Rene Lontoc, the owner of Thank Que Grill, never planned to open a food business – he just loved cooking. But when he suffered an injury and had to quit his job at the Red Cross, he realized that he needed to do something different for a living. Eventually, he went to the Castro Valley Library and learned everything he could about starting a food business.
“I had to think about how to provide for my family, and that’s when I decided to educate myself about starting my own business,” said Rene.
Rene launched Thank Que Grill in 2016 business to give his fellow Filipino people a tasty reminder of home and to introduce the delicious flavors of the Philippines to the wider community. In the beginning, he participated in popups and catered events, and in 2018, he was approached by DSAL to present his food as part of the bidding process to become a permanent vendor at Ashland Market & Café. Thank Que Grill’s lumpia, banh mi, and Thank Que bowls soon became a favorite of DSAL and Dig Deep Farms employees, who work in the neighborhood.
When COVID-19 struck and people were required to shelter in place, Renee was forced to make the tough decision to lay off his employees because of the uncertain times. But then Jasmine Casteneda, DSAL’s Business Support Liaison, called Rene and encouraged him to apply for an Emergency Food Production grant, a partnership between DSAL and ALL IN Alameda County, which provides $15,000 to local food businesses to prepare up to 1,000 meals for distribution to people impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The grant initiative was made possible through funding from the Stupski Foundation.
Rene was the very first business to be approved for the grant, and he quickly went into production, making one of his specialties, the Thank Que Bowl, a delicious marvel: Filipino-style barbecued chicken over rice, with house BBQ sauce, atchara (pickled papaya), peppers, cilantro and dressing. The bowls are distributed at the Dig Deep Farms Food Hub and then distributed by DSAL and East Bay Paratransit to home-bound seniors, medically vulnerable patients, and families experiencing food insecurity as a result of the pandemic.
Rene said receiving the grant was “challenging, fun, and rewarding at the same time.”
“It was challenging, because my wife and I basically had to do everything ourselves and it was fun once we got into the rhythm, because I get to do what I love doing, cooking good food. It was rewarding because I didn’t know I could have this positive impact on the community.”
Rene is currently reading all of the guidelines and regulations about how to operate Thank Que Grill safely in the age of social distancing, and in the future, he plans not only to master running his restaurant, but also to become recognized as a master of Filipino cooking.