid
At present, Pam's current preoccupation with her business is managing its first-ever permanent brick and mortar shop located at The Grid at Power Plant Mall.
Charles Paw, the mastermind behind the five-star food hall, was always a Risa Chocolates fan since its bazaar days and tapped Pam and her team to fill a spot in his coveted roster of tenants at the year-old dining destination.
Hesitant at first, Pam gave in to Charles' requests for them to join him (not dissimilar from her government allies who eventually said "yes" to her requests for help) and as Charles projected, it's been uphill ever since.
More and more people, local and foreign diners alike, are getting to know Risa Chocolates not only for its tasty products, but the story that goes behind them all, while Pam's bazaar clients who pass by and recognize her brand are happy to see her move up in the game.
But as her business becomes a brighter and brighter star in the industry, Pam also acknowledges that her responsibility to the people who make Risa Chocolates a reality—the farmers—also gets bigger and bigger.
"The corporate social responsibility was there from day one. As much as possible, we source locally even from small-holder farmers. I get to know them and I ask them to send me samples to see what we can do. For those that are really badly treated, we get involved. We don't necessarily get beans from them, but what we do is we work with them... Sometimes, their harvest isn't enough to make chocolate, so instead we tell them [how] to grow beans properly so they can sell the seedlings. Then we connect them with other friends who are also into farming to propagate, then the industry thrives," Pam explains.
"And if there are farmers who are more open to doing post-harvest [work], like fermenting and even the roasting, we help, or refer them to other people if we can't do it on our own so they don't become discouraged from planting [cacao]. Because, they can actually double their income with just a few added days of work with post-harvest work. Can you imagine?" she adds.
All in all, Pam is more than happy with how far Risa Chocolates has gone. She's happy that she chose this business over her previous day job and that her advocacy has gained local and international traction, happier that her customers are happy, and happiest that she knows much more can still be done and that this time, she'll have more supporters and believers to help her along the way.
Just as her desserts are always sweet endings to a meal, they lend the same to her story, too.
For those dropping by the Risa Chocolates stand at The Grid soon, check out her must-try items in this article!
Produced by Nana Ozaeta
Liaison editor: Grace Libero-Cruz
Photography by Jar Concengco
Special thanks to Jannine Sy