Rowena Romulo, left, and her partner and co-owner Chris Joseph outside their London restaurant. Photo courtesy Rowena Romulo.
Food & Drink

How Filipino restaurant owners around Europe show their resilience in this pandemic

“Reputation is defined during tough times,” says one London-based Filipina restaurateur, as other Pinoy immigrants with food businesses in Italy, Hungary, and Iceland share their survival stories. By JENNIFER FERGESEN
ANCX | Apr 15 2020

More than a month ago, while the coronavirus continued its spread across the globe, it was business as usual for most Filipino restaurateurs in Europe. In Milan, a lechon specialist rushed to complete a 1,800 square meter extension in time for a June debut (18th birthday party). A freshly-renovated restaurant nestled in the shadow of the Vatican in Rome bought ingredients to serve 400 reserved guests for a string of events. A Budapest coffee shop owner, smelling trouble, ordered a special shipment of 300 kilos of coffee beans from his plots in Luzon. And I planned a roster of visits to continue my series on the food of the Filipino diaspora.

But by the second week of March, the world found itself in the tightening grip of a pandemic unparalleled by anything in recent history. While governments order closures and crack down on unnecessary movement in an effort to slow the spread of the disease, business owners in all sectors are scrambling to adapt to a turbulent present and an unclear economic future. Here are five stories from Filipino restaurateurs in Italy, the United Kingdom, Iceland, and Hungary.

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Neighborhood Restaurant, Rome, Italy                    

Just outside the walls of the Holy See in Rome, this five-year-old restaurant (featured on an episode of the Eater series “Dining on a Dime” with Lucas Peterson) serves a steady stream of clergy and other Vatican workers. This is prime—and expensive—real estate, but co-owner Claire Datu wants Filipinos to have “the best location,” she says, “So even if we have a lot of bills to pay, whatever.”

Claire Datu, right, with her husband and co-owner Reinnar, left, and a regular customer in their restaurant. Photo courtesy Claire Datu

There were even more bills to pay than usual when Neighborhood shuttered on March 12, one day after Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte ordered the closure of all restaurants, bars, shops, and other “non-essential” businesses. In anticipation of a new Jollibee opening blocks away, Datu and her husband closed for renovations in January and took a vacation to the Philippines. The freshly-renovated restaurant had been open for little more than two weeks before the decree came in.

A recent party of Filipino pilgrims to Rome at Neighborhood Restaurant. Photo courtesy Claire Datu

“But since then, the government is arranging some help for everyone,” says Datu, who moved to Italy with her family when she was 12 years old. “We pay high taxes here, so the government can really afford to say don’t pay the bills.” (On March 18, Italy signed a USD 28 billion economic survival plan that gives shop owners tax credits to cover 60 percent of this month’s commercial rent. Residential rent is not mentioned in the plan.)

Datu is doing her best to look for small positives, such as extra time with her husband and their three-year-old daughter. “When we are operating, we don’t even have time to say hi,” she says. “I see (my daughter) for one hour a day.” She is also enjoying the leftovers from the restaurant. “Our Bicol Express (pork in coconut sauce) is so good! I’ve sold it for five years and I didn’t even taste it,” she says.

A quiet street in Rome viewed from the Datu family apartment. Photo courtesy Claire Datu

At times, shreds of panic break through the positivity. “Everyone is psychologically afraid,” she says. “But people are really doing a good job… After this, we’ll work and pay everything, I’m sure.” The restaurant is receiving donations to recoup their losses at paypal.com/paypalme2/neighborhoodrome.

For more information, visit Neighborhood Restaurant Rome on Facebook.

 

Nilda’s Lechon, Milan, Italy

Open since 2016, Nilda’s bills itself as the only lechon purveyor in northern Italy. Adrian Dela Cruz, who shares ownership with his parents Nilda and Andy, says his customers drive from as far as Rome, Florence, and Venice to secure their charcoal-roasted pigs—before travel in and out of the northern region was banned last March 7. But by then the virus had already reached further south.

Co-owners Nilda and Andy Dela Cruz outside Nilda’s Lechon in Milan. Photo courtesy Adrian Dela Cruz

Nilda’s chose to close a day before the decree. “It was for the safety of me and our family and our workers, but also for our customers,” Dela Cruz says. Business had been brisk before the closure, but Nilda’s customers—90 percent of whom are Filipino, Dela Cruz estimates—were getting anxious. He says that the Filipino community in Italy was affected by a distrust of Asians in general as the virus began to spread from China.

“In the first days, when the coronavirus started to scare people, there was… weird and racist behavior against Asians,” says Dela Cruz, who moved to Italy with his family when he was 9 years old. “Many videos were posted on Facebook and on the news where Filipinos were insulted by Italians for no reason. And this shocked the Filipino community a little bit, because in all of the years that I’m here, I never saw such behavior from Italians against us.”

A whole lechon ready to be sold by the kilo at Nilda’s. Photo courtesy Adrian Dela Cruz

By mid-March, the racist sentiment against Asians seemed to have been subsumed into more fundamental worries in Milan. “There used to be a lot of people walking around, and cars coming and going, but these days, it’s practically empty,” Dela Cruz says. Even pedestrians are sometimes stopped by the police, unless they have a reason to leave their homes, such as a dog to walk. (Adrian is grateful for his own.)

For more information, visit Nilda's Lechon on Facebook.

 

Romulo Café, London, UK

Romulo Café, a fine-dining restaurant on London’s Kensington High Street, rode a wave of success into 2020. The restaurant, named after the prominent diplomat Carlos P. Romulo, is among a handful of recent openings credited with introducing Filipino cuisine to the London mainstream. In 2019, it received Restaurant of the Year from the Asian Catering Federation and Best Restaurant in Kensington from the borough’s Chamber of Commerce.

Even as Chinese restaurants in London began to suffer from the stigma associated with the virus, Romulo’s continued to draw customers. “In fact, we had initially noticed an increase in Asian guests who were avoiding places like Chinatown but were still looking to dine in restaurants offering Asian cuisine,” says co-owner Rowena Romulo, granddaughter of Carlos P. Romulo.

Traffic began to slow at the beginning of March, with a 30 percent reduction in covers, and entered a freefall when the prime minister called for UK residents to avoid restaurants, bars, and pubs on March 9. Romulo says business is the lowest she has ever seen it.

Regular customers, though, have been supportive. “Some have offered to purchase gift vouchers and others help with free advertising or promotions on their Instagram accounts or blogs,” Romulo says. They’re spreading word of the efforts she has put in place to pivot to takeaway: free delivery within one mile for orders over £50; kerbside pickup (curbside, for non-Brits); and a dozen of Romulo’s famous pandesal (rolls) with any two dishes.

Chef Jeremy Villanueva with Romulo’s pan de sal, a dozen of which come free with any takeaway order of two dishes. Photo courtesy Rowena Romulo

“They say that reputation is defined during tough times, so we are thinking about how we communicate with our guests about doing things to support and add value to our customers,” says Romulo, a former banker who moved to London in 2009. “(We’re) utilizing our organizational resources and time to get some things done that normal busy hours do not allow for, with the ambition to emerge stronger from the crisis when it is over.”

For more information, visit RomuloCafé.co.uk.

 

Pinoy Taste Reykjavík, Reykjavík, Iceland

Pinoy Taste Reykjavík will take little effort to pivot to takeaway. Raquel Landayan and her husband Arie Bob Riesenbeck run the service out of their home, selling everything from Pampanga-style longganisa (sausage) to malunggay pandesal (rolls with dried moringa) on their Facebook page.

Raquel Landayan, right, with her husband and co-owner Arie Bob Riesenbeck at an event in Norway. Photo courtesy Arie Bob Riesenbeck

But Landayan is still anxious. Iceland currently has one of Europe’s highest infection rates, 1,711 cases in a country of 360,000 as of April 14, but has been reluctant to order any restrictions that would impact its tourism-dependent economy.

There are few customers at Reykjavík’s Hilton Hotel, where Landayan works as a sushi chef, but no businesses have been ordered to close. Even the few restrictions that are in place are spottily enforced. One of Landayan’s colleagues, whose young daughter is in quarantine, reported to work because she is not showing symptoms. “I’m going to expect that it will be a lot worse here in Iceland,” says Landayan.

Takeaway orders of crispy pork in kare-kare (peanut sauce) from Pinoy Taste.

Landayan, who moved to Reykjavík from Lubao in 2006, says Icelanders are known for their stoic response to natural crises that recur on their volcanic island—eruptions, earthquakes, destructive winter weather—the difference being that these events are not preventable. “They are always relaxed, and then later when it’s there, when the situation is really crazy, then they’re going to get stressed,” she says. “Now you have time to think about what we need to do, but they don’t.”

The schools are still open—on a staggered schedule, to prevent crowding—but Landayan has chosen to keep their two children home with her husband, who is conveniently on strike with other cooks, cleaning staff, and kindergarten teachers from the Kópavogur school district. She is still receiving orders at Pinoy Taste Reykjavík, though several events she was booked to cater have been cancelled. “I’m just going to go to work and try to protect myself, and hope I’m not going to get it,” she says.

For more information, visit Pinoy Taste Reykjavík on Facebook.

 

Barako Kávéház, Budapest, Hungary

Barako Kávéház is a third-wave coffee house supplied exclusively by seven acres of organically-farmed Liberica (A.K.A. Barako) and Arabica plots around Baguio and Batangas. Co-owner Ryan Andres is related to the family behind Kape Umali, the 72-year-old company that once grew most of Luzon's coffee beans, and brands his beans with their name.

Ryan Andres and his wife and co-owner Luleyn with a bag of Kape Umali coffee beans, currently for sale via their Facebook page. Photo courtesy Ryan Andres

Andres, who moved to Hungary with his wife Luleyn and their daughter in 2014, is currently pivoting to selling Kape Umali beans by courier service to make up for the drop in customers associated with the coronavirus. Anticipating a lockdown in the Philippines, he doubled his usual order for his last shipment and has enough beans to last four to six months. Bean sales now make up to 15 percent of his revenue, compared to five percent before the outbreak.

The remaining 85 percent still comes from walk-in customers, though the shop began limiting orders to takeaway on March 18. With 1,458 confirmed cases and 109 deaths as of April 13, the Hungarian government has ordered people displaying mild symptoms to stay in home quarantine, but most businesses remain open.

The exterior of Barako Kávéház in Budapest, with a notice regarding social distancing rules. Photo courtesy Ryan Andres

Before the quarantine order, some companies in Budapest took it upon themselves to send employees home if they showed symptoms, including the multinational machinery supplier company where Andres works after his coffee shop shift. Despite his objection, he was on mandatory home office through March because he had a cold earlier in the month.

“I understand the need for concern, but I also think that a lot of people are overreacting,” says Andres. “People are getting their information online as opposed to getting it from their doctors directly… Ignorance spreads faster than any virus, and that’s what’s currently happening.”

But his concern goes out to Filipino restaurateurs in the worst-hit parts of the world. “From one Filipino to another, from one Filipino business owner to another: my thoughts and my prayers are with them,” he says. “They will recover from this. We all will.”

For more information, visit Barako Kávéház on Facebook.

 

Are you a Filipino food business owner working to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic? Please tweet @jenniferferges1 to share your story.