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What's to say this won't happen again?

Les Sabilano, owner of Lamesa, doesn't know when dine-in is coming back. Instead, he's changing things so that he won't have to rely on that again.

Here we go again. Nothing feels new anymore, but everything feels old. Round 2 of lockdown, and this one feels worse than the last. I spoke to Les Sabilano, owner of Lamesa, the day the second lockdown was announced, and honestly I didn't really want to ask him how he's going to deal with this mess a second time. It felt a little too soon. But, what I learned from asking those same questions I didn't want to ask is that everything can serve as an opportunity for innovation. Les and Lamesa are using this time to redefine how eating at home can be enhanced by combining it with media, something that wasn't much there before. Oh, and please, if you say you love a restaurant, then show it. Don't say it and do nothing.

Thanks for doing this boss. Let's get it going straight off the top. Give me a brief rundown of how Lamesa came to be and how you personally got here.

Okay, cool. So I guess it starts with my parents. They opened a Filipino spot back in 1987 in Scarborough, and it was really created to serve the community. It served like groceries and takeout, money remittance, and things like that. So I grew up in that environment stocking shelves, helping in the kitchen, things like that. I grew up with the knowledge of the food and products. 

Initially I didn't want very much to do with food. Growing up in it, it's like, I don't want to be here. I don't want to be at the store. I want to be out doing whatever. So I didn't have aspirations of doing food at all, I was doing fashion. While I was doing that I decided to get a job from a reputable hospitality company in case I got to take over the family business. I went to go work for Oliver & Bonacini for six years, working at Canoe and Jump. All the while I was sort of still pursuing fashion, and I ended up going to George Brown for culinary school, because if I have to take over the family business then I should probably know something about cooking. I ultimately didn't pursue the fashion thing, but while I was working for Oliver & Bonacini, there was a moment there where I thought, why isn't there a Filipino restaurant downtown serving finer food? Why couldn't there be something fancier for the community that people can go to?

 

At the time, there really wasn't a Filipino restaurant in downtown Toronto.  It's not possible that a community can’t support at least one restaurant. One thing led to another and I convinced my family to  invest into opening something and we landed at Queen and Bathurst. You can't get more mainstream than Queen when showcasing Filipino food. Lamesa opened in 2012, and I would often get, “is this traditional Filipino? Is this what you would eat at home?”, and it wasn't, it was sort of modernized. We also had a restaurant on St. Clair called LASA, where we served more authentic food. Between numbers declining, rent going up, and the area changing, we decided to sell that location, and consolidate both teams up here (St. Clair) serving more traditional takeout. We tried to bring the La Mesa vibe up here and develop more dine-in vibe and less takeout, and that's what we were trying to build when COVID hit.

 

You're bringing me right into it. COVID. It’s the beginning of March, and shit pops off. Everything stops and you’re forced to close. How were those initial moments for you? You’re talking about building out this dining experience and the roof falls in. How was that?

I think, for me, I remember wanting to do the right thing. Just try to figure it out. What are we supposed to do? What is the right thing to do as a business owner, as a father, as a partner, as a member of the community? Should we stay open? Should we not? I remember, that was the big debate because there was a sentiment among restaurants that if you stay open then that's irresponsible. Everyone is in their own unique situation, and everyone has to make their own choices. But I remember the feeling being like, okay, I just want to do the right thing. For my staff, for me, for whoever.

No one thought we would still be doing this into November. Things change month to month, and sometimes daily. Being a business owner in an industry that’s collapsing, how did you cope?

You just try to roll with it, you know. You try to, I guess, assess your individual situation, and ask, “Okay, what can I do?” What I decided to do was open the restaurant on my own without any staff. I shortened the menu and I didn't want to put any of my staff at risk, but at the same time I'll take an opportunity to try to make whatever revenue we can. So yeah, I ran the place myself for like, two months. It turned out to be a great experience, because I learned a lot and it allowed us to keep our labor a little more manageable and at least try to be out there.

In terms of help from the Government, I’ve heard some businesses take advantage of the services but some don’t even qualify. It seems like help isn’t available for everyone. Has it been helpful for you?

Yeah I think the initial response was helpful in our situation. They made CERB available pretty quick and it was easily accessible, which helped as far as making sure the staff was good, and even ourselves. Without the CBA emergency loan I don't think we would have survived, and we wouldn't have lasted this long. So I think their initial response was good. But now with the second wave having a second wave of restrictions, now I'm finding that the response has been delayed. There's so many question marks. They're trying to figure it out, and the mechanics of government, I think, is slowing the process.

During this time, in my mind, it's either adapt or die, right? It's really that simple. How have you guys had to adapt? I've seen you do the La Mesa pop-ups of recent. How have you approached adaptation?

Initial feeling was let's take the restaurant more online. How can we create the restaurant experience and try to bring that more online for people? If we can generate revenue online, then maybe that insulates us more from these kinds of restrictions in the future? Who's to say this isn't gonna happen with a new virus two years from now? How can we structure our business so that we're not so dependent, and we can function outside of all that. That was my initial thought. Allowing people to order online to try to really make it easy. We tried to create Youtube videos about Filipino food that would provide information and content for people that ordered that we normally give here tableside, and that was really good. We tried to package restaurant experiences that we normally give here and fit it for the home experience with videos or supplemental things that could add to the experience. But again, it’s trying to build a business and become less dependent on the dine in revenue.

That’s dope dude. I love the idea of using media to enhance an experience where it never existed before. Innovation.

Now, how are you approaching this lockdown differently than the first one?

I think I'm quicker to react. The last one we closed up and we were trying to assess what the right thing was to do. Ultimately, I slowly made my way into running the restaurant on my own and it was a gradual process. But, I also feel like we lost precious time figuring it out. If I just jumped into working right away and stayed open, then it would have stayed more visible, and maybe our numbers wouldn't have suffered. I think for a lot of restaurants that did close for a period of time it's like you fall off the face of the earth, and it takes you a while to become more visible and catch your breath. So this time around, I know that I can run on my own. I've already told our staff if we go into lockdown shifts are obviously gonna be cut and we're gonna minimize labor as much as possible. The staff understands, so that's what we're gonna do. Continue to do pop-ups, and we can find other ways to make money until we can have dine-in again.

Coming from your eyes and your experiences, what don’t people know about how hard it’s been?

I'm not sure. I thought about this question when I read it, and I was like, I know people are suffering. Hospitality or not, everyone in every industry is hurting. So I'm sure people get it as it’s has been talked about ad nauseam. Just know that there are people behind the shuttered businesses that have papered up. There is a lot of emotional stress that people are going through. So although business owners, restaurant owners, your buddy might own a restaurant, just know that it's not easy, for sure. Maybe they're putting on a brave face. But it has been stressful and the most emotionally challenging. I would encourage people to offer their friends support and encouragement, because I think people do know. I think people can understand what it must be like.

As we wrap this up, people want to help the industry more but they don’t know how. Through your words, what ideas can you offer?

I would say if you have a restaurant that you really care about that is doing something like a pop-up, just take the time to go there. I think making the effort to actually go there and not saying that you're thinking about maybe going. Actions speak louder than words. So if you care about it, support it. If you don't, then it won't be there. You know?

Final Thoughts?

As a Philippine restaurant, I would just encourage people to try Filipino food. The majority of diners don't really know what Filipino food is and step in without any kind of reference point. That can be intimidating. You tend to make easier choices when it comes to food because you don't want to be disappointed. So I would just encourage people to try Filipino food. It's probably not what you expect, and we'd love the opportunity to share with you.

All images are from @lamesato

All images are from @lamesato

You can check out Lamesa here

or

visit (for pickup right now) at 634 St. Clair Ave W