When Nick’s on Mission opened this past fall, in the heart of San Francisco’s Filipino Cultural Heritage District, the restaurant was a pioneer in many respects: as the first vegan Filipino restaurant in the city, its an outlier within a traditionally meat-heavy cuisine, slinging mock pork lumpia and mushroom-and-tofu sisig on an economically challenged SoMa block. Despite that, Nick’s has been a success, chef and co-owner Reina Montenegro says — or it was until last month, when the region-wide coronavirus shutdown forced the restaurant to lay off its staff and shut the Mission Street restaurant down, keeping its South San Francisco location, Nick’s on Grand, open for takeout on a limited basis.
“It’s really awful because we basically only make 10 percent of what we used to make,” Montenegro says, saying that she can’t afford to pay her rent or to cover payroll for her employees from the last pay period. In a region where dining rooms have been shut down by the pandemic for nearly a month, Nick’s on Mission’s story is far from unique. But the Bay Area’s Filipino food community has been hit particularly hard by the shutdown, according to Desi Danganan, the executive director of Kultivate Labs, a SoMa-based Filipino business incubator and arts organization: A survey conducted by the nonprofit found that more than half of the Filipino restaurants it works with have suffered a 90 percent drop in revenue.
That precipitous decline was one of the main inspirations for Kultivate to launch Filipinos Feed the Frontlines, a new fundraising initiative that aims to raise $100,000 to pay struggling Filipino restaurants to provide 10,000 free meals to local hospitals and vulnerable people in the SoMa community.
The basic setup is not unlike the multitude of other initiatives that have launched in the past couple of weeks: A pool of donated funds pays restaurants to provide meals for those who need them. The ideal result is a win-win, as free meals go to food-insecure communities and front-line workers, and the modest amount of guaranteed income can help keep a struggling restaurant afloat.
The difference with Filipinos Feed the Frontlines is its focus on one culturally specific food business community — one that’s suffering for a variety of reasons, Danganan says. A significant number of newer Filipino restaurants like Nick’s on Mission never had time to establish themselves, Danganan says, and a large contingent of pop-up food businesses have no place to operate now that big food events (like Kultivate’s Undiscovered night market) and other public gatherings are completely shut down.
To a large extent, the initiative is aimed at mobilizing Filipinos to help other Filipinos. Part of the funds will be distributed by local nonprofits to vulnerable people in the SoMa neighborhood, where a large number of low-income and elder Filipino Americans live — though Danganan stresses that the meals will go to anyone who needs them, not just Filipino folks.
The other main beneficiary will be health care workers at local hospitals, which speaks to another way the COVID-19 crisis has had a devastating, deeply personal impact on the Filipino community: About 20 percent of the registered nurses in California are Filipino. At a hospital like Daly City’s Seton Medical Center (one of seven hospitals that will receive meals through the program), which recently set apart more than half of its beds to treat COVID-19 patients, a whopping 60 percent of the nurses are Filipino. And so, Danganan explains, any restaurateur who’s part of the Filipino community is almost certain to have loved ones who are risking their health at the front lines of the fight against COVID-19 — Nick’s on Mission’s Montenegro, for instance, says she has multiple friends and family members who are nurses.
In that sense, Danganan says, the Filipinos Feed the Frontlines initiative is tied to the Filipino notion of “kapwa.” “It’s a concept of deep empathy — that everyone is interconnected,” Danganan explains. That sense of kapwa, he says, is why even though all of these Filipino restaurant owners are struggling just to keep their businesses alive, they all just kept asking him, “Hey, how can we give away our food for free?” — not expecting to be paid anything even to cover their own expenses. What they settled on was something a little bit more sustainable: a payment of $10 a meal, divvied up between participating restaurants each week from the total pool of funds. Nick’s on Grand, for instance, will be paid $1,000 this week for the 100 meals it’s serving.
The nine businesses currently signed up to provide meals through Filipinos Feed the Frontlines include some of the most prominent names in the Bay Area Filipino food community: Nick’s on Grand, Señor Sisig, Lumpia Company, Sarap Shop, Mestiza and Little Skillet, FK Frozen Custard, Manila Bowl, SF Chickenbox/IVSF Catering, and the pop-up Ox and Tiger. As of publication time, the campaign has raised more than $12,000 since it launched over the weekend — it’s actively seeking both corporate sponsorships and small individual donations.