The Lumpia Company: Get Your Roll On
“My mom’s Filipino food booth was like a food truck line, back in ‘86!”
Alex Retodo’s just finished hefting several hotel pans full of fresh-rolled lumpia -- Bacon Cheeseburger, Mac and Cheese, and classic Shanghai -- to a waiting van just east of Telegraph Ave in downtown Oakland. He adjusts his large acetate frames and settles over a barstool, detailing The Lumpia Company’s roots in one of the East Bay’s most enduring and popular summer church festivals.
“I grew up in Hayward and went to All Saints, where all the different communities shared culture through dances and food at the festival. That first year, I thought, 'I can just pull some stuff from my mom, and then trade it with my homie Eduardo, because his mom runs the burrito booth -- I’m gonna give him a whole combo plate!' So I put an extra barbecue stick, rice, pancit, and of course hella lumpia, because I wanted to get some burritos and some nachos. Nachos was my favorite! So that was also sort where I first learned to negotiate.”
The cultural exchange he experienced year after year at the All Saints festival -- from the perspective of his mother’s popular food booth -- is a microcosm of the incredible diversity that’s found in Hayward, something Alex says is exceptional even by Bay Area standards.
“It was awesome growing up Filipino in Hayward. Hayward is unique in that it has a broad representation not just of different ethnicities but of social class, and everyone lives together. It's built the framework of how I like to present The Lumpia Company -- it's a throwback to the first time I was able to engage in friendship with people, sharing Filipino food through the Filipino food booth. Hayward is a very diverse city, and it wasn’t about color, it was just about sharing good times and culture.”
Alex’s passion for good times and cultural experiences led to a highly successful run in the entertainment industry, first as a nightclub promoter in the City focusing on the young Asian-American set.
“I said to a nightclub, ‘Yo, what if your dead nights made you as much as Fridays and Saturdays. You interested?’ I called every Filipino organizer from the local colleges to promote it, and we got our own Asian-American 18-and-over night, with our community’s DJs. We started with 10 people, and that became 100, and 100 became 1,000 people a week, for eight years strong, so that's where I learned to build gatherings of happy people.”
Graduating from nightclub promotions, Alex moved to LA to manage a stable of Filipino comics on a circuit known as The Filipino Kings of Comedy, and says that these experiences on the road -- shared with some of the biggest names in Filipino comedy today -- helped crystallize the memories of Hayward and his mother’s food booth into the project known as The Lumpia Company.
“I did a tour called the Filipino Kings of Comedy with Joey Guila, Jo Koy, and Edwin San Juan. Nobody knew who we were! And we toured improvs nationwide, 12 cities, and I met Filipino-Americans in every metropolis, and we'd ask them, ‘Where's the coolest Filipino restaurant? Where’s the best late-night eating?’ That was my favorite thing. It wasn't just trying to make money, it was about sharing good times with buddies, and learning where Filipino people from other cities liked to eat. What they thought was the best cheesesteak in Philly, the best hot pastrami sandwich in New York, the best empanada shop in New York. These empanada shops would have 40 different flavors of empanada, and I thought, ‘What if I was able to do that with lumpia?’”
Recalling the popularity of his mother’s food, Alex recognized how lumpia always brings good times, and understood it as the perfect vehicle for communicating his experiences as a Filipino-American to a wider audience -- with tempting flavors like Bacon Cheeseburger, Hot Pastrami, Veggie Kale, and Pizza Supreme alongside the classic pork-and-shrimp Shanghai.
“I wanted to recreate those fun times that I had trying other foods on the road, and share that with people. I always knew I wanted to promote something Filipino but, at the same time, could be something that everyone understood. And my mother’s booth showed me that lumpia was the ultimate sharing food: ‘Here guys, try it, pick at this, and dip it in sauces!’ That’s the kind of togetherness that lumpia helps generate.”
From that perspective, Alex says he’s extremely excited at what UNDISCOVERED means for the Filipino community, and is bringing out some special selections exclusively for the Night Market crowd.
“Its special for SoMa, building something special in an area that’s special to Filipinos. To celebrate that, we’ll serve the Bacon Cheeseburger lumpia, which is our signature, and for vegetarians, the Kale Portobello Sweet Potato. And we’ll be introducing the Oxtail Beef Kare-Kare lumpia -- and you might expect a Bicol Express lumpia, or a Pork Sisig. My main inspiration for this menu is that every Filipino-American has different experiences of what lumpia is or what Filipino food is -- it's all fair game because it's all in who you grew up around.”