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Grocery Shopping with Erwin Santos

“You really can’t get weird on a dehydrated noodle. You really can’t get weird on a canned sardine. Snacks, yeah you can get a little weird.”

By Lai Wo

Erwin Santos has been working in the Jersey City Filipino community staple, Phil Am Food, since he was five years old. His father opened the store in 1971 and believed in keeping his son busy “to build character.” Santos often worked there after school and on weekends filing and alphabetizing papers or filling what seemed an endless supply of 1 lb bags of sweet rice or green mung beans.

With Jersey City’s Filipino American population exceeding 16,000, the small yet densely packed store goes to great lengths to cater to the ever-changing palates of Filipinos in the area, across the country, and abroad.

“For me truthfully, I just hope more people realize how great Filipino food is – that’s kind of my private mission, explained Santos, “Not just for my business. But, just for Filipino food to be recognized to be a great Asian food.”

Santos invited me to lunch at his family’s store to talk about watching the store expand alongside the Jersey City community, supplying items from pork rinds to whitening feminine wash, and shipping to Filipino American soldiers on duty.

Tell me about your personal history with this store. What was Jersey City like when you were a kid?

The store is actually one to two months older than I am. So, pretty much I’ve been raised here. Actually, my parents and I used to live above the store in an apartment. When we moved to our first house, we were only two blocks away…When I was a kid in Jersey City, it was pretty much like any urban city–it had its up and downs, good and bad…After school, [I’d] go home…hang out for an hour, wind up in the store for two hours…[and then] wind on my block playing for two hours. Jersey City’s come a long way. I wouldn’t move my business anywhere. I’d stay here forever.

Erwin Santos now manages Jersey City's Phil Am Food Market, which his parents opened in 1971.

Erwin Santos now manages Jersey City’s Phil Am Food, which his parents opened in 1971.

When I was younger, there was a really big Polish and German community here. Now, there’s a lot more Indians. Still a lot of Filipino people here. There’s a large concentration of Chinese people – Vietnamese, Thai. You’ll see a lot of pockets and you can tell by restaurants. When I was driving through Jersey City last night and I saw a lot of restaurants that I didn’t notice before. And that’s a part of the city I drive through often. I’ve seen a lot of small ethnic restaurants that I used to go to now in bigger locations because their clientele has gotten bigger. You can always tell by the food scene.

I remember on the phone you told me that your father had you work at the store doing odd jobs when you were growing up. Can you describe some of them?

He used to make me stack shelves with cans. But, he’d always make me do stuff over and over again – I guess to keep things busy for me. He would have me filing papers. One day he was having me take all the papers and [make] them alphabetical. After they were alphabetized, then you’d put them in their folders.

Like busy work.

SUPER busy work.

Then my father wound up in his importation business. Even more busy work. ‘Oh move these boxes here, move this there.’ Back in the day, there were certain products that Filipino people used that I guess weren’t pre-packaged before. Like sweet rice, green mung beans, things like that. And he would have me pack things into one lb bags – and let’s just say that the sacks were 100 pounds. So, when you’re like 7, 8, 9, 10 years old, technically, a 100 lb bag is 100 little packages. Let’s just say it took forever as a little kid.

You would spend days whittling that bag down – and every time the bag got lower, you’d fold it up some more! And when you go to the end, you were so happy! And, then what would happened? They’d bring out another bag!

That was your day or week. It was funny, we’d literally take that bag, blow it open, take some can that they had, start scooping it out, putting it in the can, put it on the scale. If it’s one pound, make sure it’s at least 1.10 – never be under – it’s okay to be over, but not TOO over — and then take that bag and put it in the sealer, press it down – seal it nice – mat it. My father would have me spend one day matting out the bags nicely that were already sealed

You name it, we did it. From 8 ‘til 5, I was busy – didn’t even remember the day. It will teach you character. The flip side is – I can’t stand manual, physical labor – I can do it, but I’ll tell you one thing, if I see it, I’ll definitely shy away from it. I’ll walk the other way.

If you go to the Philippines, and you’re like “Give me a hot dog,” they’re going to put ketchup, mustard, relish, mayonnaise, cheese…A little bit of everything.

And, on the phone, you told me that chips were your most popular items. What are some popular snacks aside from the chips?

We do a lot of fruit snacks too. A lot of fish. Dried mangos as a snack are kind of mainstream now; back in the day, no one knew what dry mangoes was. The savory snacks are pretty big now, Dilly’s, squid snack – those are getting pretty big.

But, really, it’s still the chips.

What kind of chips?

Well, you see…barbeque is barbeque, right? But, then we have barbeque chili, barbeque cheese. Filipinos have a very weird palate. When I go home to the Philippines, I have to make sure when I order something that I’m familiar with, that I tell them not this and this. If you’re here in America, you can just order straight a hot dog, “Let me get a hot dog.” They’re going to send it out to you plain. Or, hot dog with chili or hot dog with sauerkraut. That’s the normal stuff.

If you go to the Philippines, and you’re like “Give me a hot dog,” they’re going to put ketchup, mustard, relish, mayonnaise, cheese. Their palates are very different there. Like big flavors. A little bit of everything.

Like fish sauce.

Oh my god – they put fish sauce on everything! We have it here by the gallon. You know, GALLON. Vinegar–by the gallon–for the kitchen. And, you see it being used. Five gallon tubs of oyster sauce. We are into big flavors – not the healthiest of foods, cause do we eat a lot of pork–and a lot of frying. But, hey, I guess enjoy food, enjoy life.

Our tastes are ever evolving, too.

You mentioned you used to break up pork rinds with a cleaver? Can you tell me more about that?

Oh yeah, that’s called ingenuity – there were a lot of things that we didn’t have that Filipino people eat. Back in the day when my father was here, store didn’t have certain items. Like, certain parts of the pig – they don’t use it here. They don’t use lining of the stomachs. They don’t use the intestines. We do. They would literally give my dad stuff for free. We’d fry it, cook it, and the customers loved it. Even the non-Filipino customers would say, ‘Oh, this is great, what type of pork rind is this?’

Oh, just eat it, you don’t really want to know.’ Because back in the 70s and early 80s, if you told a non-Filipino person that they were eating the lining of a pig or the small intestine, I think they’d spit it out. I think today you’ll still get that reaction but not as much because people are more knowledgeable now about foreign foods.

Customers in the cafe area at Phil Am Food Market can watch television shows and movies in Tagalog. Photo by Lai Wo.
Customers in the cafe area at Phil Am Food Market watch television shows and movies in Tagalog.

How far away do you export your goods?

We ship nationwide through our website. I even ship things to California, where there is a large Filipino community and there are many large Filipino supermarkets, but I still export all the way down there because our claim to fame is selection. If a normal place carries three of the same sardines, we carry twenty. I’m a firm believer of ‘If I can get it, then someone’s going to want it.’ We even ship overseas. We have a large soldier customer base – APO [Armed Post Office] orders – we have a lot. APO is harder to ship because there’s a lot more paperwork. But, we do the extra legwork, so if someone really wants to have their fix on Filipino food, we can take care of it for them. So, basically if you’re an armed soldier deployed overseas, you can have things shipped to your address. We ship a lot to Europe and we ship a lot to the Saudi countries – we have a lot of soldiers there.

I really didn’t plan to do it. But, when we opened up our web store about three years ago, I kept getting emails asking me if we shipped to APO addresses. And I would always say ‘No,’ because ‘what is an APO address?’ I didn’t understand that, but one day I got a very long email–a very impassioned email from a soldier. It said, “I came across your website and I was so happy to see all this food that I really want to have but then I found out that you don’t ship to APO addresses and I just don’t understand why. I understand it’s extra work, and this and that, and there are certain exportation documents that you must fill out but you must realize that on our end that we’re risking our lives for our country and the only thing we want is to be able to have the things that we want.”

And after reading that letter, I had my staff research it, find out what this APO thing is, what requirements does it take, how hard it is to do, and from that day on, I made sure we did it. I still have that email, actually. It really made a big impact on me – realizing that these people make a lot of sacrifices for you and the least that I could do was put in an extra 8 to 10 minutes of work.

And what do they usually order?

Snacks. I can get a 100 lbs order of items, and I can say that 80% of are snacks. And, then some shampoos. I guess soldiers want to look pretty.

Do you think it reminds them of home in America?

I think food just brings a smile to peoples’ faces. That’s the food you want to eat, and that’s what you get. I guess a lot of my APO customers are Filipino. That’s what they’re used to at home and that’s what they want. I’m always happy to see that when I get a customer that orders once a month, and then later when they order, I recognize the name, and it’s a US address. Cause you know what? They’re back. That’s a nice thing. They did their tour and they haven’t forgotten about me.

I was so taken aback. When I talked to my [exporter], “Is there this new hot brand of feminine wash that’s whitening?” He said, “Actually, yeah.”

Where do you usually import your goods?

98% from Philippines. Sprinkling from Thailand, sprinkling from China, Vietnam, US. Out of 7000 active SKUs [stock keeping unit], definitely under 1000 or maybe under 500 are non-Filipino SKUs.

What would you say is the strangest or most obscure item that you’ve had to import for a customer?

This may throw you for a loop. I got an email from a bunch of female customers looking for feminine wash. But, a whitening feminine wash, which totally threw me for a loop. I found it, brought it in, and haven’t been able to keep it in stock since. That is the oddest product I’ve ever been asked to bring in.


Yes, whitening feminine wash. I was so taken aback. When I talked to my [exporter], “Is there this new hot brand of feminine wash that’s whitening?” He said, “Actually, yeah.” That is the oddest product I’ve ever gotten for a customer. And I still haven’t been able to keep it on the shelf.

Filipino women like to be light skinned. A lot of our cosmetics are about whitening. I guess. Hey, if you want to go all ten yards, go right ahead. That’s the oddest product I have ever sold out of my place. From the Philippines. I’ve had a lot of odd foods, but if you’re just talking pure odd, there–that’s odd.

What are some odd foods?

I get asked a lot for a lot of fermented stuff. Like, fermented rice for Filipino people is typically 30 day-old rice. I wouldn’t touch it, I wouldn’t eat it. But, I get people asking for that. We have crackers that are milk cracker sandwiches – that’s how our taste is. Sauces are sauces. Those are never odd. Snacks can get really weird and funky. Weirdest things are snacks – they’re all over the board. You really can’t get weird on a dehydrated noodle. You really can’t get weird on a canned sardine. Snacks, yeah you can get a little weird. Cosmetics –you can get a little weird. Everything else – I would say pretty vanilla. Just different palates of taste.

Is there anything else you want to tell me?

For me truthfully, I just hope more people realize how great Filipino food is – that’s kind of my private mission. Not just for my business. But, just for Filipino food to be recognized to be a great Asian food. Because every other Asian food has exploded and everybody knows it. Except us. And, if I can be on the ground with that and I can be part of that and people know that I helped it, that would make my day. That makes me happy.