Last April 26, on her Facebook page, Chef Waya Araos-Wijangco posted a stirring tribute to her five-year-old restaurant on Roces Avenue in Quezon City which she was about to close down.
She wrote, “My heart remembers how lovingly and painstakingly we built Gourmet Gypsy to what it is today. How this was where I felt I became a chef. I sought to create a restaurant that served delicious and interesting food in a welcoming, democratic setting. People come in as they are, dressed up or down did not matter. How this built a community of foodies, ragtag artists, musicians, theater workers, community workers, academics, intellectuals and advocates who frequented our restaurant and called it home.” In return, her post elicited hundreds of equally heartfelt comments, a testament to the community building at the heart of Wijangco’s café.
Gourmet Gypsy Art Café was a real oasis in the neighborhood, occupying a renovated bungalow across from Amoranto Sports Complex. The café reflected Wijangco’s “gypsy” wanderings, in its eclectic assortment of furnishings from her and her husband’s travels around the world, as well as in the menu offering international dishes she would sample abroad. This welcoming, inclusive setting was an integral part of Gourmet Gypsy’s ethos, as the restaurant also served as a supportive work environment for adults with special needs from Wijangco’s other “baby,” the Open Hand School, a vocational school for teens and adults with special needs.
While Gourmet Gypsy may have been one of the first pandemic-related casualties among Metro Manila restaurants, thankfully, this is far from the end of the Gourmet Gypsy story. There is still the Maginhawa Street branch housed in Open Hand School which reopens on May 18 with a new “grocery” concept.
ANCX recently chatted online with Wijangco who shared how she has been doing since she holed up in her café-school last March, her efforts in feeding frontliners, her plans for Gourmet Gypsy, and her thoughts on how restaurants have to address this “new normal.”
What made you decide to close down Gourmet Gypsy in Roces?
Valentine’s pa lang we felt that a change was happening. Right after Valentine’s, pabagsak na ang sales. And then there was confusion about whether there was going to be a lockdown or not, walang clear guidance from anywhere. We were changing policies about opening times, about social distancing inside the restaurants by the day. So ang hirap. We assured our staff we were going to pay them until April 14 during the lockdown then we’ll make the decision after. We had money to do one month, but at the end of one month, paano? So on April 8 or 9, I talked to our accountant, our lawyer and asked what’s the scenario if the lockdown extends and even after the lockdown. Are people going to come back? Are people going to eat at the restaurant? How long can we sustain that?... If all you’re doing is delivery, why will you maintain two branches, two rents, two overheads? It just didn’t make sense to do that. My accountant said, decide early because every day you're not deciding, you’re losing money. You have to make sure that you save as much as you can now, para may pangbangon ka pa, keysa na pag nasadsad ka sa lupa, wala na. There’s no going back from there.
What about your school?
We tried to do online classes, but you know it won’t work. It puts the parents in a bigger struggle to force their children to go online, make them sit, control them. So we decided to suspend operations until it’s actually safe to come back. A lot of our students have other conditions aside from autism, a lot of them are immune-compromised, have seizure disorders. So until it’s safe and we’re sure… ang hirap niyang i-manage. Crisis talaga iyan for special needs students, kasi paano?
Tell us about your work feeding frontliners.
I’ve always mobilized for disasters, for Taal, since Ondoy, so alam namin yung needs ng disasters pagdating sa ganyan… Pero sabi ko nga ibang disaster ito, kasi hindi naman siya baha, papaano natin i-address ito? Kaya dinecide namin mag lockdown, walang public transport, hindi kami makakauwi, so maaga yung planning namin for it, and we started delivering on day two…We’ve served over 30 hospitals 50,000 meals. We’re also giving assistance to around 6 barangays around here, the lumads in UP, the construction workers, and we channel donations towards other community kitchens.
How long have you been doing this?
It’s now day 50. Ang hirap mag stop kasi you don’t feel done, because the need is still there. Usually the private sector comes in during disasters to give government time to organize. Siempre may donor fatigue, people need to get back to work, we were waiting for government to take over. That's why it’s taking 50 days… But we’re actually going to end our (feeding) operations by (May 5). We need to refocus and get Gourmet Gypsy off the ground.
What will the new focus be?
We’re going to open a grocery, putting in the experience from running our lockdown kitchen. What will make this different is you have to book to shop. Since we’re managing the traffic within the grocery, we’ll take only two customers per time slot. So kampanti ka na hindi ka makikipag bangaan maski kanino. We’re charging an 80-peso booking fee because we’re spending a lot more on sanitation and safety.
What will you be selling?
We’ll have ready to heat, ready to cook, ready to eat dishes, and we’ll have kits, like a noodle kit, salad kit, sous vide kit, for finishing sa bahay. We’ll try to do a full pantry, so dried goods, vegetables, dried fish. I want to be able to support small businesses, especially led by women from home. We want to be able to serve as their platform for selling, so we’ll host them on the website and in the store, para magkaroon sila ng outlets. That’s what Gourmet Gypsy is about, building that community.
With the grocery concept, will your goods be less expensive?
Yes and no. Kasi hindi na siya dine in, wala na siyang service charge. But there is packaging and all the other protocols. We spend more on alcohol, bleach, masks, gloves. Plus the fact that our staff are housed, so we pay for the board and lodging. Keeping it safe is actually expensive. Bumili kami ng hepa filter, UV light, sanitizer. Mas OA ang use mo ng detergent, mas mataas lahat.
Will you eventually open Gourmet Gypsy for dine in?
I’m looking at all these (restaurant partitions), yung may acrylic sheets. I cannot! Huwag na lang tayo mag dine in pag ganyan! Again we’re about community. If you’re going to eat in a plastic bubble, that's not what it’s about.
What are your goals for Gourmet Gypsy in this time of pandemic?
I’ve never dreamt of being part of the big boys’ club. That's not my goal, miski kailan. It has always been to build a niche, develop a community around us that we support and who supports us, and develop products we believe in, networks that we believe in. We’re happy to be small but we want to be sustainable.
What have you learned about operating a restaurant like yours in a crisis?
What the closure of Roces has shown us is how vulnerable restaurants are. All of us have been operating on razor thin margins and all of us have been using labor to increase that margin. Paying people less and less, miski pataas ng pataas ang rental natin, pataas ng pataas ang product cost. So where have we been shaving that off? On labor. And we’ve made all our workers super vulnerable. We’ve made ourselves vulnerable. So that has to stop. We have to reformat and reboot how we do this so that our workers, kaya nilang i-survive kung may mangyari uli na ganito. Dapat medyo central ang usapan about what we’re doing for our workers. And that’s not there.
So is this the new normal for you?
No, we have to resist this as the new normal because we have to change. OK lang na normal na ito nagugutom ang mga tao, wala tayong job security? OK na sa iyo ito? We have to find a way where an actual normal, where people can thrive, can happen. Hindi natin puedeng tangapin na ito na iyun.
Gourmet Gypsy Art Café, 28 Maginhawa Street, Diliman, Quezon City, (02) 7211-1233,
Photos courtesy of Waya Araos-Wijangco and Gourmet Gypsy Art Café