It is impossible to walk along a street in the Philippines without encountering the perpetual line of various street food—from deliciously charred barbecue and isaw, to crunchy proven, to the unchanging taste (and price!) of fishball, to the ever-so-tempting kwek-kwek. You can even wash down the myriad of roadside treats with a glass of buko pandan or samalamig.
But that’s in the Philippines. For residents of downtown Toronto, street food was limited to hotdogs until Diona Joyce of Kanto by Tita Flips came to town.
Diona Joyce was a medical representative back in the Philippines, until one fateful day when she accompanied a friend to a travel agency.
“Ano bang gagawin mo dyan?” she asked her friend. The friend said she was going to get a visa to Canada. While waiting, Diona was urged and cajoled by the agency to answer a questionnaire to determine if she herself qualifies based on Canada’s point system at that time. They asked her what she was doing for work (med rep), where she graduated and several other hoops, and the verdict—she qualifies. “Why don’t you apply! You don’t have to pay for anything, only when you get accepted,” she remembers them telling her.
In eight months, she got her Canadian visa. She mulled, “So I guess I have to go to Canada now.”
Single but the breadwinner, her family supported her decision to move to Canada. In June 2001, Diona flew to Canada and started living on her own.
Diona considers it as a happy accident.
Do what you have to do
Living alone may have its perks, but perhaps not so much in another country. Thousands of miles away from her family, Diona had to face new challenges by herself.
“Literally, I started from nothing,” Diona said. “I have no family, I have no relatives even here in Toronto.
“It was very challenging to get the same job that I had in the Philippines since you have to start from the very [bottom], like entry-level,” she shared.
“I was a medical representative and of course I was looking for the same job or the same field here in Toronto. It was kind of hard because I didn’t have any Canadian [experience]. I didn’t go to school here, I don’t speak French… I didn’t have the time and money to go to school and everything, so I had to find whatever I could do to make a living because I live on my own,” she explained.
She had to do what she had to do. One of her first jobs was at McDonald’s.
The beginning of Tita Flips
At a young age, she was exposed to her mom’s cooking and developed an affinity to culinary arts as well.
“My way of cooking is very traditional, I still follow whatever the traditional Filipino dishes are,” she said.
When she came to Canada, she dutifully brought her share of food for potluck get-togethers. Until her friends started to get hooked on her deliciously satisfying concoctions.
In an interview with Rina Espiritu of KapisananCentre.com, Diona said, “I started to cook at parties, just socially. Soon after, friends would start requesting food and ordering party trays. Then I started catering to birthdays and weddings!”
Her friends’ support gave her the idea of starting her own food business. At a time when street food in Toronto was almost unheard of, Diona broke culinary barriers.
“There’s literally no street food in Toronto. So, bawal siya (it was prohibited),” she recalled. “There’s really no Filipino food in the mainstream.”
“At first, sabi ng iba, ‘Wag, kasi mahirap, wala namang Pilipino, wala namang bibili, mga puti marami.’ (People said, don’t, there’s not many Filipinos, no one will buy, but the white market is big). But I said, ‘I don’t know, let’s see. Let’s try,’” she shared.
“(Then) I was given the opportunity to have a space at the Scadding Court Community to represent Filipino cuisine,” she told Espiritu.
She then decided to launch Pinoy-style street food, which started out as a food cart—a generic shipping container converted into a small restaurant.
“Everything that a restaurant has, we have it,” she said.
“It’s situated by buses and vendors, and is called ‘Kanto.’ I don’t want to do a different brand or different name para hindi malito yung mga tao (so the people will not get confused),” Diona laughed.
She also shared with KapisananCentre.com where the name “Tita Flips” came from.
“In Filipino culture, we don’t call our elders by their first names. Most common is “Tita” for an older Filipino woman, usually an aunt. And “Flips” is basically just a nickname for Filipinos.”
“I just had to do something very appealing to North American people… Make the food enticing. More presentation. We make it in a way (where) the compromise should be acceptable to the North American palette, which is hindi masyadong maalat (not too salty), di masyadong mataba, less fatty or greasy,” Diona explained.
Today, Kanto’s bestsellers include Palabok, Tapa, and Lechon Kawali. They also have ‘Sisig Fries,’ Diona’s spin on Poutine—Canada’s gift to humankind.
‘You have to love it.’
“I’ve been everywhere, I’ve been in medical work, I was in sales, and for the last 10 years in Canada I was a broker. But still, there’s something missing,” Diona recalled.
That something missing was cooking for a living.
“My quest really is to bring Filipino food in the mainstream,” Diona announced.
“I know I’m doing street food, but still people are trying [the food] because they wanted to see what’s in there, and for them to come back, that’s really something,” she beamed.
When asked about her tips for aspiring entrepreneurs, Diona shared her words of wisdom.
“First and foremost, you should have a passion… You should have a passion for what you’re doing, you have to love it.
“Give the best in whatever you can give. [Don’t be] mediocre.
“When you’re cooking, I always think this is the last time I’m going to cook, so it has to be the best meal ever. All the time, everyday. You have to think like that.
“You have to be consistent in what you’re doing. [But at the same time], you have to think of new, exciting dishes,” she shared.
So, what’s next for Diona and Tita Flips?
Diona said they’re hoping for a permanent place where patrons can sit down and enjoy the home-style Filipino cooking without freezing.
“People can only enjoy the food during summer,” she said. “Most of the time, it’s cold in Canada.”
We’re sure Tita Flips will continue to grow, thanks to the warmth of Diona’s Filipino cuisine which will surely draw the crowds and make them stay.