In the days before the pandemic, Waya Araos-Wijangco’s restaurant, Gourmet Gypsy Art Cafe, specialized in eclectic global cuisine. The restaurant’s bohemian interiors served as a perfect backdrop to dates. Now, Gourmet Gypsy’s kitchens are working on something more urgent than promoting romance: they produce food for frontliners and communities affected by the pandemic.

BusinessWorld interviewed Ms. Araos-Wijangco via Zoom last week to talk about their efforts. Along with her team, Ms. Araos-Wijangco has elected to stay isolated inside the facility. Remarking that they were like soldiers assigned to barracks, she laughed with much-needed cheer and said, “Right now? Yes!”

Gourmet Gypsy’s staff gets chicken ready for 350 meals which will be delivered to hospital workers at the Lung Center, Heart Center, National Kidney and Transplant Institute, East Avenue Medical Center, and Quirino Memorial Medical Center.

All the efforts are concentrated in her allied vocational school, Open Hands, which has amenities and roomy quarters “that are socially distant from each other,” she pointed out. All the employees wear masks and gloves at all times. All the employees still continue to get compensation. “Ako lang ang volunteer!,” she laughs. Taking a serious tone, she noted, “They’re all breadwinners. We have to make sure that their families are fed too.”

The food and donations are picked up and delivered with a no-contact protocol. All these measures were taken to ensure that the meals they prepare will be safe from the virus. “Even before the lockdown started, we locked down our kitchen,” she said.

On April 1, 50 frontliners at the Cardinal Santos Hospital tucked into their lunch of daing na bangus and ginisang kalabasa, sitaw at malunggay. On the menu for breakfast on Palm Sunday were quesadillas and choriburgers. And sometimes frontliners are in for a sweet treat — frontliners at Lourdes Hospital received boxes of macarons this week.

Thousands of donated quail eggs.

“We make an effort to really make our meals as nutritious as possible. We try not to resort to shortcuts,” Ms. Araos-Wijangco said. “It’s really a challenge to do the menu planning,” she said, because they always have to work with whatever arrives at their doorstep. “You have to put together a meal that’s nutritious, does not spoil easily — right? And it has to be palatable and delicious.” 

Cash and in-kind donations are received by them through the help of organizations like Frontline Feeders Ph (under RockED) and Salamat PH Healthcare Heroes. “They’re the ones who look for donors, and then they send us money so that we can keep producing the food.” Sometimes, they receive donations from private individuals, especially donations in kind like rice and meat. Bigger organizations have also helped — on March 30, they received 1.7 tons of fruits and vegetables from the Pilipinas Shell Foundation, which had bought the produce from farmers in Rizal. Another time they received 6,000 quail eggs. Donors have sent herbs from their gardens. She noted that a donation of six tons of vegetables was due to arrive early this week. 

As of the time of writing, according to her, they have produced 15,000 meals for more than 20 hospitals. 

While a large part of their efforts go to medical frontliners, Ms. Araos-Wijangco makes sure that the food goes to where it is most needed. She cites, for example, that some prestigious hospitals will have a lot of people backing them up, while less-famous hospitals might have to do with less. “We keep a database of the hospitals, and who donates to the hospitals, so that no food is wasted,” she said. “We look for the hospitals who really need it, because they’re not known in circles of donors.” Some of the food also goes towards communities with feeding programs. “We’re facing the urgency of the needs of frontliners and the needs of communities. We need to make sure that people are fed… para hindi tayo magkaroon ng unrest (so we don’t have unrest).”

Ms. Araos-Wijangco, as a small business owner, acknowledges the challenges that will face her and other business owners once the quarantine is lifted. “We’re going to come back to a changed world,”  she said. “Of course, there’s constant worry about what we are going to do when this is all over, and we reopen. We need to lobby with the government for support of SMEs. When we go back, we’re going to be deep in debt.”

“I can’t really dwell on what to do about that yet. Baka maiiyak na ako (I might cry). We’re doing what we can, given our skills, given what we can do at the moment — this is the most urgent need, and so we address it.”

Asked for how long she can keep doing it, she said, “Well, as people keep supporting us, we’ll keep going. The need is there, and we have the capacity. We do what we can and we do what we must.”

According to Ms. Araos-Wijangco, donation details can be found and can be coursed through the Facebook pages of Frontline Feeders Philippines under RockED and Salamat PH Healthcare Heroes.