It’s the middle of April, and California’s shelter-in-place order has passed the one-month mark. The toll of COVID-19 has been less severe than projected—a sign of the order’s success—but its effect on the nation’s largest economy has been dire. On April 17, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared the state in a “pandemic-induced recession.”
But across California, Filipino food businesses are finding ways to reach customers and feed frontliners while keeping their workers safe. Some of the most successful pivots come from the scrappy collection of pop-up shops, food trucks, kiosks, and other lower-overhead restaurant alternatives that are driving California’s burgeoning Filipino food movement. Here are three members of this motley crew who are making the best of a tough situation.
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Sacramento’s halo-halo hawker in a BMW
“Initially I wanted to build out a cart, like the elote man, the Mexican corn guy,” says Pipo Carrasca, who owns the halo-halo pop-up shop Hella Halo in Sacramento. For the past year, he has been running pop-ups around the city, trying to raise money for a food truck.
Swap out the pushcart for a BMW X5 SUV and you have an idea of his current system. Orders come in via Instagram and Facebook messages, and Carrasca and his wife Kelly pack the prepared cups into the trunk. He has most customers meet him at set pick-up locations but offers home delivery for essential workers. By the end of a two-hour round of deliveries, “the ice cream is barely melted,” he says.
Carrasca is using the opportunity to test new products. He recently added “Cold Brew-be”—cold brew coffee with an ombre streak of ube milk—to the menu, and he’s working on a Twinkie-inspired ube cake with dulce de leche filling. “I’m the kind of guy that, when I find something that I’m really passionate about, I want to jump in with both feet, quit my job… invest everything that I have and just go forward,” says Carrasca, who has been put on leave from his job as an industrial welder. “I’m now able to see… how we would survive in this world if, say, I did want to quit my full-time job.”
The Burbank-based food truck that feeds frontliners
In Southern California, where most of the state’s coronavirus cases are located, food businesses are banding together to support their industry and people affected by the pandemic. Achara, a food truck based in Burbank, didn’t let its small size stop them from chipping in.
Achara usually serves Californian takes on Filipino street food—think tocino tacos, sisig fries, and silogs styled as rice bowls—and relies on lunch-hour foot traffic. When shelter-in-place made lunches out a thing of the past, they began delivering “family dinners”: mains, sides, and rice, sized for groups of two to 10 people quarantined together. But staying afloat isn’t their only goal.
“We have been serving this great city for four years and know how much pride we Angelinos have. “We must contribute to the fight against COVID-19,” wrote owner Adam Angeles in an Instagram post. With help from $1,000 worth of Gofundme donations, he and his team delivered 100 meals to emergency room workers at Los Angeles Medical Center.
“We know it is only a small token of appreciation, but we and our donors hope it brings a little light to your day,” wrote Angeles in a letter to the emergency room workers.
The San Francisco-based food truck owner who doubles as a business coach
The crisis has encouraged many people to dust off old skills that might help in the relief effort, from sewing masks to baking bread. For Kristen Brillantes, who owns the San Francisco food truck Sarap Shop with her partner JP Reyes, that skill is executive coaching.
She reprised her former role in the tech industry to build a survival guide for small businesses that may have been less prepared to shift to online sales. “We’re coaching people on how to fill out their loan applications, coaching people on how to do their own pivots,” she says. A few of the couple’s favorite small businesses, including the venerable Valerio’s Tropical Bakeshop, now sell their products through the Sarap Shop website. Sarap Shop is also working to raise $100k to feed health care workers for the multi-restaurant effort #FilipinosFeedTheFrontlines.
Though some of Sarap Shop’s previous plans, including an out-of-state expansion and a plant-based frozen lumpia, have been put on the back burner, Brillantes is optimistic about the future. “People are starting to experience what it’s like to actually slow down and have focus,” she says. “I think with every crisis, there’s always an opportunity for us to figure out what can be done better and what we can appreciate in the moment.”