Dagupan Grill survived the pandemic thanks to its Filipino fans

There came a time during the pandemic when Jubert and Theresa Javonillo knew they had to save their restaurant, Dagupan Grill, in Kennewick.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, it was really scary,” Theresa said. “We had to shut down. It was like a nightmare. So we were really scared in the beginning. So we’ll put it in God’s hands. I do believe in prayer, and we prayed hard.”

And then it was time to dig in.

“We have this business, so we’ll fight for this,” she said. “My husband had quit his job, and was working full time at the restaurant. We had to use our resources to keep going.”

Those resources, of course, were their personal savings.

The Javonillo family’s story is similar to others around the Tri-Cities. The pandemic forced shutdowns. Then they tried to live off to-go orders. Then they could open at 25% capacity in the dining room. Then 50%. And now, they’re back at full strength.

“I would say we’ve passed the worst of the pandemic,” Theresa said. “But we’re still in the pandemic. Our business has grown. We’ve got more customers coming in knowing who we are.”

According to binwise.com, about 60% of restaurants fail within the first year of operation. Dagupan Grill easily made it past that timeline.

What the Javonillos have learned is that there is an appreciative Filipino community that adores their food. And more and more, the same is happening with a diverse customer base – both in the Tri-Cities, and according to the owners, all around the Northwest.

“There is a large Filipino community here,” says Jubert. “And it supports the restaurant. But we have a wide variety of customers.”

The love story

 Wendy Culverwell, the Tri-Cities Area Journal of Business’ editor, detailed the couple’s love story in the Tri-City Herald, as they opened Dagupan Grill on Valentine’s Day in 2018.

Jubert met Theresa in college a few decades back in the Philippines. But the romance didn’t kindle.

Theresa married an American in the early 1990s and moved to the Tri-Cities. She currently works full time for Kadlec in technology.

Jubert, meanwhile, moved on with his life and became a butler for one of the royal families in Saudi Arabia. He loved working for the family and at times would fly to Spain on the family jet to pick up vegetables. He also would cook for the family.

Theresa, after having two children, eventually divorced.

But one night, she dreamed of Jubert. She didn’t know why, but her aunt told her she must find out what he was doing. With the help of family, she eventually tracked him down, calling him while he was in Saudi Arabia.

At first skeptical, Jubert agreed to meet Theresa at the Manila International Airport, and they began to date. The couple married in 2005.

Theresa became an American citizen in 1997, and she sponsored Jubert, who became a citizen as well in 2012.

Filipino Fare

The couple both love to cook. And they would put out a spread of Filipino food for friends and family whenever they had a get-together at their home.

“We use the term ‘catering,’ but I’d say it’s more like family favors,” Theresa said.

Family and friends, after tasting their food, would then ask them to make food for them at an upcoming party or event.

“People would bug me for recipes,” Theresa said. “When I was growing up in the Philippines, when there was a party in the family, my mother would make me go help.”

Those family parties became useful when Theresa learned the recipes, and how to cook the dishes.

Meanwhile, Jubert worked at the King & I restaurant (now Thai Elephant) for six years, as well as for Trios. And he was the one who wanted to open a restaurant.

“He was the one who was dreaming big for us,” Theresa said. “He told me, ‘I’m gonna make us a name.’ ”

In 2018, they opened Dagupan Grill on 27th Avenue in Kennewick. The couple spent $200,000 on kitchen gear to convert an old telephone store into a restaurant.

“The recipes are a combined effort,” Theresa said. “Jubert would like one of my recipes and use it.”

And Theresa would want to use a recipe that Jubert had.

“My husband’s No. 1 goal is he likes to share what he used to learn and what he did at the palace,” Theresa said.

Including Jubert and Theresa, the restaurant has eight employees, and “we have one person on standby if someone can’t make it to work,” Theresa said.

Dagupan Grill takes its name from a city in the Pangasinan province of the Philippines.

The intention, mission and vision “is to provide quality, unique and exemplary food preparation and great service to all customers, with the definition and application of the word Dagupan ‘where people meet.’ While you dine in with us, please consider yourself an honored guest. Mabuhay, and welcome to Dagupan Grill – Taste of the Philippines!”

The food and the pandemic

Filipino food is a combination of influences from Spanish, Japanese, Chinese and American food.

And in Eastern Washington, it looks like there are only two restaurants the serve Filipino food: one in Ellensburg, and the other – Dagupan Grill – in Kennewick.

The couple just updated their menu for the first time in the four years since they opened.

Theresa’s favorites include the barbecue, lumpia, the Bihon rice mixed noodles, and Lechon Kawali (a seasoned pork belly, deep fried).

For those not as adventurous, Dagupan’s orange chicken is a tasty choice.

The Javonillos make periodic trips to Seattle to source some of the restaurant ingredient supplies.

Jubert says maybe once a month or two from March on, until the roads get bad in the winter.

“Then, I’ll get enough to last us through the winter months,” he said.

When restaurants closed in March 2020, and only allowed to service to-go orders, Jubert and Theresa were blown away by the public’s generosity.

“People would come in for their $57 order, and they’d give Jubert a $50 tip,” said Theresa. “They told us they wanted us to stay open.”

Then there was Keith Moon, the owner of Tumbleweeds restaurant, who featured Dagupan Grill on his Facebook page to promote local restaurants last summer.

“The owner of Tumbleweeds is such a nice guy,” Theresa said. “He’d put the word out and we’d have a lot of customers come in. He told us, ‘You’ll be featured tomorrow…’ ”

The restaurant reopened for in-room dining on March 2, 2021.

And customers from all over have been coming in – from Bellingham, Sandpoint, LaGrande, The Dalles, Yakima, Hermiston, Sunnyside.

Jubert has a brother and sister who drive from Portland just to eat at their restaurant.

“They come all the time, and we’ll make them extra food that they can put in their freezer,” he said. “They’ll tell us, ‘This is really like home cooking.’ ”

And that’s all the Javonillos really ever wanted.

The Filipino word ‘mabuhay’ is constantly used at the restaurant. It’s similar to the use of ‘aloha’ in Hawaii. It’s a pleasant greeting and meant as a wish for good times.

“Cooking has always been a passion of ours,” Theresa said. “And it makes us happy to see people’s satisfaction eating our food. No matter how tired you are, it’s inspiring.”

Dagupan Grill: 3911 W. 27th Ave., Suite 109, Kennewick; 509-579-5980; dagupangrill.com; Facebook.

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