The Woman Behind Masa and Barefoot Bakery, Lea Apolonio

Updated: Jun 29, 2019

We were able to have a talk with the brains behind one of San Juan's favorite weekend breakfast places, Barefoot Bakery, and Masa Cafe, a relatively new cafe a little way out of town that's serving up delicious pizza and stunning bread.

Hello, Lea! Please tell us about yourself. Can you describe what a typical day in your life is like?

Wow! It has been a long time since someone asked me to tell something about myself. Really not sure how to answer this one. Well, I am a confused mama to a little boy, a breakfast munchies maker and a still-learning, trouble-making accidental baker. My day starts when Noa wakes up. Our routine would be... Noa gets up to make coffee with his papa, Adi, then we get ready to go to Barefoot for some breakfast and quality check, then off to Masa to oversee the bakers.

What were you doing prior to moving to San Juan, La Union?

I was working as a cook in Makati. I also managed the family business when my mother succumbed to cancer.

Why did you decide to move to La Union among all other provinces in the Philippines?

I have always wanted to live by the sea. There was always something about it that made me happy. I wanted to move to Boracay during my crazy party days. But then I got into surfing. And like most people who got into surf, there was no turning back. All the stoke and inspiring people I met made me want to establish my roots here. Also, Manila traffic. Who wants that?

What inspired you to put up MASA? What was your “why”?

Well, in the beginning I just wanted to challenge myself. Everyone wanted to become a “chef” but nobody wanted to be a baker. I just wanted to be different. I never really had an impressive reason why I started Masa. I only found out my “why” when we started making “okay” bread. Like surfing, there was no turning back for me. I just have to have real bread. Also, hiring mothers who never worked before added to my why. Seeing them make REALLY good bread made me want to give them a better place to bake. Hearing them say “akala ko hanggang bahay nalang kami” and seeing them being able to provide for their family inspired me to push this bakery even more.

What were the challenges you faced as a woman entrepreneur in putting up a start-up business?

In a macho society like ours, it has always been hard for women to work in a male-dominated industry, much more, open a business. When someone asks whose concept it is or who the chef is, they are genuinely surprised that it is me. I always get that “Weh di nga? You made that?” look. Also, being a new mom to a lively little kid made it extra challenging. People always think it is impossible to run a kitchen and take care of the little one at the same time.

What keeps you going in spite of these challenges?

I have to admit that I have stopped trying to prove myself to people. I just do me. What I like, what I love. People anyway would either hate or dig your product. I do what I think is best and let my work speak for me.

Now that you are a mother and wife, how do you balance family an d work? Most importantly, what do you do to maintain a healthy relationship with yourself?

Adi and I are both perfectionists and we both love what we do. It has been really hard adjusting because we had to learn how to let go of stuff and be easy on ourselves. We learned that not everything has to happen NOW. So yeah, we take time off's, we surf when there are waves, eat good, and when we can, the three of us watch the sunset together. And yeah for myself, I shop! Or create a new recipe. It makes me go back to me.

Can you tell us more about the MASA Cafe? What is the one thing you think sets you apart? We know that the location is away from the main surf area and where most establishments are. How were you able to draw a following?

Masa Café doubles as our bakery and a breathing space where we can create all the good stuff without the distraction of the busyness of the main beach. One thing that sets us apart is we don’t tell lies. We make real bread with real ingredients. Our flour is natural, unbleached with no improvers and slowly fermented to give you a moist and flavour-rich loaf. There is no hype; we are just making bread how it should be made.

I think being far from the crazy main beach made it attractive for those people who want to take a breather. People who want more time to savour something as nice as bread and coffee without rushing to finish. People go here to take it slow.

What are your bestsellers? For first timers, what do you recommend from your menu?

Our bestsellers would be the European donuts called Berliners and the Pan Marangya that has loads of seeds in it. For people who want to get an easy loaf, best paired with either a sweet or savoury spread, they should try our Pan Base also known as the basic sourdough. For gluten-sensitive people, they should try the Seth Roggenbrot, our pure Rye loaf.

What advice can you give to both men and women alike on their journey to entrepreneurship?

Keep it simple. It is either you give something a shot or not. If you decide to do it, give it all you’ve got. If it is a no, do not waste time thinking "what if?" Always have your eyes on the goal, so you wouldn't get sidetracked when adversities come. Kapag nahassle, suck it up. No one else is responsible for you but yourself.

Say you had only 15-seconds to talk to a friend about MASA. What’s your spiel summarized in 2-3 sentences?

“We have donuts, pizza and coffee.” They always go crazy when I say that.

Visit Masa Cafe at 2514 San Roberto St., San Juan, La Union. They're open Thursdays to Sundays, 9am to 5:30pm.

Barefoot Bakery is located in Mona Liza Surf Resort and is open from Thursday to Mondays, 8am to 2pm.

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