Filipino businesses at LIttle Manila on Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, NY | Photo by Troi Santos
NEW YORK – Like most Asian American entrepreneurs, the Filipino American business community was not spared by the pandemic’s widespread economic disruption. Businesses closed, and unemployment surged. This was particularly hard on restaurants, grocery stores, and travel agencies, including lawyers, dentists, and accountants whose professions are incorporated. Yet, there is resilience at work that has kept some businesses afloat. Most of these businesses are based in Queens, NY, Jersey City, NJ, and Bergenfield, NJ, considered Filipino enclaves.
According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, which conducted a study of Covid-19 on small businesses in the United States, the number of active business owners dropped by 3.3 million or 22% over the crucial two-month period from February to April 2020, which was the largest on record. Losses were felt across nearly all industries and even for incorporated businesses.
While African-American businesses were hit the highest at a 41% drop, Asian business owners dropped by 26%. Immigrant business owners experienced substantial losses of 36%.
In addition, the Asian American Foundation (AAF) found that the pandemic has brought a twofold blow to Asian-American small business owners. Hate crimes against Asians in the U.S. surged by 169% from the first quarter of 2020 to the first quarter of 2021, the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, found. In New York City, with an AAPI population of 14.5% of its 8,336,817, there was a 223% increase in hate crimes from 13% during the first quarter of 2020 to 42% in 2021 first quarter.
That has many Asian Americans afraid: A recent Pew survey found that one-third feared someone might threaten or physically attack them.
However, as a racial group of AAPI, this article found, although on a minor sampling exercise, few Filipino American business owners were concerned about the fear factor of hate crimes, and most were anxious about financial losses and health issues because of the lockdown. Another interesting piece of information this article found is the age of business owners. Out of a dozen business owners interviewed, 80% were over 45 years old and had been in the business for over ten years. This brings another dimension, which is generational.
While it seems that older business owners are more cautious and pragmatic in their approach to managing the business, in the same set of business owners, the younger age group seemed to be more goal-oriented, organized, and risk-takers. The older generation, it seemed, went about their business to provide for their family and have their children finish their college studies. On the other hand, the younger entrepreneurs thought about expansion and creating a business niche that would bring them success from their ideas.
These are their stories.
Attorney Manny Quintal has been renting his office across 26 Federal Plaza in Manhattan since 1995. When the pandemic hit and a lockdown was imposed, the building, which houses many offices like his, was likewise shuttered.
He said his clients did not want their papers processed since the Immigration and Citizenship Enforcement was closed anyway. “People feared to go to our office even when COVID-19 was a bit waning in mid-2022,” he said. “This is the reason why there is a back-log in the immigration office until now.”
While most of his office’s workload is on immigration, his other legal services were likewise affected. His clientele includes Pakistanis, Jamaicans, Nigerians, Ghanaians, and Filipinos. “It was a no-work-no pay,” he smiled, although you could feel the seriousness of his statement. He thought of moving his office to a smaller space across the hall, which meant giving up tenable work areas for a team of four staff members.
But, a breakthrough came. The landlord reduced the rent, and his application for government assistance through a Small Business Administration loan was approved. The loan was payable for 30 years, which allowed him to continue the business without going elsewhere. “That was a breather for me,” he said.
The Manhattan Experience
Along First Avenue in Manhattan, in the East Village, there used to be a row of popular Filipino-owned restaurants such as the Jeepney, Maharlika, Ugly Chicken, and Elvie’s Turo-Turo catered to Filipinos, locals, and tourists. But after the pandemic, their businesses closed, and customers went to Queens or New Jersey.
But other Filipino restaurants in the area are still around, like Mama Fina’s on Avenue A, Grill 21 on 21st Street, Tradisyon on 9th Avenue, Gugu Room on Orchard Street, and Bilao on 71st and 1st Avenue.
Augee Francisco and her partner Joey Payumo founded a small coffee house on Allen Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan named Kabisera. When it opened in December 2017, it only had an espresso bar and cookies to offer its customers — primarily locals and tourists. By April 2019, they added several items to their menu, which included small pastries, Filipino-inspired paninis with adobo pork or chicken, or avocado, longaniza (sausages), quesadilla, salad, and pork tocino, a Spanish term for “bacon” associated with the belly, or shoulder portion of the pig.
As the business grew, they rented another storefront next door to expand the business with a turo-turo (point point)” style where customers would point at any food on display that they would like to be served. It remained open during the pandemic but at limited hours and with strict compliance with health protocols. Their sales revenue went down, but a few weeks later, as the pandemic continued to surge, volunteers from a nearby church convinced them to do coffee runs for hospital medical workers. With fewer customers going to their place, they had to reduce the staff, with only Augee doing most of the work.
Volunteers delivered coffee and sandwiches as far as the Westchester area using sponsored or donated funds. “I am so thankful this helped us,” said Augee. “We were transparent in the process, informing donors and sponsors where their money was to which hospital.”
Augee also credits the pop-up events she, her friends, and business owners put up along Allen Street, where street food and wares were served and sold. “It was a huge success which other groups in the city also used for their events. Kabisera’s story is not over; there’s more to talk about its journey on how the owners cope with the pandemic. “Never lose hope,” Augee says. “Trust and have faith in people – they deliver the results you don’t expect.” “Finally,” she said, “be grateful for all the blessings that come. They are priceless.”
Fast forward to 2023. The couple opened another Kabisera on Canal Street.
Little Manila in Queens, NY
In Queens, in the Woodside/Elmhurst section, Filipino-owned restaurants are aplenty, beginning on Queens Boulevard with Tito Radz and Kabayan to the mid-section at the now Little Manila intersection of 70th Street and Roosevelt Avenue.
The iconic PhilAm Food Mart, founded in the mid-70s, is still a fixture in the area. There are several restaurants to choose from, such as Kabayan Bistro, Renee’s, Kusina, Jollibee, Amazing Grace, and Red Ribbon Bakeshop which are operational until now.
But it is not only restaurants that you find in Little Manila; there are freight forwarders, remittance companies, law offices, health and beauty spas, a bank, and other businesses on Roosevelt Avenue.
Jersey City, a storied place
Across the Hudson River, in Jersey City, home to more than 16,000 Filipinos (in 2010) or 7% of Jersey City’s population, there is a stark reminder of what the pandemic caused to some Filipino business owners. A drive from Journal Square along JF Kennedy Blvd., you would see Filipino-owned businesses – such as a travel agency, dental office, grocery store, real estate offices, and a publishing house – that once boomed many years ago. They are no longer there.
On Newark Avenue, several Filipino-owned storefront businesses are likewise absent. The same was evident on Montgomery Street and West Side Avenue, where some restaurants have closed. They had their specialty food on their menu to offer that loyal customers craved. They were short-lived and were taken over by another entrepreneur. An old-time favorite, Rowena’s, is now Isla Filipina, owned by the same owners of The Backyard, a new three-story multi-purpose venue: a restaurant, private meeting rooms, and an event place for concert shows and reception parties on the third floor.
According to eyewitness accounts, some businesses that closed shop were financially strapped or struggling even before the pandemic, and owners decided to end the business.
This writer reached out to one of the relatives of the owner of a travel agency in confidence (he did not want to be identified in this story.) He said his uncle, the owner, could have applied for the government economic stimulus, but he did not. When asked why not, he said the owner did not want to be bothered with additional debt. His uncle has properties and businesses in New York and New Jersey.
“Besides, he believed the information needed to provide in the application was enormous and complicated,” he said. “He (his uncle) did not want his accountant to do anything with it.” He said his uncle thought it would be a big headache if he continued the business.
The travel agency had a good following from the neighborhood, and many wondered why it closed. The office was considered an iconic place as it also served as a meeting place for several community leaders that helped shape the presence and involvement of Filipino Americans in civic affairs.
On West Side Avenue, MRMMLechonBelly, founded by 45-year-old Raffy Ronas and four of his friends, opened in 2021; they took over where Carol’s Cabalen used to be. After operating it for a year, it closed after Raffy and his family moved to Egg Harbor Township in New Jersey. With Raffy’s experience as a cook and business owner in the Philippines, in 2022, he took over an existing turo-turo restaurant. He turned it into a plated-dining restaurant known as Familya Kusina.
He said that with all the changes he introduced in the restaurant, which has a 30-seat capacity, his customers are growing, and the place has even attracted non-Filipinos. They take both dine-in and take-out orders, which represent 70% of his daily sales. Familya’s specialties include all-time favorite lechon belly, tapa, tocino, fresh lumpia, sisig, and kaldereta. He was proud to say that he has his recipe for his chicken inasal.
He also has leased a venue named Headquarters NJ, where concerts, birthday parties, and other social events could be held. Next in his project is a grocery store that is under renovation. Once it is completed, he said his vision of horizontal business integration will have been realized.
“Think positive; it is infectious.”If everybody is down, we must get up and be positive. ” No one wants to join a quitter; we must move on. We have to create opportunities, no grieving,” Raffy said.
Perhaps taking a cue from what Raffy said about being positive, a Filipino business owner’s experience in the Teaneck/Bergenfield area provides a glimpse of what hope should be. A successful businessman (he wanted to remain anonymous) for more than 25 years, he was downtrodden when the pandemic hit.
While maintaining a grocery store, he expanded his business to a 99 Ranch supermarket branch in Hackensack, New Jersey. He signed a lease contract with his guarantee in January 2020; two months after, in March 2020, the pandemic happened.
“Although the supermart was opened at limited hours, there were very few people coming in,” he said. “Business was slow and insufficient to meet my rent and overhead..” He had to let go of his staff at the grocery in Bergenfield/Teaneck while he and his wife took turns manning both stores.”
He said he maxed out their credit cards to sustain the stores. While he got some government assistance, it was not enough to cover all the expenses of operating both stores. On top of it, he contracted Covid, which he thought he was protected from by the vaccines he had taken. He was down for 7 to 10 days, and still, the business condition did not improve.
Ultimately, he took a substantial financial loss on the Hackensack operation, and the Bergenfield/Teaneck store remained afloat. “I love the business, it energizes me everyday. But with the pandemic, I fell into depression,” he said. “I’m okay now with the business steadily recovering. I cannot lose hope, it is the strength that will carry me on.”
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.