Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Pinoy 9/11 survivor comes home, creates jobs through ice cream business

September 11, 2001 would be a turning point in the life of businessman-banker Frank Cruz, 67.

Frank narrowly escaped his workplace at One World Trade Center. Eight minutes after he got out, the World Trade Center came crashing down.

“My co-workers and I were going down the stairs of the World Trade Center while the firemen were going up,” he recalled. “I remember their faces, young and old, I even gave them drinks from the vending machines as they were carrying their hoses and heavy equipment. All these firemen died while trying to save us and others.”

 
He made it possible for dirty ice cream to get inside the gleaming malls of Batangas. Photo by Troi Santos/The FilAm
Ten years later and upon his retirement as vice president at Mizuho Corporate Bank, he returned to the Philippines. His wife, Vivian, had been asked to stay another year at her job at the UN. She remains active in the Filipino community through numerous organizations. Their sons, Francis and Matthew, find the time to visit her in the family’s pleasant house in West Orange, New Jersey, nestled among the leafy greens at the end of a sloping road.

Frank was back at Batangas City, his wife’s hometown, where he felt at home with Vivian’s family. There, he rekindled ties with folks and kin he had not seen in the 30 years he has been in America, reflecting on how he would be able to “give back.”

A couple of years later in 2012, he opened an ice cream business, Frank’s Dirty Ice Cream, an enterprise that now provides jobs to a dozen families. It began as a colorful ice cream cart at SM Mall in Batangas City. It has grown into a kiosk in the same mall, another kiosk in SM Lipa, and two franchises. He is eyeing the Mall of Asia in Pasay to be the next stop for Frank’s Dirty Ice Cream.

“All I really wanted to do was help people,” he said in an interview with The FilAm.

How does a 9/11 survivor end up conjuring an ice cream business?

On his return, he joined a nephew who set up a string of franchises for spiral potato fries. That business lasted only a year when the price of potatoes began to climb, clipping into profits.

Coming out of church one day, he saw two ‘sorbeteros’ ringing their ice cream carts. His memory drifting back into his boyhood, Frank helped himself to a scoop. He liked the flavor and thought: Why is dirty ice cream always out on the streets and never inside a mall? A Divine sign? He’s not sure, but it became the seed of his business model.

He learned all he could about the business, applied for a license to operate, purchased his equipment, and hired one of the ‘sorbeteros’ to work for him. In 2012, the dirty ice cream was able to crack the forbidden Batangas malls, and Frank’s paved the way.

Philippine Ambassador to the U.S. Jose Cuisia has noted an affirmative trend among young Filipino Americans returning to the family’s roots and staying in the Philippines for good. They are, in the words of the Commission of Filipinos Overseas, “buying a one-way ticket back to the Philippines.”

Boomers like Frank do not seem to register on the radar screen because FilAms his age are seen as belonging to the ‘retirement generation.’ It is anticipated that at some point many of them will be coming home for good.

But retirement is not what Frank had in mind when he came to his decision. He wanted to help by providing employment to Batangueno families. He knew enough smarts to set up a small business and when that fails, to get up and start all over again. The franchise for spiral fries and an insurance company were dry runs. Dirty ice cream appears to be taking off, paving the way for a coffee shop he named after his wife of 35 years. Café Vivian opened in February and employs a staff of 6 to 8 people for now.

“One of the challenges is finding trusted people,” he shared.

The food retail business is a cash-only business, he said, and money invariably passes the hands of employees. One of his workers had been caught stealing a large amount. Although he was very disappointed because he had helped this person and his family in so many ways, Frank did not press charges.

“I always tell my employees to work hard and not just do their jobs well. They can offer suggestions on how to run the company. I don’t see a lot of that,” he said, but it’s probably because his Filipino workers are also getting adjusted to his managerial style that is a little bit American.

His long-term outlook is for his workers to become co-owners of the company.

He said, “My goal is to be able to help people by giving them jobs, and I tell them you have to love this job because it gives you security and a chance for a better tomorrow.” —The FilAm

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