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Local Asian-owned businesses share their culture through food for AAPI Heritage Month

An Asian Food Mart, a Filipino bakery, and a Chinese family-owned restaurant share their culture with the food they cook, bake, and sell in the East Texas community.

TYLER, Texas — Editor's Note: Video above is from 2019.

Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is a month long celebration in May to recognize the historical and cultural impact that the Asian and Pacific Islander communities have made in the United States. 

As May comes to an end, let's highlight some local Asian-owned businesses that are making an impact in the East Texas community.

Ramil Cleofe and Ramon Navarro are the owners of Kabayan’s Asian Food Mart on 6004 S Broadway Ave in Tyler. They are both from the Philippines who came to work in the United States as medical technologists. 

As the Asian community grew in East Texas, the need for Asian products became a demand. 

"Seeing the Asian community growing here in Tyler and in East Texas, we decided to set up an Asian store,” Navarro said. 

Cleofe and Navarro decided to open an Asian store so people wouldn’t have to drive two hours to Dallas. 

"Each time we needed something we would ask our friends, 'who's going to Dallas,' just to buy rice or another item,” Cleofe said. “We didn't know how to run a business but all we knew is we needed one here in Tyler.”

Since their opening in 2013, Kabayan Asian Food Mart continues to provide a variety of Asian products to their customers in East Texas and Louisiana. They even sell Filipino products that you can’t find in Dallas, so people make the drive to shop at their store for exclusive products.

“The idea was to open up a store to not just sell the majority Filipino products, we want to sell products for all nationalities that is why we ask everyone to tell us what products they need so we can get those items for them,” Cleofe said.

Cleofe and Navarro welcome the community to shop at their store and try new products so they can experience their culture. 

“We want to get them exposed to our food and our style of living. The Asians are simple people and I think that one of the ways to get them to experience our culture is through food,” Navarro said. 

Kabayan Asian Food Mart has a lasting impact on their customers and in the community by providing customer service that sets them apart from other stores.

A customer who moved to Dallas and returned to visit said, “I am missing the customer service Kabayan Asian Mart gives to their community. I think what sets them apart is they are very hardworking, perseverant, and the customer service they provide is always from the heart.” 

Cleofe and Navarro hope their store continues to serve not only the Asian community but the East Texas community for many years to come.

“You just don’t open up a business just to make profit, you open up a business with the main concern is to serve the community,” Cleofe said. 

 

Juna Roberts is the owner of Lourdes Marie Bakery on 119 W Front Street, near Downtown Tyler. She moved from the Philippines to work in the medical field in the U.S. and has lived in Tyler for 24 years.

In 2015, she took a leap of faith and quit her medical technologist job to focus on her family and on baking.

“I quit my job because I am family oriented and I felt that I needed to be there for my daughters who at the time were young. I continued my hobbies of cooking and baking and was receiving orders,” Roberts said.  “There was a point where I realized I needed help and I wanted to be compliant with the Department of Health since I was baking at my house and I have dogs at home. And I think it was the perfect time to open a bakery because my girls were going off to college.”

Lourdes Marie Bakery offers a variety of items such as beverages, cookies, pastry, cakes, and specialty Filipino desserts you can’t get anywhere else.

"We have bread and cakes that nobody else has such as mango, taro, and durian cakes,” Roberts said. “Some dessert ingredients have Filipino products so they taste different. I try to bake as close as I can authentic Filipino desserts.”

Although she offers authentic Filipino desserts, Roberts says Lourdes Marie Bakery isn’t a 100% Filipino bakery as she sells items that aren’t considered Filipino such as cookies and certain cake flavors.

“I have customers who ask me for German Chocolate cake and that’s not Asian but I can bake it. My principle is I don’t want to limit myself because I can do it,” Roberts said. 

Roberts believes her Filipino culture has impacted the success of her bakery.

“Through my culture, I learned to be hardworking from my parents. I believe I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them. In Filipino culture, we sacrifice ourselves to give to our children,” Roberts said. “My mom was the first person who taught my baking and cooking. She was my mentor and teacher and I felt like the memories came back when I opened this bakery.”

Robert’s mother taught her many special Filipino recipes that she continues to bake in her bakery and she keeps her legacy present every day through her bakery’s name.

“Lourdes was my mom’s name and Marie was the name of my husband’s grandmother, they both loved to cook,” Roberts said. “They are also the middle names of my daughters. So when I looked for a name, I wanted to dedicate the bakery’s name to them and continue the legacy that she taught me.”

As Lourdes Marie Bakery orders grow, so does the impact it has on the community, not just the Asian but East Texas community. 

“It’s not what I order but what she’s doing for the kids that we teach at the Caldwell Art Academy. She witnessed a performance at the academy and she was so impressed and she believed in the school so much that she wanted to donate snacks for our after school program. She has began to do this at the beginning of this week. And out of the kindness of her heart, she is not charging us anything. We are forever indebted and those kids absolutely love the desserts she makes because of the love she puts into every piece she bakes,” a local customer said as he picked up a special order from the bakery.

For Roberts, she enjoys sharing her Filipino culture through the desserts she bakes and believes it’s important to learn about different cultures.

“Everywhere you go it is so diversified. It can open your minds to other people’s culture and teach you to respect where they came from,” Roberts said. 

Aaron Tang is the owner of Poch’s Rice Café located on 1700 S SE Loop 323. He says they provide the best egg rolls in Tyler. 

Tang is from Taiwan/China but he moved to Nacogdoches at 14 to help his uncle with his local Chinese restaurant.

“It was a difficult transitioning because the education system is different. When I came here, it was in March so I had to stay in 9th grade again. In that year, I picked up English and it got easier after,” Tang said.

In 2001, his dad moved their family to Tyler where he opened his own Chinese restaurant. His dad retired and sold the restaurant but in 2015, Tang opened his own Chinese restaurant. 

“The café has been open for 6 years. At first we started off slow but by word of mouth we started getting more customers,” Tang said.

From his culture, Tang learned many valuable lessons that he applied to his restaurant.

“My parents taught me to work hard and about responsibilities,” Tang said. “You have freedom but you have responsibilities you have to do first.”

Tang takes pride in the food Poch’s Rice Café serves to the community.

“We are presenting our food in a different way but we still show our culture through our restaurant's decoration to appreciate the Chinese art,” Tang said. “Our restaurant is more of an Americanized Chinese restaurant. We are a small town with not many Asians so we try to provide what our community likes.”

At a young age, Tang understood the meaning of family-owned business, as he grew up worked in his uncle and father’s restaurants over the years.

“We are a family-owned restaurant so we make sure the quality of our food is always good. You order and we cook it on the spot,” Tang said.

Tang says it's important to lend a hand to your community during difficult times. 

“Because prices have gone up due to inflammation, we try to provide quality food for our customers at a decent price,” Tang said. “If you pay in cash we give you a bit of a discount to help you out in this hard time. If you help us out, we’ll help you out."

As for his Chinese-Taiwanese heritage, Tang said he is proud of it and thinks it’s important for others to know their heritage too. 

“It’s important to know about your heritage because it’s important to know who you are,” Tang said.  “I also think that today we shouldn’t focus too much on where we are from, we should all unite together no matter what your background is. We should all come together.”

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