NMI’s 1st agri-tourism, plant export biz opens

Torres: Rufina Tropicals diversifies type of businesses in islands

Rufina Tropicals and Bibang’s Café in As Lito are now open for business across the airport field in As Lito. (Ferdie De La Torre)

A blessing and ribbon-cutting signaled the official opening of the first agri-tourism and ornamental plant export business in the CNMI.

Rufina Tropicals and Bibang’s Café is located in a sprawling, two-hectare land across the airport field in As Lito.

“Today marks an idea that began many moons ago. Back then it seemed impossible. But when you are surrounded by so much inspiration and just living positive, everything is possible,” said owner Rowina O. Torres, who thinks it’s actually a relief to finally open the business.

“This is actually my playground,” she added, smiling.

At Bibang’s Café, tourists can come in and try what indigenous food is all about, featuring many authentic Chamorro dishes, Torres said.

Bibang’s Café, which Torres named after her mother-in-law, Mama Bibang, is open Monday to Wednesday, from 7am to 2:30pm. It’s open from 7am to 9pm from Thursday to Sunday.

“They can come over for dinner. Then we [also] have [a] happy hour area here,” she said.

Torres said they also have 11 sections for outside dining.

“If you want to dine outside, you want to do your homework outside, you have to let us know in advance and we will set it up for you,” she said, adding that they also offer internet access.

“If you want coffee there, we will bring it to you,” she said.

Rufina LLC owner Rowina O. Torres and her husband, Vincent DLG Torres, pose for a photo during the ribbon-cutting and blessing for their Rufina Tropicals and Bibang’s Café in As Lito yesterday. (Ferdie De La Torre)

Torres said the main business of their company, Rufina LLC, is actually the sale of ornamental plants and flowers. She has been exporting plants since 2015.

This year, she said, she wants tourists and residents alike to take part in a tour of a tropical jungle, which will showcase the islands’ plants, trees, flowerings, edible fruits, fancy chickens, birds, and others.

“You can see the plantation. I have 19 species [of sansevieria) so you get to see what I export,” Torres said.

Sansevieria is also known as snake plants or mother-in-law’s tongue.

Torres first opened Rufina LLC, which does business as Rufina Tropicals, in 2014, because she wanted to do an online business—a vision to plant flowers and export them. She started testing the plant export process in 2015 and found sansevieria to be a best-seller. Now she has 19 species of such a plant that she exports.

Torres said that customers can see her and her staff do the shipping, packing, and cleaning of the plants.

“You can take photos of whatever we’re doing. I don’t restrict that. So, it is to share,” she said.

At present, Rufina Tropicals delivers plants in 50 states and that their plants get there within three to five days.

When she started experimenting with the online business, she started with sales at just $100. That later grew to $500, then $1,000. In just two weeks, her sales went up to $4,000.

“And that’s when I hit…the jackpot and I knew I will make it from there on,” she said.

Super Typhoon Yutu’s devastation last Oct. 24 and 25, however, took 90 percent of what she and her team had built.

She said the budget for the project was $500,000, but, due to Yutu’s devastation, it went a little bit over that.

“It wasn’t so much about the damage caused but the wasted labor of all my hardworking staff that had to deal with heavy tools, direct sunlight, distance walking, heavy lifting, and many more,” she said.

“At some point, you could almost see them just want to give up,” Torres said, adding that the work in designing the two-hectare property was not easy.

The Bibang’s Café building consists of a second-floor storage for their excess supplies, a conference room that is ready to cater to meeting needs, a nursery area for their staff’s children as they wait for their parents’ time, an accounting office, administration office, and three restrooms. Around the building is a wheelchair accessible pathway. The building itself was built by RNV Construction.

Right behind the kitchen of Bibang’s Café is a happy hour area named Yutu Lounge. Torres said it is a reminder of how Yutu tested the people of the CNMI.

To the north east side, is the botanical entry to two gardens and outdoor dining.

The Ogorres Garden and the Chotda Garden bring a full botanical tour to a Mama Mary grotto with a 5,000-gallon pond and a St. Jude gazebo.

At Chotda Garden, Bibang’s Café customers can pick and choose vegetables and a staff will pick them for cooking.

Vincent Torres, the husband of Rowina Torres, said it was a special day for his wife, who worked very hard on the project.

“This is her dream, her vision and, despite all the obstacles, she stuck to it. She worked very hard. And she accomplished her dream and her vision truly became a reality. I am very proud of her. We are very proud of her as a family,” Vincent Torres said.

Gov. Ralph DLG Torres, who is the younger brother of Vincent Torres and served as the guest speaker at the ribbon-cutting, said that ribbon-cutting ceremonies for this first-of-a-kind business in the CNMI “just shows the resilience of our people.”

Being locally based and locally owned, “this is a new place for tourists to come in and see what we have,” he said. “Just having this facility gives another option for locals as well as the tourists to visit.”

The governor said the opportunity and the ability to export plants and flowers is also part of CNMI’s economic growth.

“And it really diversifies the type of businesses that we have,” he added.

Ferdie De La Torre | Reporter
Ferdie Ponce de la Torre is a veteran journalist who has covered all news beats in the CNMI. Born in Lilo-an, Cebu City in the Philippines, De la Torre graduated from the University of Santo Tomas with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He is a recipient of many commendations and awards, including the CNMI Judiciary’s prestigious Justice Award for his over 10 years of reporting on the judiciary’s proceedings and decisions. Contact him at ferdie_delatorre@saipantribune.com

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