From the moment she arrived in St. Louis, moving here from her hometown of Los Angeles, Charlene Lopez Young knew she’d found her place. Granted, things were much different than they were in California; Lopez Young admits she wasn’t used to being the only Filipino in her circle, having come from a city with such a large Filipino diaspora. However, she also wasn’t used to just how interested people were in learning her story.
“I knew I wanted to move here and make this my home,” Lopez Young says. “I’ve lived in a lot of different cities before – Beijing, Melbourne, Geneva, cities in the Philippines – but nothing has ever felt as homey as St. Louis does. Even though there weren’t a lot of other Filipinos, I saw immediately that people in St. Louis were so open to learning about me being Filipina and accepting of who I was. You can be whoever you want to be here. I didn’t ever feel alone, and felt like this was a place to really build community.”
For the past two years, Lopez Young and her husband, Darren Young, have been doing more than just building community; they’ve been building their Filipino food brand, The Fattened Caf, into a budding company that is poised to bring Filipino food to a much broader audience across the country. Having just launched a line of signature sausages in 67 Schnucks stores in the St. Louis metropolitan area, the Youngs hope to expand nationally to become the first American-made Filipino sausage brand on the shelves at mainstream grocery stores and raise the cuisine’s prominence to that of Chinese, Indian or Thai food.
The Youngs never dreamed that they would be standing on the cusp of such an achievement when they founded the Fattened Caf four years ago. In fact, they were just trying to survive. Not only were they dealing with the stress of a cross-country move; they were also navigating a personal tragedy. While on a hiking trip, Lopez Young fell down a waterfall and landed onto a rocky ledge, an accident that broke her back and left her wheelchair-bound for several months. Their situation thrust Young into the role of her full-time caregiver, part of which involved doing all of the cooking for their household.
Instead of seeing it as just another task, Young threw himself into cooking as an outlet. Around the same time, he was developing an obsession with barbecue, having only been introduced to the form after moving to St. Louis. It was only natural that these two passions would connect, and Young quickly immersed himself into learning everything he could about smoking and grilling meats. As he honed his craft and Lopez Young recovered, they wanted to share what he’d learned with the people in their lives.
“Darren didn’t just have the time to perfect his barbecue; he made the time because he wanted something good to come out of this season in our lives,” Lopez Young says. “After my second surgery was a success and we bought a home on Cherokee Street, it felt natural to invite people over for game nights to enjoy all of the food he was making. It was a way to fill our lives again – something so hard that turned into something beautiful.”
The more the Youngs hosted friends at their home, the more they would hear the familiar refrain that they should launch their own barbecue business. Because their part of the city did not have a lot of Black-owned barbecue spots, they were especially motivated to see what they could contribute to the area’s food scene. They were also excited about incorporating Filipino elements into their offerings as a way for Lopez Young to share a part of her culture with the city.
“I used to joke that I am the only Filipino within the six-mile radius of where I am, which makes it hard,” Lopez Young says. “I’m way funnier in Filipino than I am in English, so there are all these jokes I can’t share. At first, it felt like a piece of myself didn’t exist, but once I saw how people reacted to Filipino food, I knew it didn’t have to be lost, because people wanted to know more about my food and culture. They were so willing and open to it.”
Boosted by their friends’ enthusiasm, the Youngs did their first pop-up as the Fattened Caf in 2017 at the tiny McKinley Heights restaurant, Milque Toast. Though they laugh at what a disaster the event was – the pair were so overwhelmed with more customers than expected that they ran out of rice – they were heartened by the number of people who came out to support them. This, together with the rush they felt from the event made them determined to keep going.
The Youngs continued doing pop-ups at Milque Toast, the Cherokee Street farmers market and eventually a regular residency at Earthbound Beer, building momentum and growing their brand with each outing. In early March of last year, they did their first Filipino brunch event at Earthbound, which was so well-attended, they couldn’t wait to start preparing for their next. However, that enthusiasm was short-lived; just two weeks after that event, the city was all but shut down due to the stay-at-home orders, thwarting their plans to offer regular brunches.
The Youngs were unsure of how to keep the momentum going, but they wouldn’t be for long. Out of the blue, they received an email from Schnucks, informing them that the grocery store was looking to partner with local minority-owned businesses to help them weather the uncertainty brought about by the health crisis. At first, the Youngs thought they would use the shelf space Schnucks offered them to sell boxed meals, but they quickly realized they needed a more shelf-stable option – and it was clear what that would be.
“We’d started making longganisa after going to the Philippines in December of 2019 and taking some classes, and had brought the recipes back with the intention of putting them on the brunch menu,” Young says. “The partnership with Schnucks was an incredible opportunity for us and other businesses to make some income and have exposure, and it really helped us discover the pivot to producing longganisa.”
Like with their pop-ups, the Youngs were thrilled by the response to the Fattened Caf’s longganissa line at Schnucks and knew they were on to something. Just how big that something was became clear after the pair was selected for the University of Missouri – St. Louis Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Accelerator program, which provided them with fifty-thousand dollars of seed money and access to vital mentorship and networking opportunities to take their brand to the next level. It changed everything for them.
“The UMSL accelerator was absolutely amazing,” Young says. “It really equipped us with the tool kit and skill set to thrive in this field and the grant money to do test batches we couldn’t have done without it. It really gave us the leverage to do this business and access to resources we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to tap into.”
Thanks to the UMSL grant, the Fattened Caf was able to launch its sausage brand in 67 area Schnucks stores this past July, but the Youngs have their eye on more than that.
“Being able to focus on longganisa production allows us to not only think local, but to think regionally and nationally,” Young says. “Our business is much more scalable because of it. This, with the Schnucks partnership, really gave us an opportunity to think big about the Fattened Caf and think about what is the legacy we are going to leave here. That could be in a brick and mortar for the St. Louis community, or it could be more and bigger than that. For us, we have decided the Fattened Caf can be bigger than that. Our products can go beyond this region, and there can be a national pull here.”
Lopez Young sees this as much more than a chance to simply grow a longganisa brand; she sees it as an opportunity to bring about fundamental change in the grocery store space. As she laments, Filipino food has been long-relegated to niche or international grocery stores; with the Fattened Caf’s potential to expand into more mainstream markets, she feels that the sky is the limit for what they can do for Filipino food.
“Now is a great time to diversify what is accessible to everyone and how we define who everyone is,” Lopez Young says. “It’s great to think that, as a Filipina, I’ll be able to walk down the grocery store aisle to find something from my culture. This is a shift that can normalize different foods and cuisines in our everyday life; it doesn’t have to be in these ethnic enclaves. I think this is a great start and a testament to the openness of St. Louis.”
With their brand gaining in popularity as more and more people are exposed to it, the Youngs believe they could not have achieved all that they have with The Fattened Caf anywhere else – and they’re excited to see the role their adopted city will play in fomenting a grocery revolution, one delicious sausage at a time.
“Everything just fell into place,” Lopez Young says. “I’m not taking away from the hard work we’ve put in, but at the same time, St. Louis is really the right place to do this. I don’t think we could do in Los Angeles, where it’s saturated with other Filipino businesses, in the way we were doing it here. We’ve had the St. Louis community get behind us and really believe in us. It’s opened doors, given us resources and poured a lot of time into us. We’re so grateful for St. Louis. I don’t think we would be where we are if not for this right place at the right time.”