It’s pretty much common knowledge that you can satiate any kind of food craving when living in New York City. A melting pot of an infinite number of cultures, NYC’s food culture is especially generous when it comes to the selection of street food available to its hungry inhabitants. If you’re lucky, your nose will lead you to the sweet and savory fried foods being churned out by the folks at Lumpia Merienda. We got to know the team behind the tiny treats and how they bring the food culture of the Philippines to lucky New Yorkers on the regular.
Tell us a little bit more about how this got started! What motivated you to take Friday night poker snacks and turn them into a full-on street food business?
It all started with weekly poker nights at Tita Amelia’s and her insanely crispy and addicting lumpias. There are four of us in Lumpia Merienda – Jen, Jay, Harvey, and Susan. Jen and Jay are siblings and Harvey and Susan are siblings. Harvey and Jay have been together for 5 years; this brought all of us together to these infamous poker nights, which quickly became a weekly tradition of catching up over friendly gambling and stuffing our faces with Tita’s Filipino home cooking. Anyone who knows Filipino culture knows that food is the main event at any gathering, meaning Tita whipping a feast every time. Susan would go to these poker nights just for the lumpias and realized they were the perfect snack for any time of the day. It was impossible to have just one lumpia.
These moments formed the basis of our business, and we were confident in its appeal to the masses, including its bite-sized shape. It is also how we came up with the name “Lumpia Merienda” – “lumpia” are the Filipino eggrolls and “merienda” is snack in Filipino. For us on a personal level, “lumpia” embodies family, friends, and loved ones coming together over delicious food. After many discussions, arguments, late-night dinners, tasting parties, trips to the local flea, and not to mention mountains of paperwork, Lumpia Merienda was born. The four of us, a nursing student, an event planner, an editor, and a paralegal, decided to take the risk and share two of Tita Amelia’s favorite things in life – food and family, which quickly became the concept of our business. Seeing the four of us hand rolling each and every lumpia and gossiping about our day jobs, Tita Amelia would say we looked like old Filipino ladies, reminding her of her siblings back home in the Philippines. This is how we connect with our food. It’s not just about making delicious food, but it’s a bonding experience with family and friends.
How familiar are passersby to Filipino food, and how did you decide on the menu? How do you involve Filipino food culture in your customer interactions, aside from the food?
Since we started sharing our “lumpias” with the public, we’ve been approached by people new to and familiar with Filipino food culture. This has made for a fun and exciting experience overall. This diversity gives us the opportunity to interact with them and hear stories about their personal experience with Filipino food. We have our regular customers who stop by for their Filipino food fix, those who miss having it from a friend’s gathering, and those who are curious to try our version of the lumpia. Our most common customers say they’ve had them through neighbors, co-workers, family members, or friends who were from the Philippines. It shows how Filipinos love to share, are caring, hospitable, generous, neighborly, and friendly to us. Even though it’s natural for us, we express the same to our customers. It’s the minor gestures, like giving extra lumpias to our regulars, letting the customers taste any of our three dipping sauces, beforehand, or sharing our food with other vendors.
Planning the menu was easy because we knew we wanted to serve our favorite dishes from Tita’s kitchen. Whatever Tita Amelia would serve, we also wanted to serve to the people. We kept the menu simple by using basic, fresh, and local ingredients that were easily accessible. The difficult part was perfecting the recipe and deciding how to serve them to perfect the customer experience. There were many food experiments to make sure our seasoning was on point. We also needed Tita Amelia’s sign off because of her experience as a former chef at a Filipino restaurant, so her opinion weighed heavily in our taste tests.
What made you decide to go in the direction of a traveling food stand, versus a traditional restaurant?
We opted for a traveling food stand because we felt it was the best way to test the market and to see how people would react to our food. It also gave us the freedom of not being stuck in one location and allowed us to have a broader range of customers. There’s also greater flexibility in testing the waters, gauging our customer reaction, and experimenting with our menu items.
The level of difficulty has been a mixed bag. It’s easier than a traditional restaurant because the start up costs weren’t as high and it definitely gave us a sense of what it would be like to work together as a team. It has also given us the wonderful opportunity to be surrounded by creative and like-minded vendors at the food market who’ve become close friends of ours.
The hardest part is working with unpredictable weather conditions because our sales were dependent on them. It’s important to remember to stay positive during rough days, especially when our stand was all set up and ready to go only to have it rained on soon after.
How does social media play into running Lumpia Merienda?
Social media has played a huge role in our business and has given us the platform to share with the world our story and our version of lumpias. It’s our way of communicating with our customers. We love using social media to showcase our upcoming specials, to see what sort of reaction we’d get, and to share the inspirations of our food. Besides promoting our creations, we have found a loyal following, especially from Filipinos and Filipino Americans, who give a lot of love and support to our culinary cause.
We’ve connected with customers and their palates a lot more through social media, and surprisingly, we’ve also connected with other Filipino-Americans serving Filipino food. It feels like we’re a big family, part of a bigger mission to showcase the homey flavors and food culture of the Philippines.
What social media/digital platforms have been your favorite to engage with for the business?
We use Instagram a lot because there’s no better way to make people drool over food than sexy pictures with so many filters to choose from! We also use Facebook, Yelp, Twitter, and our website. Instagram is our favorite and it’s the most fun. We’ve posted pictures and videos in different motions and filters, some of which have resulted in heart laughs. We also enjoy seeing our customers post pictures of our food and reading their reactions to it in their comments.
What advice would you share with foodies who may want to follow in the footsteps of Lumpia Merienda and your traveling street food peers?
Choose one dish/item that is your specialty, stick to it, and do it really well. Experimenting is fine, but know what your signature dish is.
What’s next? What would be your dream for Lumpia Merienda?
The beauty of having a traveling food stand is that we’re able to experiment with different demographics by being in different locations so we’re going to continue traveling around. We hope to make lumpias as popular as French fries! Our dream for Lumpia Merienda is to be known as the ones that introduced Filipino food into American homes.
Finally, what ignites and inspires you?
A passion for food, preparing and sharing our creations with the world, and the support from our family and friends. For us, food represents family, our culture, and our representation of home. If it weren’t for all of these reasons, we don’t think we’d have the courage and strength to start and continue Lumpia Merienda.