NEW YORK -- When frontline E.R. nurse Erwin Lambrento succumbed to COVID-19 last May, nursing school graduate Ernesto Ebuen did not just lose an uncle to the pandemic, he also lost the person who brought him one step closer to making his American Dream a reality.
Ebuen would have been a nurse but his uncle gave him an even bigger opportunity to pursue his dream career in table tennis.
After winning the Philippine national table tennis championship 6 times and coaching the 2012 US Olympic trials champion as well as the 2009 US National Champion, Ebuen, a US national level coach decided to open his very own table tennis business in New York City called Pingpod.
Ebuen, Pingpod’s co-founder and chief product officer (CPO), said Pingpod is the world’s first network of autonomous table tennis pods.
“Small format but many locations, think of it like a Starbucks in every neighborhood in every block,” he said.
Each fully automated “pod” is run by the latest technology. Customers use an app to make reservations, make in-store purchases and enter the pods using smartphones -- no human interactions needed from start to finish of each transaction and use of facility.
“Compared to the traditional table tennis clubs, where they have like 8, 10 or more tables, Pingpod has only 3 or 4 in each location,” Ebuen said.
Pingpod opened just before the pandemic shelter-in-place was ordered in March.
“We were supposed to do a grand opening when all these happened,” Ebuen said.
Just like many businesses in the Tristate area affected by the pandemic closures, Pingpod suffered income losses even before it fully opened.
But the good news is the business survived the pandemic and has recently re-opened its doors to customers, still with COVID-19 safety in mind.
Today, reservations at Pingpod are limited to 3 person maximum per table. Disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizers and rubber gloves are available for patrons. Each table is sanitized after use and players are given clean sets of UV-sanitized balls every time.
Social distancing is observed at all times and patrons can even play with a robot called Robopong for the ultimate physical distancing experience.
PARALYMPIC TRAINING AT PINGPOD
Paralympic gold medalist, USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame inductee and 50-time Para Champion Tahl Leibovitz was supposed to be competing at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the games.
Leibovitz not only made Pingpod his home to train for the 2021 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, but he is also one of the coaches at Pingpod.
“I have something called osteochondroma which really limits my movement and I’m in a lot of physical pain, I really like table tennis because it’s really tough to get an injury.”
He said, Pingpod is the perfect game of sport for those trying to stay fit during the pandemic -- getting injured while playing table tennis is quite rare.
“It’s like running, playing chess and boxing at the same time. You have to use your mind and your body sort of together and once you sort of get that, you can move a lot,” said Leibovitz.
Pingpod was conceptualized even before the pandemic happened, but it’s proving to be a physical distancing-ready sport even for spectators.
While the main room has a mini stadium seating built for the audience… spectators are not allowed inside just yet, but the all-glass façade of the building allows for sports fans to view the games from the outside. Cameras are also set up for live streaming to those who want to watch even in the comfort of their own homes.
Erwin Lambrento did not get to see his nephew realize his American dream, but one thing for sure, Ernesto Ebuen would not have made it this far, if not for Lambrento’s generosity and inspiration.
In New Jersey, Cecil Delgado, Michael Aznar and Michael Baclay found their dream job at an exclusive airport lounge in New Jersey, years after leaving their abusive employer in Florida back in 2011.
But when the coronavirus health crisis struck the US last March, the pandemic lockdowns sent all three of them on furlough.
"For 2 months, we were not doing anything. Nag-close 'yung lounge, so we were just sitting here doing nothing, chilling. So one time naggawa kami ng inasal, that’s my favorite, so pinost namin sa Facebook,” Delgado said.
Little did they know that one Facebook post gone viral could turn their pandemic life around with a little help from Uncle Sam.
“Sabi ko kay Mike, bakit hindi tayo magnegosyo ng inasal, pag weekend, sabi ko. Habang we’re not doing anything, tapos you’re getting all these money from the government, sabi ko why not invest it into something na magroll yung pera ba," said Delgado.
So, with their combined stimulus money and unemployment checks from the federal government, the enterprising friends started their own food delivery business called Inasal Central in Jersey City, serving the popular Filipino-style grilled chicken.
Aznar made sure he makes the perfect grilled chicken inasal and Filipino pork barbecues every weekend while Delgado took on the role of making java rice and packing each meal ready for delivery.
To complete each meal, Baclay adds ice cold gulaman and sago before delivery.
“During the lockdown, aside from doing the business, I think we’re helping the community too, kasi naka-lockdown din sila, kami na lang yung may delivery service, yung mga restaurant puro curbside pick up di ba," Aznar said.
In their first weekend of operation alone, Inasal Central sold more than 80 orders of chicken inasal meals. The following weekend, the team added another Filipino favorite -- pork sisig and pork barbecue -- and their catering business grew, selling more than 100 orders every weekend.
"Minsan akala ng mga tao wala nang pag-asa during the COVID. Meron pala talagang hope na kahit anong mangyari pala basta madiskarte ka, or magaling ka, kailangan kmo kumita ng pera, gagawa at gagawa ka ng paraan kahit pandemic," said Aznar.