First published in Tulay Fortnightly, Chinese-Filipino Digest 28, no. 5 (August 4-17, 2015): 16, 15.
On a rainy day with pockets of floods dotting the city, I arrived early at Icings Cakes Breads and Café for an appointment with the Tong family in their flagship restaurant on Sct. Dr. Lazcano Street corner Tomas Morato Avenue in Quezon City. I ordered a cup of Americano coffee and an ube ensaymada, both delectable. Soon the Tong family arrived, and we chatted for three and a half hours about their success story.
This was my third visit to the café this year. The first time I was there, my friends and I had a customized dinner buffet. The second time, my friends and I shared a couple of thin-crust pizzas. I had melt-in-your-mouth ribs, with a side of pandan juice. The third time was for lunch, during which I had ostrich burger with a side of melon shake, ending with a cup of wonderfully strong but very smooth brewed coffee with no bitter aftertaste and a side of biscotti for dipping.
I must say that all my experiences at Icings were great.
Since her childhood days, Ceyli Tong has always been busy in the kitchen. Aside from packing her own school lunch, Ceyli sees cooking and baking as a passion, not a chore. As a kid, she baked and shared her home-made food with friends and relatives.
Icings, in fact, started during Ceyli’s childhood.
In 1993, Icings was born when Ceyli and her friends, two couples and one person who also enjoyed cooking and baking, established a corporation to start a restaurant business. They named it Icings because in the beginning, the focus was on cakes.
Their first location was along Tomas Morato Ave. where they stayed until 2005. Icings later moved to its present location at Scout Lazcano St., and is now a family corporation.
Just like her mom, Candice loves cooking and baking. Ceyli bakes pastries based on hand-me-down traditional family-held secret recipes. Candice completed a degree at St. Benilde’s College in Hotel and Restaurant Institutional Management.
Specializing in French cuisine, Candice did her practicum at Dusit Thani Hotel and after graduation, trained at Le Souffle with chef Jessie Sinciongco.
The chemistry between mother and daughter brought forth fusion cuisine.
For instance, when Ceyli prepares barbeque, Candice would say, “Why not add lemongrass?” and voila! a new dish is born.
In their test kitchen, there is division of labor, as Ceyli and Candice train different cooks and bakers. Ceyli specializes in bread and cakes, while Candice develops the savory dishes.
Before anything goes to the customer’s table, everything is first tested in their test kitchen.
For example, if a cake is too dry or too sweet, they reformulate the recipe, until they have the perfect consistency and taste.
To ensure the best quality, no shortcuts are taken. Everything starts from scratch, from chopping onions to mincing garlic. They do not scrimp on the quality of their ingredients either. Despite this, Icings’ prices remain reasonable.
While the trend nowadays is for restaurants to specialize in one type of cuisine, Icings caters to the whims of every customer. It has something for everyone, from savory dishes to sweets.
From American dishes like melt-in-your-mouth ribs, espresso-marinated steak, carrot cakes, butter cookies, and peanut butter (made with olive oil and muscovado sugar), to European food like pizza, biscotti, home-made Spanish-style sardines and lengua de gato, to Flipino favorites mango-ube cake, home-made coco jam, egg pan de sal, buko-pandan juice, and watermelon shake.
The healthy eater can have whole wheat breads, health sticks, home-made garlic chips, and baked goods with no sugar added for diabetics.
If you want to try something exotic, they have ostrich dishes: pasta with ostrich meatballs and pasta, ostrich tapa with rice, and ostrich burger. Ostrich tastes like beef, but has less fat and cholesterol.
There are new items on the menu every quarter as well as seasonal items for Christmas, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
Ceyli told me with pride that Icings has the widest selection of all types of cakes in the whole country.
They have butter, carrot, cheese, chiffon, custard, foam, fruit, meringue, sponge, spice, yeast, and other types of cakes.
Icings has five locations. Two cafés are in Dr. Lazcano St. and Market! Market!, while the three petits cafés are in Las Piñas, Greenhills, and Robinson’s Magnolia.
The cafés serve hot savory dishes over and above coffee, cold drinks, cakes, bread, and pastry, while the petits cafés do not serve hot savory dishes.
Regular customers say the place “feels like home” and the food tastes like home-cooked food.
Ceyli said, “We serve food that we ourselves will eat.”
When asked why they don’t serve croissant, she explained that they stopped baking croissant, as husband Michael eats them, and croissants are not healthy, as they contain so much butter.
Secrets of success
Icings lasted for over 20 years due to several factors. First, their success is a product of a whole team’s hard work. Success cannot be attributed to one person only. Second, the Tongs keep their eyes on food, bakers, cooks, and wait staff, but not exclusively.
One employee, Efren Lumabao has served customers ever since Icings opened its doors in 1993. He is now alternating between the Lazcano and Market Market branches. Efren is very simpático, and understands what regular customers want.
They know their employees and suppliers well and do their best to treat their customers well. To ensure that they get the freshest and the best quality ingredients, the Tongs not only know the suppliers but also visit their farms to inspect the ostrich, fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs, and other produce first-hand.
Third, the Tongs attribute their success to luck and to God listening to their prayers, that’s because in general they have very good people working for them as well as good suppliers and great customers.
Ceyli’s husband Michael is very humble and takes a back seat. He told me to focus on Ceyli and Candice, both of whom told me that he is the in-house coffee aficionado. Icings’ arabica and robusta coffee originate from Benguet, Sagada, and Kalinga.
Icings food and drinks are healthy, as they do not contain preservatives, artificial ingredients, MSG, bouillon cubes, or liquid seasoning. It is, in a sense, just like eating at home.