A Filipino restaurant in the middle of Nowhere, Vermont
St. JOHNSBURY, Vermont — For Chinese and Thai restaurants, the business model seems to be “build it, and they will come.” Filipino restaurants, on the other hand, tend to survive only in urban areas with a good number of Filipinos. So, what’s a Filipino restaurant doing in the middle of nowhere, 48 miles south of the U.S.-Canada border?
St. Johnsbury is the shire town of Caledonia County, Vermont. Its population was 7,603 per the 2010 Census. This is where entrepreneur George Sales chose to open his restaurant, Pica-pica. INQUIRER.net Correspondent Marvin Bionat (MB) interviewed Sales, wondering why the latter opened a Filipino restaurant in a place with practically no Filipinos around.
George Sales (GS): Well, the story really began when I married my now husband, Patrick (Pat), who is a native Vermonter but worked in McLean, VA (Metro DC). Since 2004, we would alternate holidays by either flying up to the Green Mountain State to be with his parents and relatives, or his parents would fly down to DC to spend time with us. As they got older and the DC “scene” got tiring for us as well, we decided that it would be ideal to move up to Vermont and take care of them, while escaping the maddening world of Washington, DC (think traffic, politics, and the constant need to keep up with the Joneses!). It was an easy decision, and Pat’s work as a senior director for a global company allowed him to work remotely.
I got into this business not with the mindset of making lots of money (I can just go back to my old profession for that!), but rather do what I love doing, do it with passion, and offer it to the community. I wanted to present my angle of what Filipino food is and showcase it in an inviting setting. So I haven’t really defied expectations per se for what a restaurant or business should be, but rather I defined my own criteria for success. If someone who has never had Pinoy food before walks out loving the adobo or pancit, and raves about the experience, that for me is my definition of success!
MB: After two years, Pica-pica has earned an almost perfect 5-star rating among 42 reviewers on TripAdvisor, placing you in the top 3 of all 24 restaurants in Saint Johnsbury. On Facebook, you’ve earned 4.9 stars out of 5 based on 72 recommendations. Reviewer comments focus on extraordinary friendliness, great food and service, vegetarian menu, and coziness. Have these social media accolades significantly impacted your business bottom line?
GS: The feedback that we receive from social media sites is very flattering, quite humbling, and cautiously motivating. I often must remind my staff (who are, right now, all non-Filipinos) that there are advantages and disadvantages to the social media, and we must always be aware of that: I remind them that not everyone will like Filipino food (as with any other cuisine).
Given the small market in which we operate, a big proportion of our clientele are transients, so they do rely on social media sites such as TripAdvisor, Yelp, or Facebook as they travel through our town. As the only Filipino restaurant in the state (and one of a very select few in New England), we focus not only on the food (i.e., authenticity, flavor, presentation, etc.), but also on the experience (i.e., dining experience). I always remind my team: we are not in the business of selling food, but rather an experience!
MB: Pica-pica appears to showcase not just the best of Filipino cuisine, but the best of Filipino culture as well. “When you’re with Filipinos, you’re with family!” is a theme that resonates among foreigners who visit the Philippines and something you want to convey in a video clip on your website. How challenging is that for you, considering that there is a dearth of Filipino workers in Vermont?
GS: No doubt, one of the most remarkable and memorable traits that visitors of the Philippines say is the warmth and hospitality of the Filipino. This has always been the one thing that those who have been to the Philippines tell me whenever I get the chance to mingle with non-Filipino customers. And given that there are many more Americans in our part of the US who haven’t even been outside the US (let alone the Philippines!), this is exactly what we are going for if you visit Pica-pica—a warm, inviting space with a friendly and attentive staff.
How hard is it? Very, but most of my staff are either young kids who are still malleable (there’s a local high school with which I partner) or hospitality professionals who know the basics but just need to know the “Filipino” way. I’d love to welcome more Pinoy workers, but alas, there are not too many in Vermont.
MB: Your focus on being part of the community is evident in your support for and partnership with local organizations. Apart from your social commitment as a low-profit business, how much of this focus is good for your bottom line and, perhaps more importantly, is driven by your own life story as an immigrant?
GS: I believe any investment in your community is a good investment, but only as long as it serves a greater purpose and provides a lasting benefit. All of the organizations that we partner with operate along these lines: Northeast Kingdom Animal Shelter and Central Vermont Humane Society (Pat and I love animals, and we have four rescued dogs in our home), Pride Center of Vermont (we support equality for all), Umbrella (a women’s advocacy organization), and local libraries.
I had a very understanding boss at the Hyatt Hotel in Arlington, VA, as he allowed me to work any hours I wanted while I pursued my bachelor’s degree at George Mason University; my boss at the World Bank insisted that I go back to grad school as he saw more in me than just doing “clerical” work; the admissions director who, despite my low GMAT scores, admitted me to the MBA class at Case Western Reserve University; and the managing director at KPMG who believed in me and hired me on the spot. Of course, there were numerous mentors, co-workers, family, and friends who have given me much as well.
So now that I can, I try to pay it forward.
MB: How much of your business is due to Filipinos traveling between urban centers, including Montreal, Burlington, Boston, and New York? How do you attempt to put yourself on the travelers’ map?
GS: Surprisingly, we get more business from non-Filipinos traveling through or around the area! We do draw Pinoys in the area as it is a small community within a small state, and many make a special weekend trip to dine with us. As mentioned, being the only Filipino restaurant in the region, many locals (Americans) as well as foreigners are intrigued and amused by the fact that an authentic Pinoy restaurant operates in the middle of small-town America, and end up having a positive experience and an equally positive impression of the Philippines! Once, a vacationing older Dutch couple who dined with us said, “This is the best meal we’ve had in America!” (They had the kare-kare and daing na bangus.)
At the end of the day, we accept the fact that we cannot please 100 percent of customers 100 percent of the time, and that’s 100 percent acceptable!
Incidentally, the most popular dish of my staff, which is comprised of mostly sterling white local kids, is (drum roll) … pinakbet!
Full address of George’s restaurant:
Pica-pica Filipino Cuisine
1214 Main Street
Saint Johnsbury, Vermont