Lee Rosaia, affectionately called “Mommy Lee” by the staff of Real Coffee, came to the island 37 years ago. With a couple of friends, she got on a small sailboat from Cebu to Boracay and then fell in love with the island, as most visitors do.
It was clear to Lee Rosaia when she first set foot in Boracay that this was the life she wanted for herself. She recollects:
“I came to this island when there was just nothing here. It was a paradise. It was somewhere to hang out and have peace and see beautiful people. And you know, just [have] beautiful days. It was a real paradise. And then, I wanted to stay here. This was my kinda life. Well, I have to make money somehow.”
Thus, began Lee’s even bigger adventure. At first, she was based in Cebu and crocheted hammocks to sell to tourists. Most of her customers were from Boracay, so she regularly had to make trips back and forth. She’d make twelve hammocks, journey on a dirt road with a jeepney, sell twelve, and come back to Cebu to make even more. "It was a really hard,
“I came to this island when there was just nothing here. It was a paradise. It was somewhere to hang out and have peace and see beautiful people. And you know, just [have] beautiful days. It was a real paradise. And then, I wanted to stay here. This was my kinda life."
Often interacting with her customers, it then hit her: people were always looking for coffee—real coffee, and not the instant kind that was the only thing available on the island in the '90s. So, she ran it by her daughter, the big idea to start a coffee shop and thankfully, for all our tastebuds' sakes, she said yes.
Well, it wasn’t a clear-cut yes. Nadine Rosaia, Lee’s daughter, the other half of Real Coffee, first gave her mom a deadline. “Mom, I’ll give you a year. I’ll stay with you and help you for a year.” A year passed and she extended her deal to three years. After that, she didn’t say anything, as her mom's coffee shop idea took them for a surprise, and completely changed their lives for the better. Ten years ago, people began to describe Real Coffee as not just a coffee shop, but an institution.
They didn’t expect Real Coffee to be this big. When they opened up shop on December 27, 1996, they’d done it out of wanting a lifestyle change. It was a place for people like them, travelers. At first, they only sold coffee and brownies for P60. Then the next year, their famous Calamansi muffins were born.
Nadine and Lee, who at that time divided their time between The Philippines and California, had fallen in love with a lemon cake. They asked themselves what they could do to replicate it in the Philippines. Back then, lemons weren’t as widely available locally. It would have cost them a fortune to make lemon cake. Thinking of an alternative, Nadine exclaimed, “You know, they have those little green things: Calamansi!”
It was then up to Nadine to produce a recipe. Thankfully, she’d always been good at baking. So good that in fact, it was Nadine who taught her mother, Lee, how to bake. Even if Lee didn't have a knack for baking because she was always out there “playing or doing my own thing,” Lee had been the type to stay home and watch her grandmother bake. Thanks to this talent, when she came up with the recipe, it was even better than that lemon cake. It’s the same recipe that reigns today, in all its golden simplicity.
“It’s just a pleasure. It’s a pleasant muffin. And it makes people happy.”
“It’s just very plain. But when you put it in your mouth, it just pops, the flavor just comes out and it’s not too sweet, it's not too sour. It’s just a pleasure. It’s a pleasant muffin. And it makes people happy,” Lee describes their famous muffins. She’s absolutely on point. The buttery, sweet muffin has enough zest to give you that
There’s just so much about the ubiquitous, perfectly balanced Calamansi muffin when you’re seated on the bar of their second floor, overlooking the beautiful shores of Boracay. All of it, the smooth fragrant coffee smell wafting around you (they serve coffee made with California, Colombia and Barako beans), the wind in your hair, the sun on your skin, the sound of the shores singing in your ears—it adds to the deliciousness of the humble muffin.
Just like the two genuine, wonderful women behind it, the Calamansi muffin is all the goodness sans pretentiousness.
In today’s day and age, you’d expect something delicious and insanely popular to be IG-worthy, jaw-dropping pretty, but the Calamansi muffin doesn’t need to put on airs. Just like the two genuine, wonderful women behind it, the Calamansi muffin is all the goodness sans pretentiousness.
When you’re back in Manila, with the box of Calamansi muffins in your busy city life, one bite of this sunshiny muffin will transport you back to that moment you first had it. For a moment there, you’re back on the beautiful beach of Boracay, the sun spreading shining crystals on the surface of calm, azure waves. And I guess part of its charm is that it’s also exclusively Boracay even with the influx of copycat recipes online—including ours. There’s just something different about the real thing.
At the peak of Boracay’s fame, the demand for these muffins was overwhelming. You had to order in a day or two ahead to make sure you’d be able to take home a box of six. At the shop, they have seven La Germania ovens that were always on use. When those ovens weren’t enough to meet demand, they had another backup kitchen a few minutes away with another seven ovens.
It’s incredible to realize that according to Nadine, they never even put any effort into marketing the muffin. It was purely through word of mouth that its popularity grew. Real Coffee just became more popular because their muffins, just like the rest of their menu was and is always consistent.
Customers are known to come back for their tuna melt and comment that it’s exactly the same. It was intentional on Real Coffee’s part, too. They’ve used the same bread for 22 years, supplied by a local English bakery.
Real Coffee actually stayed open throughout the Boracay closure.
They’re consistent not just with their food, too. Real Coffee actually stayed open throughout the Boracay closure. They didn’t want to lose their well-trained staff with families to feed. They’d also most probably get hired to work somewhere in Kalibo, which meant they’d never be able to get them back. The best way to keep them was to keep the shop open. This meant that they had to cut down hours but the staff understood.
Real Coffee’s staff is way above average when it comes to loyalty. Most shop owners would recommend you having eagle eyes, making it a point to go there daily. Lee goes two-months at a time to California where her son and grandchildren live, and Australia where Nadine now lives with her husband. Sure, Nadine would take turns with her managing the shop, but there would be times where they’d be fully reliant on the honesty of their staff. One of Lee’s friend who owns a restaurant in a mall was flabbergasted when she found out. She couldn’t believe it.
There’s a reason why she has an employee of 22 years, and why some employees would, “have babies and stuff and then come back."
But the loyalty that Lee inspires doesn’t come from thin air. There’s a reason why she has an employee of 22 years, and why some employees would, “have babies and stuff and then come back.” In Lee’s words, “if they rip me off, it’s probably for jeepney fare.” As long as Lee got her share, she wasn’t going to count by the centavo. Anyway, she says, “We treat them good. They have good salaries.”
It’s an attitude of gratitude and love that seeps into the food. When you take home one of their boxes, you get a taste of that fondness, of a coffee shop staffed not just by employees, but my family. The best part about it is that no matter what happens, this slice of Boracay, through the highs and lows, will always be there, serving the same delicious stuff. It’s a taste so consistent that in spite of all the changes that keep happening in Boracay, the Calamansi muffins remain to be the tourist’s staple pasalubong.
The best part about it is that no matter what happens, this slice of Boracay, through the highs and lows, will always be there, serving the same delicious stuff.
“I was just lucky. I was always in the right place and the right time, and I had the guts to go for it.”
We get it, that strong emotion that Lee felt that fateful day, to desire this kind of life in paradise: watching the beautiful beach all day and getting to work with her daughter, Nadine. It didn’t happen through sheer luck, though. What set her apart was Lee’s guts that have carried her through decades so she can enjoy this time in her life, semi-retired in Boracay, at age 77, still strong as ever.
“Lucky” doesn’t seem to encapsulate all of it, but yes, luck is part of it. At the same time, as I get to share 5/6 of my muffins to my family and tell them all about my beach trip, and we enjoy the delicious treats I got to carry all the way from Boracay to the metro, I think, we all got lucky, too.