How are you? Tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m good, thanks for asking! My name is Carissa (Kissa for short) and my family owns Ninong’s Cafe in Northridge, CA. I’m a 1st generation Filipina American with an entrepreneurial spirit.
Tell us about your business?
Ninong’s Cafe opened in 2008 in Granada Hills, CA (a suburb of Los Angeles). My aunt, uncle, husband, and I are the 4 parts to Ninong’s Cafe. It was originally operated by my aunt, uncle, mom, and dad until 2013 when I took over operations. 2012 was a pivotal point in our business. It was when we started selling our signature item, our Ube Pancakes. In 2018 we moved from our original location to our new home in Northridge (a couple miles away) so that we could accommodate more customers and our growing business.
What are the values that guide your business?
Our mission is to share our family’s Filipino food and culture with the world! We knew we wanted to open our cafe in an area where there wasn’t really any Filipino establishments. Our goal was to share our food with people of other ethnicities, other cultures. We wanted our dining room to be a melting pot. We consider it a privilege to be someone’s first taste of Filipino food!
How do non-filipinos react to your amazing ube dishes?
It’s amazing to see how more and more people are aware of what ube is! When we first opened we knew that there was some educating we had to do within our community. We always take time to try to explain what ube is. I always get a little nervous when they try it for the first time, but it’s such a rewarding feeling when they enjoy it and you see them open themselves up to try other things!
What is one thing people must try when they visit you?
Definitely the ube pancakes. It’s the item that started it all! To be honest, I’m really proud of every single thing we’ve ever put on the menu, our pastries, all our products. If people knew how much of our family’s heart goes into each thing we made. Our team makes practically everything we sell from scratch – we slice and marinade our own meat, we fold our own empanadas, we hand-pipe our cookies…we put in a lot of thought into everything we make and it’s all made with love.
What is your biggest achievement?
Moving from our original location that sat 22 people inside to our new location that seats 72. We originally bought the business in Granada Hills from someone in 2008 and had to make the space work. It was fine in the beginning but as we continued to grow we were definitely running out of room. When we decided as a family that it was time to move on we knew that it was going to be a big investment financially, emotionally, and physically. But we knew it was time.
What was one of your biggest struggles?
There have been many, many struggles on this journey to be completely honest. I don’t think we would ever be rid of struggles, there’s always something. But I think the biggest one was when my mom got diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013. It’s a long story, but I started working at Ninong’s full time a month before my mom got diagnosed. I had less than a month to learn everything from her before she had to stop working and focus on treatment. The 2 years following her diagnosis were extremely difficult on our family and our business. She passed away in January of 2016, and quite honestly, our family has never really been the same (I’ve never been the same) since.
What does the Filipino Community mean to you?
It’s everything! There’s this sense of pride I’m starting to feel from my fellow Filipinos and Filipinas. I love seeing multi-cultural Filipino families coming in and all of them being able to enjoy food. Or seeing a Filipino/Filipina walk in bringing a friend that has never tried our food before and hearing them talk about their heritage with pride. It’s not something I saw a lot of growing up.
What do you miss most about the Philippines?
I was born and raised here in the US, but I miss my dad (he’s Ninong by the way!). When my mom passed away he retired in the Philippines and took care of my Lola. In 2017 I went to visit him twice because I missed him so much. I also miss my Lola’s cooking and stories she would share at the dinner table.
What are your future plans?
If I can be honest, it’s to recoup our investment and pay off our debt from our expansion haha!
Any advice you want to give to other entrepreneurs?
- Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. There were tons of people that thought we would never succeed in an area that wasn’t densely Filipino. But we believed that Filipino food was worth sharing with other cultures. Look where we are now!
- Plan, plan, plan. I can’t stress how important it is to think a business through.
- Don’t be afraid to try things. There’s definitely a balance when it comes to planning and action. If you can’t back up that planning with ACTION then what’s really the point? When you finally take action is when you will see your business will grow and evolve. It’s our job as entrepreneurs to see the evolution and adapt our businesses where we see growth.
A last thing you want to plug?
We have some exciting things planned that will help us achieve our goal of spreading Filipino food with the world, but we’re not ready to share quite yet haha! We do have an online store where people in the US can order and have product shipped. Check out our website, www.ninongscafe.com, for more info! Thanks for having me!