Lamesa Filipino Kitchen translates community sensibilities to the digital environment
The hype was fun and Les Sabilano lived in it for a while. Eight years ago, as the world seemed to be discovering Toronto’s restaurant scene, the restaurateur and co-owner of Lamesa Filipino Kitchen was introducing the city to the staples of Filipino cuisine, an elevated riff on the takeout favourites hocked by the Scarborough (and later St. Clair West) markets Sabilano’s parents had run since the late-80s.
But things change. Even before the pandemic, Sabilano had moved Lamesa Filipino Kitchen from trendy Queen West into the space occupied by sister restaurant Lasa on St. Clair Ave. at Vaughan Road, a space that has been in the family since his parent’s market Kaibigan opened there in 1995. The pandemic just helped to get Sabilano thinking differently.
“I was looking at French and Italian restaurants as the model for what a great restaurant should look like and those serious restaurants, they don't do takeout and they don't do party trays,” says Sabilano. “But more recently I've been looking at how we can serve our community… maybe a Filipino restaurant looks different than a French or Italian restaurant, maybe the needs are different.”
That’s the line of thinking that fuelled Sabilano’s move towards a blend of contemporary dining with take-out and market mixed in. But there was a wider vision, something that’d set Lamesa apart – he wanted to find a way to capture that hybrid restaurant, take-out counter and market and bring the experience online. That was the plan at least.
Then the pandemic showed up on his doorstep.
Sabilano had already been working with Digital Main Street to execute his vision. He’d heard about the program, which combines grants and one-to-one support from the Province of Ontario and the Ontario BIA Association to help main street businesses strengthen their online capabilities, through his BIA. “We met (a Digital Service Squad member) online over zoom and had just started looking at our website and what we wanted to do,” says Sabilano. “That was accelerated with the whole pandemic thing.”
Like most businesses, Lamesa didn’t have a plan when the government legislated businesses like his to close, so they shut down the kitchen entirely. But after some discussion with staff, they decided to restart the take-out and market component in April with the understanding digital would play a greater role.
He enlisted help from a Digital Main Street to build out the website and sell some hard-to-find, specialty Filipino products online. Sabilano also put together an online gallery to sell some of his own artwork. It’s all part of the evolution Lamesa has undertaken over the past eight years. There’s a spirit in there, something that helped pull together Toronto’s Filipino community, and that’s what he’s looking to capture. But he knows Lamesa can be both a gateway to new flavours for the uninitiated and a Filipino-inspired cuisine for the homesick patrons.
It’ll require balance. It’ll require evolution. But Sabilano is up for it. To him, it’s simple: Lamesa is about community. “(And) we’re looking to serve our community in different ways than the conventional restaurant.”
Written by Andrew Seale
Digital Main Street was created by the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas (TABIA) with direct support from the City of Toronto. DMS is also supported by a group of strategic business partners, including Google, Mastercard, Shopify, Microsoft, Facebook, Intuit QuickBooks, Square, and Yellow Pages.
This case study was completed during a prior expansion of DMS in partnership with the Province of Ontario and Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.
In June 2020, a $42.5-million investment from FedDev Ontario and an additional $7.45 million from the Government of Ontario brought together the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas, Communitech, Invest Ottawa and the Ontario Business Improvement Area Association to expand the Digital Main Street Platform in order to support more businesses going digital as a response to the impacts of COVID-19.