Before becoming an award-winning journalist, Dorothy Hernandez was a kid growing in Chicago helping her mom fill orders for her “famous lumpia shanghai and empanadas.”
But she didn’t intend to stay in the kitchen. After graduating from college, she became a copy editor and web producer at the Chicago Tribune. She then moved to Michigan and started running social media and events for local nonprofit organizations such as Gleaner’s Community Food Bank.
Later, she began working for The Detroit News and Hour Detroit Magazine, where much of her coverage focused on food. In fact, her article for Hour Detroit, Standing the Heat, about the lack of female executive chefs, won a first place award from The Society of Professional Journalists-Detroit.
But eventually she realized she wanted to get back to cooking. So she and her husband, who is a chef, decided to start Sarap, a Filipino pop-up restaurant.
Today, Hernandez runs Sarap while also writing for such outlets as Road & Kingdom and a managing PR, event planning and promotions and social media for a number of clients. g, and social media content. We sit down and talk with her about how she does it all.
SPARTANS INNOVATE: How did you come up with the idea for your company?
HERNANDEZ: My background is Filipino, and when I moved [to Detroit] I did not see a lot of places to get Filipino food. But I noticed all of these diverse pop-up restaurants around town. I told my then boyfriend [now husband] who was a chef that this would be a good opportunity to sort of carve out a niche for ourselves.
Why did you choose metro Detroit for your restaurant instead of other places?
There is a restaurant that I really like, but it’s in Windsor. So if you didn’t want to go to Canada, that’s not really an option. There were some restaurants that I heard of, but they closed down, so there was definitely a market for it. Even though we do not have a brick-and-mortar because we pop up in different places, we try to spread it around. We’ve done a lot in downtown Detroit, but we are open to other places in Michigan as well.
Is there anything other than the food that differentiates your company from other pop-up restaurants?
What we really try to do with our pop-ups is have a whole experience. It’s more than just serving the food and then leaving. We try to explain every dish and the inspiration for it.
With my background as a journalist, I try to incorporate that storytelling aspect into our pop-ups. For example, last year after we came back from a trip to the Philippines we specifically had a pop-up that focused on our travels, what we learned, the people we met, and the dishes we ate.
We try to have a lot of interaction and that’s another aspect of what I try to do with Sarap— build community. When I first moved here, I knew like one Filipino person and I only met her through a friend of mine. Since I started doing this, I have met so many other Filipinos and a lot of them have become my friends. They are kind of like a little community that comes to each of my pop-ups and I’ve gotten to know them and recognize them.
How have you marketed your company?
So we have a really really, more like non-existent budget, so a lot of the promotion that I’ve done has basically been done on social media. For our first event at Supino Pizzeria in Eastern Market, we had an article in the Detroit News and it sold out immediately. Since I am a journalist, I definitely hit up all of my media contacts to get the word out there. In terms of paid advertising, the only paid advertising I’ll do is through Facebook or Instagram to boost sponsored posts.
Have you encountered failure?
Absolutely. With a business there is going to be lots of failure. I am not a trained chef; I learned a lot about cooking from my mom so I am pretty self-taught. My husband, on the other hand, is a professional chef who has been working in the industry for years but did not have any background in cooking Filipino food. So trying to combine his experience and my knowledge has been challenging.
We are still trying to figure out what our vision is and what kind of food we want to bring to people because Filipino food is very diverse. Because of this, people already have their ideas about what Filipino food should be so when they come to our pop-ups and something is not as they expected, it’s disappointing.
I think a big challenge is trying to figure out what exactly we are going to be and I think that’s what the beauty of a pop-up is, you can kind of reinvent yourself every time depending on what people like and don’t like.
How do you define success?
Success to me is to make people happy with our food. If people come to our pop-up and they are happy than that is success to me because food is so personal. If I can give people something that is familiar to them, even though it might be presented in a different way than they are used to, but they still like it, that is success to me.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.