Nothing gets Pinoys as wide-eyed excited come noche buena time quite like lechon. It means an evening of elbowing by the dinner table for one’s piece of crunchy pig skin and that sweet sliver of meat merging with fat. It means celebration. It means, hey, we’re not doing so bad after all.
Which is what one might have said looking at the queue outside the popular Elar’s in Quezon Avenue early morning of December 24, 2020. The corner store hasn’t even opened for the day but the stretch of people lining up reached all the way to the next street—and all for a kilo or two of lechon. The roasted whole pigs having already been spoken for days before.
Elar’s projected more orders for their per-kilo lechon this year because big gatherings remain a no-no, as per pandemic restrictions. “We were surprised that Christmas and New Year time, marami pa rin ang nag-order ng whole lechon,” says Ian Santos, corporate secretary of Elar’s which turned 40 this year. During the holiday season, their chopped lechons were selling for Php 1,100 per kilo, and an entire 20-kilo pig was selling for 8,800.
Ian won’t disclose how many pigs Elar's sold the past month but a recent Bloomberg report tells of Mang Tomas Native Lechon in La Loma dispatching 400 roasted pigs on New Year’s Eve—which should give you a pretty clear idea how the other popular lechon spots performed. Pre-Christmas rush, a 7-kilo lechon at Mang Tomas would go for Php5,500.
Yes, there may be an ongoing pandemic, jobs have been lost, and no one knows what the future holds, but a pig better be on the table at Christmas midnight, gleaming like the promise of better days.
“It's crazy! Pumila talaga sila!” says Lyd de Roca, daughter of Lydia De Roca of Lydia’s Lechon, when asked to describe the degree of interest in their hogs over the holidays. “[People] used to line up naman talaga, pero I wasn’t expecting na magwa-wild pa rin sila.”
As it happened, there was indeed a bit of hysteria and last-minute desperation. By December 23, whole lechons have run out. So strings were pulled. Friendships were tested. According to the Bloomberg story, some people were even willing to pay double for an entire roasted pig.
Buyers patiently waited to be attended to, whether on the phone or online. In the stores, things took longer than usual because distancing measures needed to be observed. “We can’t do two or more customers at a time, but the buyers were happy to wait,” Lyd tells ANCX. “People were inquiring, some have an idea of what they want, some have zero idea. The queues made it feel like life was normal for those few days. There was an excitement to it!”
Lyd says they were surprised with the sales but knew Filipinos will be celebrating anyway, in their homes, maybe with fewer people, and some would include lechon in the spread. “It's a customary Filipino thing to have lechon for Christmas, New Year, or for any occasion really.” As early as middle of 2020, Lydia’s—which has 30 stores in the country—was already getting orders for lechon boxes from those on WFH arrangements. Most likely people who wanted and can afford to quell that general pandemic feeling of deprivation.
And what better food to spell indulgence and 'f@#k you' than a roasted pig?
A shortage of pigs
But the times did weigh down on the business. According to Ian, in terms of sales, this year was good but last year was better.
“Pre-pandemic, even OFWs who were far from their families would order lechon to send to their loved ones,” says Lyd. “Now that some of them lost their jobs, there were lesser ‘send a lechon’ requests from abroad. Those who sent opted for smaller boxes.”
New player in the lechon business, Macho Cochinillo, however, can't complain. It sold 300 roasted suckling pigs. "We thought it would be a busy month but we underestimated the demand last December," says Michael Silverio Dee, founder of his cochinillo operation in Urdaneta.
Michael was confident about his product and has loyal fans (DOT Secretary Berna Puyat swears by his pig and his cilantro rice) so he wasn’t worried coming into the holiday season. And he knew his audience had money to spare: “Filipinos have set aside money for their travels in 2020 of which was used as an emergency fund during the pandemic,” he says.
Michael was preparing his stocks for the holidays as early as July, but he didn't foresee there was going to be a huge shortage of pigs close to Christmas. "Suckling pig prices went to as high as Php 1000/kg," he says.
Even the regular-sized pigs were in short supply, it turned out. The high demand for pork during Christmas season was a given but the natural calamities in October and November meant even less pigs. “Some suppliers got affected by the recent storms that hit us these past months," says Ian, "not to mention the quarantine protocols in place for people and livestock in the different regions where supply comes from. Some regions were on lockdown."
For both Elar’s and Lydia’s, it wasn’t easy going into the holidays with the same push and excitement as in previous years. “Given that the economy is so bad, and people aren't in the best of spirits, our preparations were not at 100 percent,” says Lyd, “but just the same, it was a busy Christmas.”
If the cost of their products was higher than before, Lyd has an explanation. “Costs were so high! Transportation is expensive. Permits are expensive. Permits that were non-existent before are part of the cost now." Pandemic-enforced realities had to be penciled in: workers needed to be tested, with some needed to be housed by the company to eliminate the dangers of commute. "The typhoons happened, which made costs even higher. Bicol happened, too. All of those affected the pricing.”
Pinoys will always find an excuse to eat and celebrate. There’s something surely impractical, maybe even insensitive to some, about spending so much when so many have so little. But there’s also something quite moving about Filipinos saying they will end their year with a celebration and no virus can stop them from doing it.
"Crazy is an understatement," says Dee when asked to describe what the holiday orders were like at Macho Cochinillo. "We would get 30 phone calls per day and 50 messages per day on social media and SMS. People would always say if we could squeeze them in or ‘singit’ but how can we?"
At Lydia’s, meanwhile, there was this whole company who used to spend a lot for their Christmas parties for years. For the one last December, it held a virtual celebration by ordering a lechon box for each their employees.
Indeed some went big and some went scampering last minute to get their hands on a lechon box at least, or a kilo the family can share. “Basta meron lang.” You know how big we are with traditions. “But there are still those who want the whole lechon for the picture,” says Lyd. “Of course, it looks so festive. And for that day, you forget there's a pandemic.”
And wasn’t that what Christmas 2020 was for?