Jacob Christian "Jake" Deleon was a middle school student when he made his first foray into the artisanal food business.
"I used my grandmother's recipe to make empanadas," Deleon, 33, recalls. "I sold them for 50 cents each. And I learned a lot."
In 2015, after a decade in corporate food-related marketing and promotion in Asia - Pringles was among the brands he worked on - Deleon came back to South Jersey and began developing his own products.
The result is Origin Almond (originalmond.com), a line of raw, vegan, naturally flavored almond milks he produces, with the help of family members, in a commercial kitchen near his Laurel Springs home.
"I watch people buy it, and it's exciting," says Deleon, a devout Christian who was born in the Philippines and immigrated with his family to the United States when he was 18 months old.
"It's [my own] product, hard work, and heart," he adds. "Seeing someone buy it is a big rush."
He sells the 12-ounce, hand-labeled bottles at the Collingswood Farmers Market and at retailers such as Whole Foods Market in Cherry Hill. Origin Almond will be carried at the Whole Foods store set to open in Center City this fall.
And Philly Foodworks, a farm share and online market, also offers Origin Almond.
"It's extremely high quality, local, healthy and nutritious," says Rebecca Ebner, local business partnership manager for Philly Foodworks. "Jake has really done an amazing job developing his product."
A 2000 graduate of Triton Regional High School in Runnemede, Deleon earned a bachelor of science degree in design from Drexel University in 2004.
He worked for Procter & Gamble and Starbucks in Singapore and Hong Kong. But coming home and starting his own business had long been a goal.
"We produce it in small batches about five days a week," he says, filling a blender with almonds he imports from Spain. "It's labor-intensive but pretty simple."
Within seconds, the crushed almonds liquefy, and Deleon - speaking with the skill and enthusiasm of a cooking-show host - strains the blender's contents through a "nut bag."
Once the almond meal (which he sells separately) has been removed from the milk, he can add fruit, spices, or other flavoring ingredients.
"I'm making my golden ginger turmeric," he says. "It's one of my best sellers."
Deleon is giving me the demonstration at Heart Beet Kitchen, a vegan restaurant on Haddon Avenue in Westmont that carries Origin Almond and several other locally produced products.
"Jake e-mailed me first, and then he came in to the store with a little cooler and some samples. His almond milk is very good," owner Ashley Coyne says.
"He's always creating new products and letting us try them," said Meghan Keary, the liaison for the "Hatchery" at Whole Foods. Essentially an incubator for start-up businesses, the program also features locally produced hot sauce, vegetarian chili, and other products.
"There's nothing else like [Origin Almond] that I know of," says Keary. "And Jake dedicates himself to it."
That's no surprise to his mother, Carmelita, a retired postal worker. She remembers the younger of her two sons as fascinated by food preparation.
"He loved to cook, and he loved to watch cooking shows on TV," recalls Carmelita, who sometimes pitches in to help her son prepare his farmers market booth.
"I'm probably working 10 to 12 hours a day," Deleon says. "I do the research and development, and I sweep the floor. I deliver bottles of almond milk from a cooler in my car."
And while he draws no salary, preferring to invest sales proceeds in the business, he certainly does want Origin Almond to grow.
Deleon is having discussions with two companies about high-pressure processing, which would dramatically extend Origin Almond's shelf life and enable him to scale up his production.
"My past work has been managing and growing brands, huge brands," Deleon says. "Now I'm creating something from scratch and watching it progress."