New GGBA member business Café Gabriela was opened in 2010 in Downtown Oakland by Penny Baldado, a formerly undocumented, trans-masculine, and queer immigrant from the Philippines. Before the pandemic, Penny employed four full-time staff, who were paid a living wage and received full medical and dental insurance. After sustaining an 85% decrease in revenue, Penny laid off their last full-time employee in June. But with a recent $100,000 grant from the National LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC) and Grubhub, they plan to use proceeds for rent and marketing and are now beginning to rehire employees.
GGBA: Tell us about yourself and how you started Café Gabriela.
Penny Baldado: I was born and raised in the Philippines, in the southern part of the Philippines, Mindanao. My father emigrated here when I was young, and there was a lot of grief. I wanted to have access to him and have access to this country. Also, I knew I was queer when I was younger and the Philippines is really Catholic, colonized in a lot of ways. I didn’t really feel safe coming out in the Philippines so I wanted to be here and come out and I did. Also, I had graduated as a veterinarian from the University of the Philippines, but because of my status as an undocumented immigrant, my first job here was bussing tables in a Filipino restaurant.
But I feel like everything, every experience, every hardship that I have had, with all the identities that I have in terms of being an undocumented immigrant, being queer, and now a transmasculine person of color, has helped me overcome from one stage to the next until I’m here right now. I share this with you because, when I was here living as an out queer person, there was also another layer of invisibility, which was my status. Also, I felt really exploited by my employer because they knew about my status. So, I started dreaming like what if I created my own job, my own opportunity, my own business? Would I be worthy enough to stay here in this country? I had to try learning to create my own access, my own opportunities. And so, I created Café Gabriela in April 2010.
GGBA: What were your greatest successes and challenges prior to the pandemic?
Penny Baldado: I look at success like small things that add up to big things. My first success was being able to hire my first worker. One of the challenges that I had was I didn’t really have access to capital so I couldn’t afford hiring workers right away. I had to do everything, which is what I’m doing right now, too. Being able to hire my first co-worker, being able to feel like I offer something of myself to the community is a huge success for me.
The lack of access to capital, as a working class or poor person of color and queer, that was a big challenge, but not having access to capital was also grace because I had to use my resourcefulness, my resilience in a lot of ways. Creating a smaller menu, for example, because I didn’t have access to a full-on kitchen was really a blessing. A small but good menu was really key.
GGBA: What are the offerings available at Café Gabriela?
Penny Baldado: Our main customer base is the workers of Downtown Oakland. We knew we wanted to just operate within that context, in terms of the hours that they have, so we offered at first just a coffee and espresso bar and local pastries because that’s all I could afford, and then I knew that folks needed some lunch options, too. So, I was able to curate four sandwiches and three salads. Our really kind of famous sandwich is the pulled pork adobo sandwich and I felt like that was my offering from my culture. And once I offered the food, that just piqued curiosity and caught a lot of attention from food bloggers and foodies in general.
But one of the things that is really special to us is when people come in our doors and interact with us. You know, we interact with folks. I feel like with this pandemic we have to create ways for us to connect, and how we connect with our customers and our community members, you come in our doors, you’re welcomed with open arms, you can feel that warmth, you can feel that care and love through our food but also through our interaction.
GGBA: What does it mean for you to be part of a queer business community?
Penny Baldado: I feel like I can also be part of a bigger organization. I feel like inclusion is really important. I feel like accessibility is really important for folks like me and being able to just be there and see how much support we can also access not just in the Bay Brea but in the whole of the U.S., like being connected to other small queer businesses as well as big businesses is really important for us to be able to have that avenue to grow at a higher level. We all need support.
Order online at www.cafegabriela.com
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