MANILA - Before the pandemic, Milagros Santillan cooked for students in a school canteen in Pasig City. But when the COVID-19 outbreak forced physical classes to cease, she began using the same canteen to serve customers who wanted Asian meals delivered to their doorsteps.
From the usual sinigang and barbecue served during recess and lunch, Santillan and 2 others learned how to cook laksa and chicken satay. This was after Sacred Heart Academy Pasig transformed its canteen into the commissary of Papaya Kitchen, an online food business specializing in Malaysian and Singaporean dishes.
"Nakatulong siya kasi kahit papaano may income na. Siyempre nung lockdown wala kaming income," Santillan told ABS-CBN News.
(It helped us to regain our income. At the start of the lockdown we did not have any.)
"Maganda din kasi kahit papano may natutunan ako. Kahit papaano nalilibang ka, hindi yung katulad nung sa bahay ka lang, hindi mo alam ang mangyayari sa susunod. Dito, yung attention mo naka-focus sa iba kasi may ginagawa ka," she said.
(It's good to learn something. In some ways, you are distracted, unlike when you're just at home, you are filled with uncertainty. Here, your attention is focused on something else.)
Cristina Kierulf, the school director's wife, created Papaya Kitchen to help displaced canteen staff during the pandemic, said Annie Orense, marketing head of food venture.
"The wife of the school director likes to travel around Asia and likes to cook. During lockdown, she often cooks for the family," Orense said.
"We decided that maybe we should bring it out to the public and create jobs for the cafeteria staff," she said.
Santillan and 2 other canteen workers began learning Mrs. Kierulf's recipes in November 2020. A month later, they began taking orders.
"Siyempre, may pressure kasi Asian food ito. Hindi naman ako sanay sa Asian food kasi puro Filipino food lang ang alam ko," the 50-year-old cook said.
(I was a bit pressured. I am not used to cooking Asian food because I'm more familiar with Filipino food.)
They were also trained to arrange and pack food the way restaurants do, she said.
Since Papaya Kitchen began in November, it has served chicken Hainanese, chicken satay with sambal rice, and laksa to hundreds of customers. It is also looking to expand its menu soon, Orense said.
"We plan to develop more dishes and expand Papaya Kitchen and maybe getting all the [canteen] staff back," she said, noting that customers have been asking for Thai chicken curry or pad thai.
"Our goal is to bring all 30 [canteen staff] back," she said.
While feedback on their products has been good, Orense said hiring back more canteen personnel remains a challenge.
"Some days we don’t have orders, some days we have a lot of orders but we’re really we’re just doing this for the cafeteria staff," she said.
"There is a lot of uncertainty, especially in these times... We just live by."
A year after Luzon was placed under lockdown due to the global pandemic, the Department of Education (DepEd) has yet to announce when face-to-face classes would resume.
The world's longest lockdown prompted at least 9 percent of businesses in the Philippines, including private schools, to consider permanent closure, according to the Philippine SMEs Competitiveness Report and ITC COVID-19 Business Impact Survey released in November.
The studies were conducted by the International Trade Center (ITC) which is a joint agency of the World Trade Organization and the United Nations, and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).
The Senate earlier approved a resolution recommending the resumption of face-to-face classes, but President Rodrigo Duterte said he would only consider the proposal after the rollout of 2 million COVID-19 vaccines.
Papaya Kitchen is doing its best to stay afloat and is hoping to grow despite the uncertainties, Orense said.
"We don't know when face-to-face classes will start again... And we have a kitchen here that’s not being used anymore since the pandemic started so we thought why not make use of it?" she said.
Santillan said she still misses seeing her workplace filled with students queuing for food, but added that she has grown accustomed to their setup in the new normal.
"Sana madagdagan 'yung order namin kasi 'yun naman 'yung goal talaga," she said.
(I hope we get more orders because that it really our goal.)
"Para 'yung mga ibang kasama namin sa canteen, mapapasok na rin."
(We want our other colleagues in our canteen to be employed too.)