Undercut by bootleg grocers, Whitehorse’s Filipino food store has been forced to diversify into other cultures after less than three months of operation.
“We weren’t even making $50 a day in the till the last two weeks we were open,” said Art Kehler, co-owner of Fili Foods.
“Everything went bad really fast … I’m about ready to pack up and leave this town.
“Three quarters of the stock that we bought three months ago we’ve still got.”
Kehler, along with girlfriend Beth Gallanosa, opened the store in late March to serve Whitehorse’s growing Filipino community.
Originally from the Philippines, Gallanosa has lived in Whitehorse for about six years. Kehler is from Winnipeg.
The pair decided to open Fili Foods after bringing a small load of Filipino snacks up from Winnipeg to give to Gallanosa’s sister and friends.
“The next morning she called and said, ‘When are you going back? I need more,’ so it was like, ‘Well, let’s just open up a store.’”
Initially the owners met with praise from the Filipino community, but soon found they could count on only about a dozen loyal Filipino customers.
“Out of the 500 to 600 Filipinos they say that there are here (in the Yukon), in the two months we were open we didn’t even have 100 of them through the store,” said Kehler.
“At first, they were saying, ‘Oh, it’s a nice idea that you have this, it’s great that there’s a Filipino store. Now we can have Filipino food,’” said Gallanosa.
“But I don’t see them here.”
“The Filipinos aren’t supportive at all,” said Kehler.
A large portion of their business has stemmed from non-Filipino shoppers.
“If it wasn’t for the white people, we would have shut the store down a month ago,” said Kehler.
Kehler blames the lack of business on a robust circle of Filipino food bootleggers.
When the store first opened, its prices were lower than the bootleggers.
However, the bootleggers battled back and undercut Fili Foods.
“So we dropped our price until we were hardly making anything, and then they dropped their price more and started stocking other stuff.”
Bootlegging food is illegal under the health code, but Kehler’s efforts to bust a known bootlegger fell flat due to lack of evidence.
The couple said they believe that there has also been an issue with Kehler’s presence as the primary clerk at the store.
“I even heard that some people have a problem with him sitting in a Filipino store, being a white guy,” said Gallanosa.
Kehler is significantly taller than Gallanosa and bears several tattoos on his arms.
“One or two actually asked him directly what he was doing,” said Gallanosa.
Fili Foods is the second failed attempt at a purely Filipino food store in Whitehorse in the last 10 years.
A similar store opened by a Whitehorse woman failed after only a few months.
Kehler said he received warning from the woman.
“She said, ‘Don’t expect any Filipinos, they’ll be going to the bootleggers.’”
The store is now moving towards an all-around ethnic theme, with spices, health products and foods originating from Vietnam, Thailand, Mexico and Korea.
The couple is also trying to acquire a television with a satellite hookup that would run Filipino channels.
Also, they would like to offer phone cards, an international money transfer kiosk and a selection of ethnic movies.
“If this does work with what we got, then we’ll keep doing it, said Kehler. “But if it doesn’t, we’re just going to shut down.”
“I’m not giving up. I still have my hopes high up and that’s why we have to get a variety of products so that everybody can shop here,” said Gallanosa.
Despite moving away from a solely Filipino selection, the store will still be called Fili Foods.
“We wanted to change the name, but it’s just too costly to do all that right now,” said Kehler.
The couple still plans to set up a Filipino food cart offering “kebabs, spring rolls, juice, steamed buns, chips and stuff for the kids.”
They are currently hoping to obtain municipal licensing for the cart.
“Food is always a good business, because it keeps getting consumed,” said Gallanosa.