Ilocanos are often stereotyped as a thrifty lot. The arid soil in the northern part of the country is said to be difficult to till, so the people are forced to scrimp, save and live within their means. This is actually not something to be embarrassed about. They are also very creative and open to try “new” concepts like bartering among themselves.
During the enhanced community quarantine, Laoagueños tried bartering online. The items were not high-end goods, but more likely pantry staples that they exchanged for baked pastries. Like in other places throughout the country, the pandemic moved some to come up with ways to augment the family income.
A Laoag-based mother of two young daughters, Jenina Juan Que already had a few projects running when COVID-19 put everything to a halt. Her supportive husband was happy to see her juggling mommy duties with kitchen projects that included making a salable cheese pimiento spread, and assembling grazing boxes with older sister January and a business partner.
“For a couple of months after the Luzon-wide quarantine was announced, we just stopped. Like most people, I was scared of getting myself and my family infected,” Que told Lifestyle in an email interview.
But like other small businesses in the city, they gradually made their way back into the market. Que said she had no intentions of calling it quits, and recalled the time she closed her first “sale” when she was seven.
“My friends and I were playing playing bahay-bahayan and were trying to build a small fire to boil water in clay pots. One kid wanted some of the hot water but I didn’t want to give it away for free. It was hard to get that fire going so I sold hot water for a peso per glass. I think I made P10 that afternoon,” Que said.
She’s come a bit of a way from selling overpriced boiled water, and now sells everything from the aforementioned cheese spread and grazing boxes to potted plants and native woven planters that she orders from Sorsogon and Ilocos Sur.
The 35-year-old is actually a licensed nurse but realized she wasn’t cut out for the graveyard shift. “In 2016, a friend asked me to manage his restaurant for him. That’s where I learned how to manage resources, do costings and use marketing strategies. It was also then that I decided to sell my cheese pimiento spread and name my business The Fat Buddha.” As a child, Que was a chubby kid and went by the nickname Buddha.
She credits her late mother Eleanor for giving her the “gentle push” she needed to start her own business. “She said, ‘If you don’t want to be a nurse, you might as well make money out of your passion for food and throwing small parties,’” she recalled.
Practice makes perfect
Her four older sisters may be more adept at putting recipes together but for Que, practice makes perfect. There was a time during the lockdown when she felt like she was neglecting her daughters’ needs, but she eventually found her groove and reports that business picked up in December.
To drum up interest in her projects, she sometimes joins pop-up events and weekend bazaars. She is also able to reach people online quickly if she needs to get the word out that she has a few trays of sushi bake or individual portions of overnight oats with assorted toppings available.
Que is not the only small-scale entrepreneur in her family. Her sister Margo (@snuggleandstitch on Instagram) sells handmade plushies, another sister, Ona, sells keto food items like shirataki noodles, and their Los Angeles-based ate sells Vigan-style longganisa in wonton wrappers.
“Ilocanos are resourceful. Our barren farmlands and water resources provide little for Ilocano families; that’s why many of us go abroad to find work. Despite this, many Ilocanos like me use their resourcefulness, creativity and passion to make a decent living,” Que said.