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Proprietor/manager Erwin Santos credits Phil-Am Food’s continuous success to his parents, satisfied customers and his hardworking employees.  (Filipino Reporter photo)


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Store’s online shopping thrives, too


JERSEY CITY — For four decades now, Phil-Am Food, the largest Filipino-owned grocery store on the U.S. East Coast, has served as a bastion of vibrant Filipino community here as it consistently provides patrons a sense of being “back home” with its extensive array of Philippine food products no other Pinoy store in this coast can match.

At the helm of Phil-Am Food is Erwin Santos, who represents his family’s new generation of entrepreneurs responsible for revitalizing and modernizing the company’s operation to sustain growth and expansion amid economic slump.

Under Santos’ watch, Phil-Am Food, which is also known for its authentic and affordable Filipino dishes freshly cooked daily, has also embarked on online shopping, where clients all over the United States, and even abroad, can place orders at their convenience from the confines of their homes.

In a one-on-one chat with the Filipino Reporter, Santos talks about Phil-Am Food’s longevity since 1973, its latest undertakings and vision to get its clientele come back again and again, and the people he credits for its (and his) noteworthy success.

FILIPINO REPORTER (FR): After all these years, Phil-Am Food remains on top of its game. What’s the secret?

ERWIN SANTOS: Service. Selection. I concentrate on variety and quality. You always improve your products. You don’t just rest on your laurels thinking if you do the same thing everyday, people will keep on coming back. You won’t grow that way. The hardest thing in business is not getting to the top, it’s staying on top. You have to stay hungrier and improve more when you’re on top.

FR: How has the economic downturn affected your business?

SANTOS: A lot of people just accept that the economy is bad. What we do is we don’t skip on our service. We don’t take a step back.

FR: What about the competition? Large Asian food stores have been popping up in the last few years.

SANTOS: When those businesses opened, there were people who told me “oh you’re going to die.” But then how come we’re still here and we keep on growing every year. I’m confident to say you can go to the 10 biggest stores around here and they’re not gonna have our selections.

FR: You seem to know well your customers’ needs?

SANTOS: You can’t service the customers unless you know what they like and dislike. No matter how you want to do something, you are still a slave to your customers. You can’t force-feed them. You have to take what’s in their mind. You listen to them. That’s why I talk to customers from time to time.


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Phil-Am Food’s Erwin Santos shows to the Filipino Reporter stacks of boxes filled with Philippine goods ready for shipment to various locations in the United States, as well as overseas.


FR: Do you have a plan to expand or open a second location?

SANTOS: We don’t have a branch or franchise like what some people think. Our second location is actually our website (philamfood.com). It is the future. With online, I can go to people. You live in Indiana, Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, we’ll send it to your doorstep. Even in New Jersey, you live in Edison, Bloomfield or Bergenfield, we’ll ship to you. We have a lot of customers in New York who order online Monday, their order is in their house by Tuesday.

FR: How about California, where Filipino stores are all over?

SANTOS: We still ship there daily, believe it or not, because we have products here that you won’t find even there. We ship to all states, on flat rate ($9.95), except for Alaska and Hawaii, which are post office rates. We even ship to Saudi daily, mostly to soldiers who live abroad. It’s also post office rates for overseas.

FR: Why would people shop online at Phil-Am Food?

SANTOS: I guarantee you whatever store is near you, I’ll beat their selection and the prices will be comparable. I guarantee that. I’ve got 5,000 products, almost all of them imported from the Philippines, products you didn’t even know were available at Phil-Am Food throughout the year.

FR: You’ve been promoting not only Phil-Am Food but other Filipino businesses as well.

SANTOS: I want people to enjoy coming here and save them time. Phil-Am Food is a one-stop shop place. After you shop and you want to eat or relax, we have a turo-turo of appetizing Filipino dishes right within the store. But if you want to eat elsewhere, there are several nice restaurants nearby. There’s Max’s of Manila, Red Ribbon, Casa Victoria, Fiesta Grill, Casa Manila, Pal Inasal Resto Grill, Philippine Bread House, Little Quiapo. And if you want to send balikbayan boxes or remit money, there’s Makati Express, Global Cargo, Johnny Air Cargo, PNB. There’s also American Pinoy, Aurora’s Hairport and other Filipino establishments that make people refer to Newark Avenue as Little Manila.

FR: You seem to have mastered the art of running food business. Where did you learn it?

SANTOS: I used to work in the warehouse of my mom and dad (Florentina and Oliver Santos). I drove trucks, I loaded trucks. I’ve been working manually since I was like 5 stacking shelves with cans. When I was young, all my cousins would go to a camp during summer while I went with my dad and work in the warehouse. You can actually learn from both successful and not so successful people. Know what they’re doing, pick their brains and be willing to listen. No ego. Take whatever knowledge you can get. Then look at the not so successful people and make sure to not do what they’re doing.

FR: Who do you credit for your success?

SANTOS: My mother and my father, of course. I’m very thankful for what my parents did to me. They worked hard for me and they provided so much. But they didn’t spoil me. If I really wanted something I had to work for it. My dad is from Malabon and my mom is from San Jose, Batangas. They motivated me to try new things. Whether or not they agree with what I’m doing, they let me try it first. If they think I’m wrong, then they tell me. But the decision is still mine. But if my parents tell me to do something else and they believe fully that I should do it, I will do it their way. You know why? It’s because I trust their judgment 100 percent. If you think you know everything, you’re screwed.

FR: Do you still find time to rest?

SANTOS: (Laughs) Ever since I had a daughter, weekends are family day for me. We go to the mall, we eat out. Nothing fancy, just for the kid.

FR: Are there people other than your parents who inspired you?

SANTOS: My aunt in Queens (Yda Castillo) taught me lot. My friend Dolly Tan, who owns Jollibbee Oriental Food Mart in Bergenfield, taught me a lot. Best of all, my staff. I’ve been blessed for 12 years now with the most amazing staff. No matter how good you are if you don’t have the people who can apply your vision, you won’t make it. I’m not the one in front of people everyday. And it’s not just about the money, it’s about the respect that I give my staff. And I appreciate everything they do.

FR: What is the fun part about running Phil-Am Food, aside from money of course?

SANTOS: Of course I wanna make money to earn a living. But I do all this because I enjoy it. Filipinos are sad to leave home for opportunities abroad. They come here to make a better life for themselves and their families back home. And what’s the best way to remember home? I think food. So I work hard to give these people the sense of being back home. And if I succeed giving it to you, then I have done my part. That’s one of the reasons why people longing for home keep coming back. I guess that’s my small contribution to this community.

FR: So it has become your personal mission.

SANTOS: If you compare what do I enjoy more in the store, seeing a person having a super full cart or someone who has a basket with a couple of items who would come up to me and say, “you know what I just love your place.” I enjoy that one. Money will come. Money is money. But just seeing people enjoying themselves and happy there isn’t money on that. You know how much more effort it takes for someone to tell you that they’re happy? It’s a lot. That means we’re doing something right.


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Phil-Am Food is also popular for its scrumptious Filipinos dishes and delicacies freshly prepared daily by experienced food staff. Customers can eat and relax at Phil-Am Food’s turo-turo section after shopping.


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Filipino Reporter’s advertising manager Albert Ignacio checks out Phil-Am Food’s wide range of frozen goods from the Philippines. “We have a lot of products many people didn’t know were available throughout the year,” said Phil-Am Food proprietor/manager Erwin Santos.


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Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern (left) is welcomed by Erwin Santos, flanked by his daughter and wife, during the TV host’s visit last year at Phil-Am Food in Jersey City, N.J. for Zimmern’s show “Bizarre Foods America.”

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