Bilao Restaurant: Lessons on business, balance, and bonds of friendship 

Bilao Restaurant turns 3. Photos courtesy of Instagram @bilaonyc
Nurses and Bilao owners Maricris Dinopol, Jude Canela and Joan Calanog  

By Claire Mercado-Obias

BILAO (bee-lah-oh) is a Filipino word referring to a round tray made from woven bamboo. Pancit (stir-fried noodles) or kakanin (rice cakes) are some traditional items served on a bilao, making them easy to transport and ideal for potlucks — no need to worry about getting your Tupperware back after the party. Food on a bilao is also symbolic of lively gatherings, food as a love language, and Filipino hospitality.

It is no surprise that registered nurses Joan Calanog, Jude Canela and Maricris Dinopol named their business Bilao Restaurant. Located in New York City’s Upper East Side, it made quite the stir because the owners happen to be medical frontliners who opened Bilao at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether you consider this an act of heroism or insanity, one can’t help but applaud their bravery as they tread two high-stress occupations in one of the most competitive cities in the world. Three years into the pandemic, they generously share with us what they’ve learned running a business.

TF: Where did you meet each other? 

Joan/Jude/Maricris: We all met at work as staff nurses in Mount Sinai Hospital. We’ve known each other for more than five years.

TF: Many business ideas remain ideas that never come to life. What kept you motivated to make yours a reality? 

Joan/Jude/Maricris: It took us at least a year of concept planning and strategy. We got very lucky that the calling of opening a business during that difficult time (pandemic) came to reality.  We had reservations but we felt like it was the right time, place, and situation. A “we have nothing to lose” and gaining something (the experience of having a business) mentality was our motivation.

Left,Kamayanstyle dining where guests share a communal table and eat without utensils;  Lechon Kawali and Crispy Pata are popular dishes.  

TF: Describe the customers who regularly come to Bilao Restaurant.

Joan/Jude/Maricris: Surprisingly we were able to market our dishes to almost everyone since we opened, especially to non-Filipinos. We have some dishes that non-Filipinos really come back for like our Chicken Adobo.  

TF: Describe the day you opened Bilao Restaurant.

Joan/Jude/Maricris: On our opening day we were overwhelmed. We did not expect that we will get so much support from our friends, colleagues, and even the community. It was truly heartfelt. 

TF: When did you know that your business was successful? 

Joan/Jude/Maricris: On our first six months of being open. We can consider that it was successful because we were able to take in customers fully, on a daily basis. 

TF: What are some setbacks and how did you learn from them? 

Joan/Jude/Maricris: Unavailability of supplies is the biggest setback that we have encountered. Due to inflation, it is still difficult to maintain and find rare ingredients. We learned that prioritization would always be our salvation whenever we have to deal with things like this. 

Diners experience Filipino hospitality. 

TF: Random health inspections are conducted in NYC restaurants annually to check if they comply with food safety regulations. I understand that Bilao Restaurant was closed in May 2022 by the Health Department. How did you deal with this and what advice can you give to other restaurants who are subject to these inspections, too?  

Joan/Jude/Maricris: We exert extra effort in correcting our citation from the Department of Health. We didn’t take it personally or negatively, but instead we took it as a challenge that our restaurant makes room for improvement. Inspections are there for guidance and safety especially for the customers, so for us restaurant owners, our job is to serve our customers with the safest and highest quality of food that we can. For other restaurant owners, take it seriously and appropriately. Think of it as if that there is always something to improve at your restaurant with or without inspection.  

TF: How do you work at the hospital, manage your business, and still be friends at the same time? 

Joan/Jude/Maricris: We are just grateful that we are able to manage our time wisely. Time management is the key for us.  

TF: How do you keep your energy and positivity after a long shift at the hospital and the restaurant? 

Joan/Jude/Maricris: Each one of us reflects daily and we make sure that we always have enough energy reserved. The positive inputs about the restaurant always encourage us. The way we handle things, whether for the business or our profession, is that there is always a solution to any problem whether big or small.  

TF: Bilao Restaurant is turning 3 years old this year. What is your promise to your customers?

Joan/Jude/Maricris: We promise to continuously provide authentic Filipino dishes and always share the traits of Filipino hospitality that will make our customers feel at home.

Bilao Restaurant is located on 1437 1st Avenue (between East 74th and East 75th Street), NY, NY 10021. Hours: Monday to Thursday: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m./Friday-Saturday: 8 a.m. to 10 p.m./ Sunday: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. 

A mural depicting Filipino exuberance right in New York City. Photo by Claire Mercado-Obias

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