Wednesday, April 29, 2009

California Wok Celebrates Success


May 2009 Celebration

In May 2009, California Wok, the biggest little secret in Orange County will be formally introduced to the Filipino Community via a two-day celebration that will include the launching of a new wing and a new groundbreaking show that will anchor its Sunday entertainment.

Quietly building a loyal clientele for the past two years, owners Sonny and Novie Medina are now ready to share the secret to the rest of Los Angeles.

Formerly owned by a Thai microbiologist, the couple bought the business and took over the operations in 2007. They have transformed what was once a quiet family restaurant located inside the Los Alamitos Corporate Center into a popular weekend entertainment destination with live sing-along bar and a group of versatile stand-up comics providing hysterical comedy shows. Joseph Gelito, LA’s premier comedian, leads the talented foursome that also includes Kasia, Justine and Maui.

The restaurant goes back more than twenty-two years in its history. It began as a dream for a Thai mother who wanted to imbue her own distinct and personal approach to a popular traditional cuisine. She started California Wok in Cerritos in the early 1980s and moved her restaurant to its present location sometime later. Over the years, the restaurant grew and expanded to include a banquet. It has also earned industry awards and was cited for eight consecutive years by the American Heart Association (AHA) for its heart-healthy menu. This endorsement by the AHA can be found next to the menu items.

The Dream

Sonny Medina has always wanted to manage his own restaurant. A Radiology Technician graduate of De La Salle Cavite, he started in the restaurant business as a manager for a popular Filipino fast-food chain. His wife, Novie, who is a Systems Administrator for a hematology and oncology center, comes from a family who owns various restaurants in Lucena City in the Philippines.

For the longest time, the couple dreamt of having their own business, and, in 2006, they started scouting the market for a possible restaurant venture.

Initially, they were supposed to buy a popular Filipino restaurant but the deal went sour just a few weeks after they took over.

But the couple was never intimidated. They were looking for another restaurant to buy when they accidentally met Baiyok, the former owner of California Wok, again. Sonny was previously introduced to Baiyok and the chance meeting ended with the couple sharing with Baiyok their recent sad business experience and how they still plan on running their own restaurant.

And in what can only be called a serendipitous moment, Baiyok, sensing the couple’s sincerity and good business acumen, offered to sell them California Wok. Sonny and Novie couldn’t believe their luck – they are going to have their own restaurant after all!

Because she wanted to retire, Baiyok was keen on selling the restaurant at a discount but with two conditions for the couple: first, she wanted all the staff to be retained and, second, she wanted the menu to be kept for her loyal customers. The couple, still reeling with disbelief at the sudden opportunity, readily agreed. A few days later, they started escrow.

On February 1, 2007, the couple formally took over the operations. They kept the staff, the menu, and the name. They also get to keep the secret formula to the soy sauce made of a special blend of various fruits that adds distinctive flavor to their food.

They redecorated the interiors, repainted the walls, and added live sing-along weekend entertainment a few months later.

California Wok

During the first few days that they were managing the restaurant, the couple discovered that their customers included zero Filipinos. Sure, the restaurant gets filled, but in order to grow, they needed to add more customers. They needed to tap the Filipino market.

When the couple started envisioning the future for California Wok, the first thing they considered was the live sing-along weekend entertainment.

Southern California, in recent years, has seen an explosion of sing-along bars patterned after the comedy bars popular in the Philippines. Ask a Filipino if he can sing, and he will not tell you but will show you that he can. Armed with whatever kind of voice, he will not hesitate to sing with a microphone in front of strangers as long as he gets that much-desired applause in the end.

Those who are not so brave to show off their natural voices still troop to these places because of the fun they get from the comedic antics of the sing-along hosts.

California Wok introduced Karaoke weekends July of 2007. The young and perky comedian Maui was the first sing-along host to be tapped. Joseph, finally freed from his other commitments, moved to California Wok a few months later. Kasia and Justine would join the gang much later.

Steadily, a good word-of-mouth started to build about this “new” restaurant that is offering delicious food and fun-filled sing-along entertainment. Soon, hordes of Filipinos started coming in droves.

In just over a year, California Wok has already made a mark in the entertainment scene and is now one of the most popular hangouts among food-loving and fun-loving Filipinos. And as its popularity grew, the restaurant, in its former size, became too small to accommodate the throng of people that continued to come. In some instances, a long queue would form outside, and some patrons, who are unwilling to wait, just leave.

The couple saw this and decided to expand the restaurant. It took several months to get the necessary approval for expansion and finally, on May 30, the new and bigger California Wok will be presented to the public.

On that same occasion, the restaurant will introduce another entertainment feature that will supplement their current Friday-Saturday sing-along nights.

Embracing America

During its two-day grand celebration, California Wok will launch a new show called “Embracing America”. This show will be a once-a-month private Sunday entertainment feature to showcase local and Philippine-based artists in a series of comedy-concerts dealing with the cultural fusion of the American and Filipino values.

A brainchild by Joseph, who is affectionately called LA’s “star for all genders”, the show will include comedy skits, celebrity spoofs, and character sketches, among others.

A who’s who of Filipino entertainment is also lined up to appear. These artists include Marco Sison, Rey Valera, Bernardo Bernardo, Bobby Solis, and the Ichiban Stars. There are also plans to have Ric Manrique do a Kundiman night. Negotiations to have Pilita Corrales and Dulce perform are also currently in the works.

A group of loyal California Wok patrons will also be featured in a sing-along showdown called “The Best of California Wokers”.

What was once a dream for a mother is now keeping alive the collective dreams of Sonny and Novie. The couple, which had to endure a rough start in their married life, is now enjoying the fruits of their labor while bracing for what the future awaits for them. They have bigger plans for California Wok and they can’t wait to see them take shape.

A short 25-minute drive from Downtown LA, California Wok is located in the city of Los Alamitos in Orange County.

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