2 FilAms with entrepreneurial spirit thrive amid the pandemic

by Ricky Rillera

Ai Aromin and Francis Zuasola | Contributed Photos

NEW YORK – When COVID-19 hit the US in March 2020 and lingered on, life was not how it used to be, or, as some people called it, not normal. It was not “business as usual” for the self-employed small business owner. The pandemic brought illness, death, and widespread economic disruption and created challenges for companies of all sizes, from the most prominent corporate brand to the small business owner.

The pandemic life was miserable for everyone. Asian-owned businesses contributing to the New York metropolitan area’s economic life were not spared, including Filipino-owned small businesses engaged in restaurants, food services, and self-employed professionals.

While researching this story, although no specific source can pinpoint the number of Filipino-owned businesses impacted by the pandemic, a conversation with folks in the community confirmed which shops, restaurants, or offices had closed. Self-employed lawyers, accountants, travel agencies, and other professionals were likewise affected. With no revenue, they had to negotiate for an early termination of their leases or lower rent, move to a smaller space, or vacate their offices at the expiration of their lease.

Layoffs from jobs had likewise soared. However, despite the challenges, 2020 was also a year of unexpected creativity. It created opportunities for some people with an entrepreneurial spirit. The entrepreneur spotted an opportunity to market goods and services in the Filipino community. The owner had to focus on a product or service meeting the consumer’s needs.

Launching a business was difficult as it required product, location, marketing, customer relations skills, and capital investment. Ai Aromin, owner of the Filipiniana Restaurant and Catering in Queens, New York, and Francis Zuasola of Zuasola Funeral Homes in Bloomfield, New Jersey, had the entrepreneurial spirit backed by their business background, instinct, gut, and determination to face the challenge of having their own start-up business amid the pandemic.

Ai Aromin, owner of Filipiniana Restaurant and Catering

Ai dreamed of owning a restaurant at a young age because of her exposure to cooking which her folks taught her, and her studies at Central Luzon State University- Science City of Munoz, Nueva Ecija, where she took up Hotel Restaurant Management. She continued her studies at the Philippine Women’s University, earning a Bachelor of Science in Tourism Management.

Filipiniana Restaurant and Catering in Elmhurst, Queens with Ai Aromin (in red shirt) and friends | Photo via Ai Aromin
Interior of the Filipiniana Restaurant and Catering | Photo via Ai Aromin

She also had her internship at the Farmington Country Club in Charlottesville, Virginia, a traditional, family-oriented private club with a proud history, rich tradition, and commitment to the customs of the south.

In New York, where she ventured a year later in 2015, she held three jobs; dental assistant at day-time, restaurant manager at night time and an on-call nanny/personal assistant of high-profile personalities like Nicole Kushner-Meyer and Debra Tanger (of Tanger in Long Island, NY) and several others. Her first job was as a junior executive at an advertising agency.

“It wasn’t my profession, but I had no choice but to work hard,” she said. “Life was tough on being alone – with no one to lean on during difficult times. I hardly had enough sleep working three jobs.”

She was laid off from her two regular jobs as soon as the mandatory lockdown was imposed in March 2020 after working with them since 2015. Several months later, Ai’s Kitchen, a home-based business, was born. She baked pastries for desserts and offered them on consignment at several FilAm grocery stores and restaurants in Long Island and Queens.

The popular Puto, one of the pastries, is well-liked by customers | Photo via Ai Aromin

“People loved my pastries – bibingka, grilled tupig, ube flan, and ube bread pudding,” she said. “Besides delivering these at the stores, I was also getting phone orders, which I personally delivered to their homes or workplaces.”

She admits that starting a business wasn’t that smooth sailing as she had to do everything alone. “It wasn’t that hard to make money during the pandemic. I was making more compared to all my jobs before the pandemic,” she proudly said.

For Ai, she described the experience as a combination of blood, sweat, and tears. She was convinced it was time to take the business to a higher level, that is, to chase and achieve her childhood dream. The quality, great taste, and uniqueness of her four pastries and her focus on consumer satisfaction pushed the demand for them.

In June 2022, she founded Filipiniana Restaurant. A corner eatery along Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst sits about 22 people and is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. In the initial three months, she handled all the chores. She was a chef, server, cashier, and market person – buying everything needed to operate the store.

She likes challenges. She believes that commitment to a goal results in finding solutions to problems, like planning a menu catering to Filipinos seeking regional dishes that restaurants rarely offer. As an Ilocana, she thought of including favorite dishes like diningding, dinakdakan, dinuguan with puto, and kare-kare. Her current menu includes several Filipino favorite dishes from breakfast to dinner and appetizers to desserts. And, of course, the well-loved pastries.

Ai with her customers’ popular dishes | Photo via Ai Aromin

Besides her full-time work at the store, she still cooks, bakes for other stores, and caters to small and private parties. “It was an honor to cater events at the consul general’s residence or at the Philippine consulate for several times,” she said. But, now she has three people working for her.

She said she’s motivated by reviews of customers on Yelp and Google.Filipiniana Restaurant is still a baby company (8 months), but my vision is big enough. “One day, I will expand,” Ai said.

“Because of my hard work and dedication, I now have the Filipiniana Restaurant, a dream, and so is my calling fulfilled, said Ai Aromin.

Francis Zuasola, owner of Zuasola Funeral Homes of New Jersey LLC

Strange as it may sound and as odd as it may seem, owning a funeral home during regular times or the pandemic isn’t a business one may want to venture into. It is not about the nature of the business that entrepreneurs would not want to have but the stringent regulations that states impose on owners or would-be owners.

If the licensing requirements were less strict and exacting, many Filipinos would have entered the business, Francis Zuasola said. His establishment, Zuasola Funeral Homes LLC, is the only known funeral home owned and operated by a Filipino in the continental US.

Zuasola Funeral Homes of New Jersey LLC in Bloomfield, NJ | Photo via ZFH-NJ Website

As a one-stop-shop-service provider, the funeral home prepares everything after a contract is drawn, from the preparation of the remains of the deceased up to its transport to the local cemetery or flown to the Philippines.

“Unlike other funeral homes, if the family of the deceased decides to transport the remains to the Philippines, it is not problem for us,” Francis said. “Sometimes, most funeral homes would not want to handle the paperwork and other arrangements; they contact us instead.”

FAMILY AFFAIR: Francis Zuasola with children Chester, Cheska, and Chescko attending the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) Convention in Nashville, TN | Photo via Francis Zuasola

Francis also owns a full-service funeral home in the Philippines. As past president of the San Pablo City Mortuary Association (SPCMA) and a member of the Philippine Mortuary Association (PMA) and the National Funeral Directors Association, he knows the nitty-gritty operation involved. This makes Zuasola Funeral Homes the go-to entity for the Filipino community and even Philippine consulates serving other jurisdictions in the US.

During the pandemic, Francis said it was a chaotic time for funeral homes. Phones were off-the-hook. Some mortuaries took in dead bodies without scheduling them with the crematory. “As a result, it created a lot of headaches for them as body bags piled up at their sites or trucks or other vehicles they had to rent,” Francis said. “We did not want to have the same headache or availed of the opportunity to earn more; we opted to take only what we can have, meaning those with confirmed schedule with the crematory.”

Francis said that while the business was excellent and unexpected that year and in 2021, they were respectful and honest to the families of the deceased. “If they asked where the body is, we tell them precisely the stage of the process we were at,” he said. “Being truthful relieves their grief.”

When the business started in 2016, he partnered with an Italian friend; hence, the mortuary was known as Zuasola-Grillo Funeral Service, a fully operational funeral home serving the cultural needs of the Filipino communities in New Jersey. After four years, in June 2020, they decided to dissolve the partnership, and Francis went on his own.

The Receiving Room at the Zuasola Funeral Homes | Photo via ZFH-NJ website
The chapel at the Zuasola Funeral Homes | Photo via ZFH-NJ website

Today, Francis owns the funeral home with his daughter, Cheska, a graduate of the American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service, a specialized school for funeral service education for over 90 years. His son, Chester, will soon graduate from the same school and may work as an intern in a funeral home in New York this year.

“In this business, it is good to start succession-planning early. Preparing for the unexpected is the key.” Francis said. “In the Belleville-Bloomfield area, there used to be 25 funeral homes years ago, and now there are only 5.”

In 2022, even with COVID-19 slowing down, Zuasola Funeral Homes continued to grow. The pandemic gave his business the exposure it needed. The name has now become a community byword in providing care and lasting tribute to a departed loved one.

While the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well with Ai and Francis, how they will fare in the long term remains to be seen. True, instead of running for the hills when the pandemic hit, they saw a life-changing opportunity and managed to prosper while navigating the chaos.

Ai, who turned to be laid-off from work into opportunity, her restaurant and catering business is thriving. However, two pre-pandemic FilAm eateries on the same block as Filipiniana’s may pose a competition with her. Will she maintain the same business model she has or adapt herself to a new environment? But she may be doing something right. Like her, several FilAms also established their home businesses in 2020, but Ai appears to be the only one that put up a restaurant.

Francis, who took over a business, whether by luck or design, appears to have a solid business to bank on. Despite safety concerns about contracting the coronavirus, his business thrives with all the precautions he can muster. He has taken steps to ensure business stability and continuity into the future. His two children attended school per the family business; the youngest child may do the same. His establishment is the only Filipino-owned business in the nation and is safely entrenched. It appears that the only competition he faces is himself.

This story was produced as part of the Small Business Reporting Fellowship, organized by the Center for Community Media and funded by the NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.

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