Comfoods (maker of Café Puro Instant Coffee) and Reliance (importer of Sunkist oranges)

York Lo: Comfoods (maker of Café Puro Instant Coffee) and Reliance (importer of Sunkist oranges)

Earlier on the website, we covered several Filipino Chinese industrialists who have left their marks in the food and beverage industry in HK such as the Wong family of Cosmo Beverage and the Ma families of confectionary and biscuit giants M.Y. San, M.Y. San and Pacific. This article will cover the Huang family of the Comfoods group in the Philippines, who in partnership with Newman Wu (吳新民) has operated Commonwealth Foods, the maker of Café Puro instant coffee and Reliance Commercial Enterprises, the sole agent for Sunkist oranges in HK since the 1960s.

Commonwealth Foods (康偉食品) and Café Puro (普樂咖啡)

Comfoods And Reliance Image 1 York Lo

The Huang brothers in HK to oversee the construction of the Comfoods plant in 1961. Left to right: James Huang, Newman Wu,Gerardo Aquino, Frank Huang(KSDN, 1961-11-19)

The original Commonwealth Foods (hereafter referred to as Comfoods) was founded in the Philippines in 1951 by James Huang (黃登煦), who was born in Amoy, Fukien in 1913. The son of Chin-Foo Huang and Guncia Yap, James attended TungwenInsitute in Amoy and Rizal College in Manila. He married Corinne V. Funk (1925-2016) in 1944 and had two children – Frederick L. and Grace F. In 1945, he founded the trading firm of Reliance Commercial Enterprises the Philippines which was involved in many different products, ranging from import of soil fittings and movies to food flavorings and roasted coffee. Through the import of the last product, Huang befriended DeWitt Dyckman, a New York coffee broker with decades of experience in the industry and with Dyckman’s help, he established Comfoods and began to roast, grind and pack coffee under the brands of Café Puro and Café Excelenteat a plant in Makati in 1952 with Burns machinery. (Coffee and Tea Industries, 1952) In October 1955, Comfoods began the production of soluble coffee under the brand of Café Bueno, the first in the Philippines. (Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, 1956) By the late 1950s, Comfoods’ Café Puro had become the second most popular coffee brand in the Philippines next to Nestle.

Outside of Comfoods, Huang also founded several other food and beverage companies in the Philippines in the 1950s – Philippine Food Industries(Philfood, maker of cocoa and chocolate products) in 1953, Canada Dry Bottling Co of the Philippines in 1955, Delta Manufacturing Corporation (meat processor) in 1957 and Filipinas Biscuit Corporation (Fibisco) in 1959. (Who’s Who in Commerce and Industry, 1965)

Comfoods And Reliance Image 2 York Lo

Ad for Café Puro in HK in 1961 (WKYP, 1961-8-8); Right: 3D billboard for Café Puro on top of the Metropolitan Theater in Manila (Philstar) 

Reliance had been trading with Hong Kong since at least 1948 when its registration as a non-HK company in the HK Companies Registry first appeared and once Comfoods established its foothold in the Filipino market, it began exploring expansion into the HK market and incorporated Commonwealth Foods (Intl) Ltd (hereafter refer to as “Comfoods HK”) in HK in 1960. Led by James Huang as president and supported by his younger brothers Samuel Y. Huang and Frank Y. Huang (黃登才), engineer Gerardo Aquino (許宗樹)and Newman Wu on the ground in HK as general manager, ComfoodsHK began construction of a HK$1.5 million plant at Inland Lot 159 on Hung To Road in Kwun Tong with capacity to handle HK$9 million worth of roasted coffee. (Indian Coffee, Foreign Commerce Weekly, 1961) Born in Amoy in 1918, Newman Wu was the son of Wu Chih-mei and Wong Kam and graduated from the University of Shanghai in 1942 and married Bessie in HK in 1951. (Who’s Who in Hong Kong, 1984)

The board of Comfoods HK at launch aside from the Huang brothers, Aquino and Wu included Delfin Yu and several prominent Filipino business figures including chairman Leonides Virata (1918-1976, president of the Philippines Chamber of Industries and later Secretary of Commerce and chair of Development Bank of the Philippines, uncle of Prime Minister Cesar Virata), Gregorio S. Trinidad, Ramon V. del Rosario (1918-2008, PHINMA group founder and first Asian president of Junior Chamber International), landlord and developer Francisco Ortigas Jr (1903-2003), Jose B. Fernandez Jr, Sixto Roxas (economist and founder of Philippines’ first investment bank Bancom).Wu was supported at Comfoods by accountant Benny S.K. Poon, secretary John Davies, cashier K.S. Tan, sales coordinator F. Wong and a team of 5 sales reps. (HK $ Directory, 1963)

To launch the new product in the HK market, Comfoods launched an aggressive marketing campaign which included print ads and giveaways at supermarkets (such as Dairy Lane where it handed out 1500 cups in a day), schools (such as the judo class at Chung Chi College shown below) and offices of large companies (such as American President Lines) in 1961.

Comfoods And Reliance Image 3 York Lo

Left: Customers drinking free Café Puro at Dairy Lane in 1961 (WKYP, 1961-7-13); Right: Comfoods’ coffee expert DeWitt Dyckman (WKYP, 1967-4-19) 

Comfoods And Reliance Image 4 York Lo

Judo students from South China Athletic Association at Chung Chi College with Café Puro coffee in 1961 (KSDN, 1961-12-1)

In August 1962, Comfoods began exporting its Café Puro instant coffee to Singapore and Malaya with Guthrie & Co as its agent. At the time, the size of the instant coffee market in Singapore was S$3 million. (Straits Times, 1962-8-10)

In 1968, the Director of Industry & Commerce of the HK government visited the Comfoods HK plant as shown in the article below and he was given tour of the production process of Café Puro by Newman Wu, sales manager P.Y. Chan and factory manager Wong Yuk-foon. In the late 1960s, Comfoods’ offices was located at 209 Windsor House at 12 Des Voeux Road Central. (AA Far East Businessmen Directory, 1969; Hongkong $ Directory, 1968) Back in the Philippines, Philfood and Fibisco were merged into Comfoods in 1968.

Comfoods And Reliance Image 5 York Lo

The Director of Industry & Commerce visiting the Comfoods plant in HK in 1968 (KSDN, 1968-11-16)

Comfoods HK remains a live company but has since ceased the production and promotion of coffee products in HK while Comfoods Philippines remain a major manufacturer of coffee, cocoa/chocolate and biscuits in the Philippines.

Reliance Commercial Enterprises (信誠洋) and Sunkist oranges (新奇)

Comfoods And Reliance Image 6 York Lo

Newman Wu (left) with Japanese trading executive (西本貿易株式會社副社長洲崎辰三, right) and sales manager of Sunkist (center) at the Mandarin in HK in 1970 (KSEN, 1970-9-8)

As mentioned earlier, Reliance Commercial Enterprises had been trading in HK since the late 1940s but it established a formal branch in 1958 and incorporated as Reliance Commercial Enterprises (HK) Ltd in 1973. In February 1966, Reliance became the sole agent of Sunkist oranges in HK.Sunkist Growers, the cooperative of Californian and Arizonan citrus growers representing 75% of oranges grown in the two states, had been shipping to HK since the 1930s through several exporters in the US and several trading firms in HK such as Hang Tai &Fungs (see article). Within six months of the arrangement, Sunkist captured 70% of the market for American oranges in HK. In 1967, Newman Wu as head of Reliance visited the US where he met with Donald Anderson (1907-1989), the CEO of Sunkist Growers in California. By that time, Reliance was importing over 1.5 million boxes of Sunkist oranges per year, which represented around 11% of Sunkist’s export sales (or 2% of its total production of 7.8 boxes) and involved 20 cargo ships every month.(KSDN, 1967-4-18; 1967-4-26) Reliance distributed through 12 wholesalers to fruit stands across Hong Kong.

In March 1969, Reliance hosted a Chinese New Year banquet for 400 people including many of its distributors at the State Restaurant and Brown, the head of quality assurance from Sunkist’s head office. (KSEN, 1969-3-5)

To promote Sunkist oranges, Newman Wu conducted many promotional campaigns in the late 1960s and early 1970s – including bringing Miss Sunkist from California to stores such as Seasonal Fruit Co (see article) to greet customers and also sponsoring a TV show called “Sunkist Breakfast” on TVB in 1969 hosted by Michael Hui andChan Fung-lin(陳鳳蓮). In the summer of 1970, Reliance with the assistance of Marklin Advertising ran a guessing competition where contestants submit their guess of how much orange juices could a box of Sunkist oranges produce. Entries which were the closest to the quantity squeezed by Chan Fung-lin at the Garden restaurant in City Hall in July won prizes which included 89 Hitachi home appliances worth a total of $27000. (KSEN, 1970-6-19)

Comfoods And Reliance Image 7 York Lo

Left: Newman Wu briefing the press on the Sunkist cup in 1972 (KSEN, 1972-3-15); Right: 1968 ad for Sunkist oranges

In 1972, Reliance organized the Sunkist Cup (新奇士盃) walking competition on Lantau island in partnership with the HK Amateur Track Association which attracted over 50 team with over 500 participants followed sponsoring a volleyball match in Victoria Park in partnership with the HK Volleyball Federation in 1973 (KSEN, 1972-3-15; KSEN, 1973-3-5) Wu also promoted the brand through charitable work. In 1973, he handed out free Sunkist oranges to the 420 patients of the Tai Hau Wan Sanatorium and 150 child patients of the Dutchess of Kent Hospital. (WKYP, 1973-1-25)

In 1975, Pacific Coast Agricultural Exports Association and M-C International filed lawsuit against Sunkist Growers over its arrangement with Reliance which cut them out of the picture in the export of oranges to HK and was awarded damages of US$238,704 and US$2,363 respectively.

Thanks to its savvy marketing and distribution arrangement, Reliance was importing 5 million boxes of Sunkist oranges into HK from California by 1978, more than tripled the amount a decade before and had become one of the largest distributors of Sunkist oranges in the world. (KSDN, 1978-7-8)

In 1984, weather condition impacted agricultural output in the US, but Newman Wu spoke to the press to reassure that supply of Sunkist oranges were steady since they were grown in California while the bad weather had mostly impacted Texas and Florida. At the time, a box of 88 Sunkist oranges was going for HK$85-90 while a box of 113 went for HK$110. (WKYP, 1984-1-5)

By the 1990s, the second-generation members of the Huang family have assumed leadership at Comfoods with Anthony A.C. Huang (his wife NedyTantoco is the daughter of BienvinidoTantoco, founder of the retail giant Rustan Group) as president, Philip T. Huang as executive vice president and John Huang as director. (Fookien Times Philippines Yearbook, 1997) Anthony, Philip and John had also joined the board of Reliance in HK by the mid-1990s while Wu remained the managing director. The firm was operating out of Room 1003-04 at Swire House on Chater Road in Central.(WTC Association World Business Directory, 1996). In 2002, the reported sales of Reliance in HK were HK$100 million (D&B) and in more recent years, it listed its sales in the US$50-99 million range. (HKTDC)

Sources (other than those cited above):

This article was first posted on 15th March 2021.

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