Despite the COVID-19 pandemic negatively impacting the F&B industry, causing unemployment and restaurant shutdowns worldwide, there are still a few gems that have surfaced from the rubble. Many took the risk of opening up food shops and selling their specialties, operating mostly online and without a physical store. These quarantine-born shops cater to the growing needs of consumers who still want to eat delicious food in the comfort of their homes. 

One such endeavor adding to the growing list of healthy food options in the market today is Gang Green Falafels, an Instagram food shop that serves falafel sandwiches and whose unique moniker “took on a life of its own and became a talking point with customers.” 

We talked to the two of the brains behind this new venture, Gino Palma and JC Rivera, to get their insights on setting up shop amid a pandemic and how the journey has been so far. 

Born out of love

The beginning of Gang Green Falafels involved a love story, literally. A year before the pandemic struck, Mikel Zaguirre, Palma, Rivera and his sister Tess, and another business partner were in the process of launching a restaurant called The Big Belly. But because of the in-house dining ban and the uncertainty of the situation, they all decided to put the launch on indefinite hold. 

The result? Hearty, flavorfully diverse, and satisfying falafel sandwiches that are as much about the range of ingredients making an impression (milk buns, ube pita, edamame falafel) as they are about the potent simplicity of marketing the products (a total of eight different variants simply named by number). 

Rivera then found himself in a relationship and living in Iloilo with his girlfriend, who was at the forefront of promoting healthy food in the Western Visayas province. Given that his girlfriend and her family are eager believers of healthy eating, Rivera found himself in an awkward situation. “My diet had fried chicken in it every three days,” he admits. 

In one of his conversations with Zaguirre and Palma, Rivera wondered: “Why is it that when we see no meat and only vegetables as ulam, feeling natin bitin (we felt it was not enough)—at this point I was permanently hungry [laughs],” Rivera says. 

The challenge for Gang Green Falafels was how to evolve their salads
They also serve salads like the No. 9, which is made with spiced peaches, onions, tomatoes, cucumber, romaine lettuce, and chickpea falafel doused in tahini dressing

But what started as a casual exchange turned into a challenge to come up with vegetarian food that, as Rivera describes, “heavy meat eaters enjoyed.”

Promoting vegetarian food that meat eaters would enjoy was the mission from the outset, even experimenting with the idea of making their own alternative meat. Eventually, they all decided to let the ingredients shine as they are. 

“We were hoping to make a gateway product for people to ease themselves into enjoying eating green,” says Rivera. “Of course, falafels are not new, so the actual challenge was packaging it differently and having something new to offer.” 

Falafel No. 1 is made with classic pita, chickpea-fava falafel, hummus, Israeli salad, and tzatiki
Falafel No. 1 is made with classic pita, chickpea-fava falafel, hummus, Israeli salad, and tzatiki
You also have the option to add on these kamote fries dusted with sweet and salty nut powder and four-spice batter
You also have the option to add on these kamote fries dusted with sweet and salty nut powder and four-spice batter

The result? Hearty, flavorfully diverse, and satisfying falafel sandwiches that are as much about the range of ingredients making an impression (milk buns, ube pita, edamame falafel) as they are about the potent simplicity of marketing the products (a total of eight different variants simply named by number). 

Kel [Zaguirre] transformed all of our ramblings about vegetables—the idea of having no meat on your plate and feeling bitin, and the desire to find a middle ground for people who are still on the fence about their meat consumption—into what we now have and enjoy today.”

Falafel sandwiches are the perfect vehicle to deliver their message across because for many, this carnivore-friendly food is usually the first step toward a more wholesome eating experience. 

“Everything on the menu is basically made from scratch. We never compromised on any of our ingredients,” Palma said. Even their pitas—yes, from classic to ube and malunggay—are made in-house by their head chef. 

Growing in the pandemic

Although they already had an existing space they could’ve used, the team found that the concept of Gang Green didn’t quite match it. Plus with the pandemic and various quarantine classifications, it made more sense to start off as a delivery-only venture. 

“The current situation did force us [to do] delivery only… but it helped us reach a wider market as well,” says Rivera. “One of the perks about our sandwiches is that we’ve had orders delivered to the depths of Rizal, the far reaches of Quezon City and even Santa Rosa and still have the quality we want our customers to have to enjoy their food.”

“You know what they say about never opening a business with friends? Don’t listen to those! All of what we have built has been based on honesty between everyone in the group and I think honesty between true friends is the basis of building something great,” says JC Rivera. 

And there’s also an understandably stronger sense of connection with customers that come with full online operations—the art of making good impressions and delivering customer service is not lost, after all. 

They make up for the lack of physical interactions by being active on social media, communicating with their customers directly, and listening to their suggestions.

“Of course social media has allowed us to connect to everyone and it’s a great medium for small businesses like ours to stay relevant,” says Rivera, but he adds that the hardest part about running a food business during a pandemic is that “you never get to see the people who enjoy your product.”

Falafels can flourish

Gang Green Falafels has shown that a food business can still flourish even during tough times, and both Rivera and Palma know the importance of knowing exactly what you’re getting into. 

“Think really hard on why you want to open a restaurant. There’s more grit than glamor in this industry so try your best to prepare but most definitely make sure you’re ready for surprises. All these unforeseen challenges like to hide behind great experiences,” says Rivera. 

Falafel No. 2 is made with ube pita, edamame falafel, beetroot paneer, and melon chimichurri
Falafel No. 2 is made with ube pita, edamame falafel, beetroot paneer, and melon chimichurri

But there’s an especially characteristic ingredient that future entrepreneurs should take into account in the way Gang Green Falafel has planned its roadmap. 

“You know what they say about never opening a business with friends? Don’t listen to those! All of what we have built has been based on honesty between everyone in the group and I think honesty between true friends is the basis of building something great,” says Rivera. 

In essence, relationship-building is the rule and not the exception. 

With additional reporting from Eric Nicole Salta