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Tuesday, Mar 21, 2023

Diversity in the Market

From ice cream to financial services, Asian entrepreneurs forge ahead after virus crisis.

Recent years have challenged the survival of entrepreneurial ventures with a virus crisis, but Asian businesses have found ways to persevere and even thrive.

“Membership-wise, we did well during the pandemic,” said Celeste Rose Monderin, vice president of the Filipino-American Chamber of Commerce San Fernando Valley, which currently has 194 members. 

Two of the chamber’s members experienced the rewards and challenges of being entrepreneurs as the pandemic subsided. Despite working in totally different industries. 

Tang & Java Gelato Café in Woodland Hills – located at 22776 Ventura Blvd. near Fallbrook Avenue – specializes in ice cream and coffee. Diana Lua opened Tang & Java in December 2021 with business partner Sjareska Karni. 

“It’s kind of mainstream but she also tries to keep it as Filipino as possible,” Monderin said of Lua’s business.

Lua explained how the name of her business references the origin of gelato ice cream.

“It’s the Marco Polo expedition to China around 1200,” Lua said. “King Tang ordered the soldiers to go up into the mountains and freeze buffalo milk and rice. Marco Polo tasted it and loved it. He introduced it to the Italians and from there we got gelato.”

Before opening Tang & Java, Lua had been working as a chef and helping her husband James Lua with his business Hidden Vape. The inspiration to open a gelato business came from her four sons, ages 10 to 15, including her twins, 11, who have autism.

“I have kids in the spectrum,” Lua said. “All they wanted was ice cream.”

When a vacant space at the same shopping complex as Hidden Vape became available, she decided to pursue her business plan and let her husband along with her brother Angelo Cajucom run Hidden Vape.

Less sugar

From the start with Tang & Java, Lua intended to create a healthy confection that she would feel comfortable serving to her kids.

“Gelato has less sugar than ice cream,” Lua said. “I’m going to make it and people will feel it’s a quality ice cream.”

The gelato flavors are all made in-house with fresh ingredients with no preservatives. Tang & Java also has sugar-free, keto and dairy free vegan options.

As a chef, Lua took some culinary arts classes to learn how to make her product.

“I took a special class on how to make gelato from an Italian woman,” Lua said. “I needed to learn from the best.”

The goal was simple: “Ice cream for the kids, good coffee for the parents.”

Lua also has items on the menu that reflect her Filipino heritage, such as 

halo halo, which is made with gelato instead of evaporated milk from a can;

and bibingka, a rice cake made with egg and cheese. Cold drinks are a mixture of natural ingredients such as guava and dragon fruit.

Self-determination is also an important concept for Lua. “What we want is to empower women,” Lua said. “We have pastries and candles, both from women-owned businesses.”  

The timing of when she opened her business came with some challenges.

“Opening during Covid, nobody really wants to work,” said Lua, who had some trouble finding the right employees. “For every 10 people who submit a resume, only two of them show up.”

And once she found the prospective employees, “I need to do a full training with them,” she said. “I’m a chef but I’m not really a barista, but I’ve had to (fill in).”

Lua also had to wait to receive key pieces of equipment that are the cornerstone of her business.

“My coffee machine and the gelato machine came from Italy,” Lua said. “It took a few months during the pandemic to receive them with the shipping problems.”

The most rewarding part of running her own business, Lua said, “is to see people as soon as they try the gelato. It transports them to a different world. Knowing what’s in the gelato, giving them to the kids, it’s not a dessert, it’s food for the soul.”

Streamlining payroll

Another entrepreneur rising to the challenge of running his own business is Roy Escosar, founder of Escochecks Inc. in Woodland Hills.

Over 10 years in business, Escosar started Escochecks —  located at 21900 Burbank Blvd. — with bookkeeping and has since branched out into taxes, payroll and human resources.

“Roy has a very personalized approach,” Monderin said. “He really makes you feel like ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you.’”

Now the tax preparer is readying to launch his own payroll software called Peydei.

“In the payroll business, I saw an opportunity,” Escosar said. “Paychex offered to buy my database. If I develop my own software, it would be more than what they offer.”

Escosar said his accounting software will be able to handle even large employers.

“The brain behind the software is Tax Engine, the same as Gusto, Intuit and ADP,” Escosar said.

Escosar said he will be the first Filipino to launch his own payroll software. There are a few differences between his Peydei and existing software.

“Ours is based by clocking in and clocking out,” Escosar said. “We made sure we’ve covered all the codes for small businesses so they can evaluate their yearly worker’s comp exposure. We have critical reports about tax compliance and government compliance.”

Nine months into development, it will be tested vigorously with his current clients and it will be out in October.

“It’s not live yet. The last stage is generating reports,” Escosar said. “We’re going to sell this to other tax professionals and payroll processors who want to use our software. It will be cost-effective and at the same time robust.”

Immigrant story

Escocar grew up in the Philippines and graduated from the University of Philippines. 

He worked for Chevron Corp. in Mississippi for about 10 years and worked in Singapore for three years before moving to California in 2002. 

He lived in Van Nuys while got his master’s in accounting and financial management at Keller Graduate School at DeVry University in Sherman Oaks.

Escocar worked as a chief financial officer for the now-defunct Alpine Pictures in Burbank until the Great Recession hit. After being unemployed for two years, he started his own firm.

“I really worked hard on my way up,” Escocar said.

Escocar, who today lives in Palmdale, formerly resided in Winnetka.

Escosar said that the biggest challenge for his business right now is technology because most of his employees are in the Philippines. Escochecks has 32 employees total — four in L.A. and 28 in the Philippines.

Escosar said Escochecks did well during the pandemic because 85 percent of his clients are in the health care industry. 

The most rewarding part of being an entrepreneur, Escosar said, “is that we’ve been 100 percent referral. Our gross has been tremendous over the past five years. We had referrals with no advertising and no social media.”

Michael Aushenker
Michael Aushenker
A graduate of Cornell University, Michael covers commercial real estate for the San Fernando Valley Business Journal. Prior to the Business Journal, Michael covered the community and entertainment beats as a staff writer for various newspapers, including the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, The Palisadian-Post, The Argonaut and Acorn Newspapers. He has also freelanced for the Santa Barbara Independent, VC Reporter, Malibu Times and Los Feliz Ledger.

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