Laid-off chef opening Toronto restaurant for Filipino bao that keeps selling out
Toronto is getting a restaurant for Filipino bao, but the menu isn't even the most exciting part: it was actually started by a chef who was initially laid off at the beginning of lockdowns, and it has now grown her tiny home business into a viral trend.
Bao Mama actually began as a different business entirely called Nanay's Homemeals. Nina Abacan-Galarde actually started the personal chef and catering business while living in Alberta, where she'd lived with her husband and daughter for 10 years and earned her Red Seal Chef Designation.
In the spring of 2020, she was laid off from her restaurant job and her husband was laid off from from his job at the oil sands. They decided to move back to Toronto where Abacan-Galarde hoped to eventually pursue her dream of opening her own restaurant.
They settled into Oshawa where Abacan-Galarde restarted with a home catering business, and it instantly took off, her food gaining popularity through local Filipino community groups on Facebook.
She soon found herself swamped with weekend delivery service and was finding it difficult to bring her full restaurant dream to fruition. This was when her cousin Elizabeth Buenaventura stepped in to become co-owner and chief operations manager of what would become Bao Mama.
Buenaventura tells blogTO she "had always been a major fan of her cooking" and "wasted no time in proposing a business partnership where Nina would focus on her craft and execution" and she "would handle all the general business, operations, administration, marketing and sales."
She actually helped her cousin set up the business while on her third maternity leave.
The first step was moving the business out of the Oshawa apartment and into a commercial kitchen space in Scarborough, serving up various dishes from a pre-ordered menu on weekends.
"It was also through this weekend menu model that the business developed, initially introduced, rigorously tested, served and received critical feedback on the handmade bao buns that Bao Mama is known for today," says Buenaventura.
They wanted to combine the flavours and textures of Filipino food staples like adobo, asado and crispy pata with the soft fluffiness of handmade bao buns, and that's exactly what they've done.
You can now get options like beef brisket bao and eggplant mushroom bao from their Morningside and Sheppard ghost kitchen location, which they signed the lease for in November, allowing them to offer not only takeout but also delivery through major apps.
Bao range in price from $5 to $6.50, and there are also pork shrimp siomai, pork spring rolls and Asian salads on the ghost kitchen menu.
"The ultimate goal was to introduce Filipino food to non-Filipinos in the most welcoming way, in this sandwich style concept, and be the first and best of its kind to ever do it in Toronto," says Buenaventura.
Buenaventura has tapped into a network of Toronto food influencers to give the business an extra push, crediting a viral TikTok with a "catapult" effect.
"They got 500K views, they pinned it," says Buenaventura. "When this video got posted we literally couldn't keep up with the demand and customers coming through. We sold out every day for three weeks."
This helped them overcome obstacles like technical issues, sick employees and winter storms.
"This 'overnight success,' however, would present many challenges along the way, primarily space limitation, as the ghost kitchen allowed for only 300 square feet of space and very minimal storage," says Buenaventura.
"We had a great problem: demand for our new food with limited capacity and space to operate."
On April 1, the cousins finally fully realized their dream, taking over 4419 Sheppard Ave. E. in Scarborough where they hope to grand open their first ever Bao Mama restaurant on Saturday, May 21, 2022.
"The Bao Mama family is just so excited and hopes to continue to grow and become that go-to, treat meal, cheat meal, potluck bring meal and where the love, flavours, vibe and goodness of the Filipino people can be shared and celebrated," says Buenaventura.
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