By Marivir R. Montebon
New York – The pandemic brought out the best in Filipino restauranteurs to survive its onslaught in 2020. With creativity and guts – and support from the government and communities – they hurdled an acutely challenging time for their businesses.
Nora Galleros, co-owner of Kape’t Torta in Queens, pointed out that their famous ube cheese pan de sal continued to rake in sales for their café. “Before the pandemic, our clients already loved our ube cheese pan de sal. During the lockdown, they would call in for delivery or pick-up. That’s how we survived,” said Galleros.
Kape’t Torta, on Queens Blvd., is one of the 13 participating restaurants in the 2021 Filipino Restaurant Week (FRW) in the East Coast, which is on August 18-28, 2021. Other participants include Asin Cuisine in Caldwell, NJ, Pica-pica in Johnsbury, VT, Tanam in Somerville, MA, Flip Sigi, Grill 21, Kabisera Kape, Mighty Bowl, Purple Yam, The Buren, Tito Rad’s Grill, Tradisyon and Tsismis in NYC.
The FRW is a flagship project of the Philippine Consulate General in New York which started in 2015. Inspired from the New York Restaurant Week, it had a steady increase of Filipino participant restaurants every year. In 2020, the FRW was called off because of the lockdown as individuals and businesses were trying to find a way to survive.
The Buren in Bushwick, Brooklyn kept afloat because of community support. Owner-manager Lorraine Perez regarded their partnership with local artists as a distinctive way to survive. “I’d like to acknowledge artist Paul Tolentino for making The Buren a favorite hang-out in Bushwick. Our clients are mostly non-Filipino who love our pork adobo and tapsilog. They just keep buying the same,” she said in delight during the Media Launch of the FRW at the Philippine Center on August 16, 2021.
Doing business in uncertain times meant leaning on the communities to survive. Jappy Afzelius, chef and owner of Tsismis NYC, noted that their partnership with local organizations and Kabisera Kape kept his business alive.
Tsismis NYC and Kabisera launched an innovative way of procuring meals and snacks for frontliners during the pandemic which were bought for them by various organizations and individuals in the Filipino community. As a result, their businesses remained open and became much busier instead.
“We always come together as a community – in this pandemic or other unfortunate events,” said Afzelius.
Negotiating for Lower Rent
Grill 21’s Rose Teves did everything she can to sustain her business. “I personally wanted to close business. But I have workers. And they have nowhere else to go. So, we tried to survive together,” she said.
Grill 21 intensified its effort to call existing clients that they are offering deliveries and take-outs. Teves also said that she had to ask the landlord to reduce their rent, otherwise, her restaurant on 21st Street in Manhattan would have to close. “Rent is so high especially in Manhattan. I am glad that the landlord reduced our rent. They still earned from us, and our restaurant continued to operate albeit slowly,” she said.
Restaurants have lost at least 80 percent of their incomes during the pandemic. Operations had to managed through a skeletal force and reduced number of hours and days.
Queenie Banez of Asin Cuisine in New Jersey said that in March 2020, the first month of the lockdown, they operated only for three days a week and was running on a skeletal force.
“I had to ask for understanding from our customers as our food prices went up because of the rising cost of ingredients. Eventually, we were able to operate much better, slowly.”
Banez commended the doctors in her neighborhood for ordering food for hospital staff. She said that Filipino cuisine is getting to be known and loved in their locality which are mostly non-Filipinos, a reason for survival in the long haul.
Chef Romy Dorotan of Purple Yam in Brooklyn noted that government support for businesses had been helpful for their survival. He also mentioned of their fund-raising effort through go-fund-me to raise much needed funds for operations.
“Government has supported us and the community to continue to be around. We are still trying so hard (to be here),” he said during the forum.
A well-placed delivery system for food orders stands out as common undertaking for restaurants. It is an emergent feature in the new normal, Galleros and Teves mentioned.
Going through the digital highway
Perhaps, the riskiest understanding during the pandemic was that of Tradisyon NYC. It began to operate on the day before the March 18 lockdown. Joey Chanco and his business partners were on a frenzy to produce a visually enticing menu and massively promote it through online platforms. They also had to outsource its delivery system.
“It was truly a risky and uncertain time. But we survived. The neighborhood just loved our food,” he quipped.
Tradisyon NYC brands on its rice bowl dishes. Chanco beams at the fact that many non-Filipinos frequent his quaint restaurant on 8th Avenue to savor traditional Filipino pork adobo over rice or chicken barbecue over rice.# (Featured photo: Filipino chefs and restaurant owners during the Media Launch of the Filipino Restaurant Week 2021)