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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – It’s 5 am – time to get up. But unlike two years ago, when she’d be preparing packed meals to be given for free to the jobless during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Feby Cachero Baguisa dela Peña would be preparing meals for her children’s lunch in school before preparing to run her own restaurant.
Feby’s Restaurant and Café had been a long time coming.
“Noon pa mang bago mag-pandemic, we had always been taking our chance to open a restaurant. Matagal na namin itong pinaplano,” Dela Peña told Rappler.
(We had always been taking our chance to open a restaurant even before the pandemic. We have been planning this for a long time.)
With the restaurant finally off the ground, Dela Peña vowed to continue her good deeds and take it to the next level.
The project was derailed over time due to the cost of setting it up and the pandemic itself, which shut down hotels, restaurants, bars, massage parlors and all other related businesses for about three months, in the process causing tens of thousands of people to lose their jobs.
It was also around this time of uncertainty in May 2020 when Dela Peña set off to give free food in the Muraqqabat area near her place from the AED500 that her husband, JP, gave her.
Soon enough, a bystander photographed her and her team standing next to plastic lunch containers of adobo and rice, holding a cardboard announcing “Free food for everyone.” The photo went viral, with major news organizations running her story.
And as her activity caught more attention, supporters started coming in with rice and all, which Dela Peña and her team prepared. The food drive was halted after Dubai authorities, while praising Dela Peña for her initiative, advised her about city measures on food safety issues.
Feby’s Restaurant employs 12 people who lost their jobs during the pandemic.
Dreams and plans
Dela Peña – visibly upbeat about her newest project brought to fruition with help from people who had supported her food drive during the pandemic – shared plans that promise a successful business operation.
For one, the restaurant, which just recently had a soft opening, is located on the mezzanine of BoonMax Hotel, a mid-level hospitality enterprise also in Muraqqabat, which is expected to go full swing by the last quarter of 2002, or the tourist peak season.
“We will be serving the hotel guests. We will also be providing room service. Everything is falling into place,” Dela Peña said.
Second, BoonMax Hotel stands on a long road lined with supermarkets and standalone restaurants, making it easier for Feby’s to have its share of the footfall precisely because the area is teeming with customers.
Third – and most importantly – is that people who were jobless and stranded during the pandemic but have now had a change of fortune were eager to pay back.
“Very recently, maraming mga taong natulungan namin noong pandemic, lumalapit sila, ‘Natulungan ‘nyo kami,’ sabi nila. Tapos umo-order sila,” Dela Peña said.
(Very recently, many of those we had helped during the pandemic are coming back, telling us: ‘You helped us before.’ Then they place orders.)
Good habits never die
Dela Peña said she will continue giving free food.
“Itutuloy namin ‘yun. Sabi ko sa kanila (staff), ‘Kung may pupunta dito na walang pambili, bigyan ‘nyo. ‘Yung naka-visit visa at walang-wala, pakainin natin kahit panglaman-tiyan habang nag-a-apply (ng trabaho),’” she said.
(We will still be doing that. I told the staff, ‘If someone comes here and has no money to buy food, give them food. Those who are on visit visa (looking for a job) and really have nothing, let’s feed them. Just so they don’t go hungry while looking for a job.’)
Foreigners who want to work in the UAE need to secure an employment visa. It is illegal to work without first obtaining proper visa status.
Meantime, Dela Peña – who, as the restaurant’s executive chef, is currently training two cooks – said she will raise the standards of the Filipino dining experience.
“I-raise natin ‘yung quality. Hindi ‘yung ‘pag sinabing Pinoy food e karinderya ang dating. Turo-turo,” she said.
She added: “Hindi porke maliit ang suweldo, ‘di na kayang kumain ng disente. Gusto ko lahat, kahit magkano suweldo, nakakakain ng may quality nang hindi nagsa-sacrifice ang bulsa. Hindi ‘yung pupunta lang dito ‘pag suweldo. Level up!”
(We will raise the quality. We will move away from the eateries that come to mind when you mention Filipino food. One should be able to have decent food even if his or her salary is not that big. I want everyone to be able to dine regardless of salary and with quality without sacrificing the budget.)
To further stress her point, Dela Peña said she will return the money of dissatisfied customers.
“Once hindi ‘nyo nagustuhan, ibabalik ko ang bayad ninyo dahil alam kong hard-earned money ninyo ‘yan. Nanghihinayang ako sa perang ginastos para sa pagkain. Kailangang masarap, sulit. ‘Yan ang misyon ko,” she said.
(I would give your payment back if you didn’t like the food, because I know it’s your hard-earned money. The food should be delicious so that you get your money’s worth. That’s my mission.)
Dela Peña, who used to be an office coordinator and hygiene manager at a gelato company, said they will serve food in clay pots and bamboo ladles. There will also be a hut for the weekend buffet spread.
“This is something different. Everything is very authentic,” she said.
Dela Peña, who hails from Sto. Tomas, Batangas, south of Manila, said they will be serving her hometown’s unique cuisine.
“So, we will be having kalderetang Batangas or what we call ‘Sinantomas.’ Sisig Batangas and more,” she said.
The restaurant seats a total of about 100 people. It will also serve intercontinental cuisine. – Rappler.com