PARTLY hidden by ornamental bamboo plants and shaded well by the overlapping foliage of a huge mango tree and camachili tree, it looks like big provincial home in the countryside—- but make no mistake, this is Nanay Bebeng Restaurant at Mabini street near the corner of Florentino Torres street.
This is the street that stretches all the way from Father Selga street near Bankerohan, all the way to the corner of J.P. Laurel Avenue at Bajada, a well-known strip of road in Davao filled with restaurants on both sides of the road.
Don Ramon “Sonny” Garcia, now in his early 70’s, points to one of the posts of his restaurant. “That’s a real coconut trunk,” he says, stressing that almost every material he used to build this cool, airy, high-ceiling house are native— coconut, bamboo, sawali, abaca, nipa, capiz shells, rattan, etc— to capture the Filipino atmosphere right inside his restaurant.
“As much as possible, we like to make the atmosphere here very homely and very Filipino. Coming here is like coming home to enjoy home Filipino cooking,” says the slim and active Garcia.
Garcia, who owns and manages the well-known restaurant today, started the business way back in July 10, 1997. He inherited the 1,800 square meter land at Mabini street from his mother, Isabel Yuvienco Garcia also known popularly in Davao in her early days as “Nanay Bebeng”.
Although Nanay Bebeng left her mark as a favorite caterer of delicious Filipino food to family and company parties, she actually started from the bottom as a meat vendor at the public market. selling fresh pork and beef from dawn to dusk right after the war till the 1950’s.
Doing everything on her own, from doing the marketing— picking the right fresh vegetables, fresh meat, spices, etc— to doing all the cooking in the kitchen with limited utensils in those days, Nanay Bebeng started making her mark as a professional caterer in 1958. The gutsy, struggling caterer managed to build a name for herself in catering authentic Filipino cuisine over 14 years in Davao.
When her husband Delfin Garcia died in 1972, Nanay Bebeng started a traditional Filipino bakery called Ginger Bread that sold hot pan de sal, native pastries, cookies, etc gaining foothold in the bakery business, alongside her catering business. This was in keeping with her long family tradition of the baking business . Bebeng, a native of Naic, Cavite, comes from an old family of bakers, including her own father who migrated to Davao in 1937. Her late husband Delfin who comes from Iba, Zambales, was a former BIR employee and the son of an ex-governor of Zambales.
SONNY HAD a brief stint of around three years running the Cebu plant of the Bandag tire retreading business of Sarmiento Management Corp from 1980 to 1983. It was during those years in the Philippines that living here was becoming more dangerous amidst deadly demonstrations and rising rebellion that prompted this young executive to leave the country for the United States where he lived and worked for around five years.
Returning back to this country in 1988, he spent eight more years living with his family in Bacolod City, planning his future and weighing his options. Around 1996, seeing the flurry of restaurants rising all around Cebu, Bacolod and even Davao with resounding successes, Sonny saw the great potential of turning his mother’s catering recipes into a full-scale menu for a full-blown all-Filipino restaurant.
“My mother’s catering recipes was a gold mine. I devoted a lot of time filing, recording and archiving all of those recipes and decided to put up this restaurant, branding it with my own mother’s name,” Garcia said.
With the help of his family led by his wife Imelda Maravilla and three children Theodore, Therese and Terence, a family corporation was formed around the name of Nanay Bebeng, thus keeping her tradition of authentic Filipino cuisine alive in the restaurant business. Each of his children who will eventually take over the business, according to Garcia, would be the first “franchisees” of Nanay Bebeng, as he hinted the possibility of franchising the business sometime next year.
Although most food bloggers are all crediting Nanay Bebeng for “pioneering” the eat-all-you-can buffet-style dining in Davao, Sonny is still reluctant in claiming this credit, feeling contented and satisfied that most of the customers who come to his restaurant these days are people he doesn’t know personally.
“When you don’t know anyone from among all these customers filling up this place, then you’re doing well,” Garcia says, breaking into a big grin as customers filled up every corner of his spacious restaurant at Mabini.
—– Aurelio Pena / Davao Food Guide