Filipino food trippin’ in Manitoba, Canada

Jollibee’s Winnipeg crew (left to right) Belva Recio, Katrina Ramirez, Jonalyn Nibay and Ericka Magnaye. INQUIRER/Isabel Buenaobra

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Food is one of the first things immigrants and exiles miss in an adopted country. Filipino immigrants have pangs of homesickness because they miss their loved ones, their friends, and yes, Filipino food. For Filipino immigrants in North America, the craving for Filipino food is never-ending.

Many Filipino and Asian stores and restaurants have sprouted to cater to immigrants. When you visit a Filipino home, the first thing asked is, “Have you eaten?” after which the hosts would scramble into the kitchen and gather whatever food or drink they have and offer these to guests.

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In both the corporate and nonprofit world, food is almost always part of meetings and seminars. Donors are amused to see so many meals and snacks as budget items in a proposed project activity. There’s a story about a foreigner who, when learning that Filipinos ate five meals a day, exclaimed: “No wonder you’re poor, you eat five times a day!”

Filipino food giant Jollibee, detecting immigrants’ longing for “lasang Pinas,” has succeeded in penetrating the North American market. Jose Miñana, Jollibee Foods Corporation Group President in North America, confirmed that Jollibee is aggressively expanding its foothold in here, as part of its goal to be among the top five quick-service restaurant brands in the world by 2020.

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“With the many Filipinos who have been longing to have a taste of home in Canada, we thought that no other fast food brand can do that but Jollibee,” states Miñaba. “As such, we have opened our first Canadian store in Winnipeg, which has the largest density of Filipinos, on December 15, 2016.”

The Jollibee store in Ellice Avenue in Winnipeg is strategically located near commercial establishments. It has about 100-plus employees, most of whom are Filipinos; five non-Filipinos. The store offers the trademark Chicken Joy, hamburgers, spaghetti and peach mango pie, but it is not yet serving breakfast meals and hotdogs.

Belva Recio, restaurant manager, says that sales have been brisk and the store is packed even on weekdays. Filipino customers, particularly truck drivers from provinces such as Saskatchewan, troop to the store for take-out food for their long journeys. It is slowly becoming a tradition for Filipinos to bring Jollibee products during the cross-country haul. Recio and her family immigrated to Canada in 2010. She finished a diploma program on human resources management at the University of Winnipeg, and although she is not an HR practitioner in Jollibee, she utilizes lessons from the program to enhance the customer-service skills of the Jollibee workforce. With the success of the first Jollibee store in Winnipeg, there are plans to expand in Winnipeg Northgate, Scarborough, Mississauga and Edmonton, as well as in Manhattan, New York.

On a Sunday morning, customers trickled in and quickly filled up the store. Belva and her crew welcomed them with a smile, validating Miñana’s statement: “We at Jollibee stay true to the way we do our business. Our key guiding principle is to always spread the joy of eating through our great tasting food offerings, served with warm and friendly service inside our beautiful stores that are as comfortable as a home for families, friends, and communities to come together—exactly what we’ve been doing in our Canada store.”

Meanwhile, other establishments that cater to the cravings of Filipino immigrants for home-cooked Filipino food include Mama Nors Kitchen located on Leila Avenue in Winnipeg. Mama Nors provides catering services and her specialties include ginataang alimasag, fish sa miso, bistek Tagalog, bopis, pakbet, lechon kawali, daing na bangus, adobong pusit, kaldereta, and yes, tuyo.

Mama Nors says the family-owned business started in 2015, when she prepared atsara (pickled vegetables) for a fundraising event for their church, Truth Tabernacle Church. Church members liked the atsara so much that it motivated her to venture into the catering business. She took over the space of a restaurant that closed and they officially opened on April 1, 2016.

Service with a smile at Jollibee’s Winnipeg. INQUIRER/Isabel Buenaobra

Mama Nors, who is passionate about cooking, says she is happy when customers are satisfied with their service. She credits the success of her business, not only to the reasonably priced delicious food, but also to the customer service skills of family members who are involved in the business. Her three adult children help out during weekends and take charge of customer relations. She has ingrained in them the value of hard work and reminds them to always greet customers with a smile.

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Aside from her supportive husband, Papa Dave, other relatives employed in the business include an aunt, cousin and brother-in-law. Her persistence and hard work have paid off. She has a lot of repeat customers and can cater to as many as 200 guests. An immigrant since 1991, she is grateful for the blessings, likes Winnipeg and calls it home.

For Filipinos who crave kakanin (rice-based snacks) lumpia, TJ Hotdogs, banana cue, lechon, and halo halo, can search for them on 204 Filipino Marketplace, the website for the Filipino community in Manitoba. The products, though, can be a bit pricey; but for Filipinos whose cravings need to be satisfied, it may not matter. In recognition of the Filipinos’ yearning for videoke, balut, street food and boodlefight, a food trip is planned in September in Tyndall Park in Manitoba. That is definitely something to watch for.

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