He’s calling it the Filipino Amazon.
Adonis Fernandez — Don for short — is the brains behind Bentahan.ca, a year-old, online sales platform that markets Philippine-centric merchandise produced in Canada, the United States and the Philippines.
Let’s say you’re in the market for an ornamental jeepney, a popular form of public transportation in the island nation. You’ve come to the right place; Bentahan, which translates roughly as sales or selling, has a toy-size, plastic model available for $10. How about a water-colour painting of the Taal volcano, a still-active powder keg oddly situated in the middle of a lake in the province of Batangas? They have that, too.
Or perhaps after all the white stuff we’ve received you’re looking forward to gardening season, and want to try your hand at kangkong, a type of spinach native to Southeast Asia, or talong, a member of the eggplant family. Fernandez, a married father of one, stocks seeds for both, priced at $5 per bag.
"I don’t know if you’re familiar with a Facebook group called 204 Filipino Forum and Marketplace, but it’s for Filipino-Canadians to share ideas and support one another," he says, seated in an Ellice Avenue coffee shop, steps away from his West End headquarters. "Basically, I started bouncing what I’d been thinking about off other members. Based on the positive response I received, I thought, ‘OK, why not give it a shot?’"
Fernandez, the fourth-youngest of seven siblings, grew up in the coastal province of Pangasinan, in the northern part of the Philippines. He moved to Winnipeg 11 years ago at the age of 27, joining an older sister who had been living here with her husband since 2005.
"Back home, when you hear talk of Canada and western countries in general it’s always positive," he says, taking a sip of his tea. "You listen to the music, see the movies and go; it seems like such a better way of life over there. That’s why I wanted to come."
Of course, no amount of action on the big screen or tunes on the radio properly prepares a person for a true-blue, Prairie cold snap; despite repeated warnings from his sister and brother-in-law about how frosty it can get in the winter, it wasn’t until he’d experienced -30 C for the first time that he realized how cold cold can be, he says with a chuckle.
"Where we lived it rarely got below 22. I arrived here in June (2011) and thought, ‘This isn’t bad at all.’ ‘Just wait,’ everybody kept telling me."
Something else that caught Fernandez by surprise was Winnipeg’s sizable Filipino population, currently in the neighbourhood of 60,000. In 2018, by which time he was married and working as an education assistant for Winnipeg School Division, he developed a line of clothing aimed squarely at his fellow countrymen.
He launched Witty Noypi Apparel, Noypi being a slang term for Filipino, in the summer of that year. Short- and long-sleeve T-shirts bearing cheeky slogans such as "My doctor says coleslaw, my heart says bulalo," "Keep calm and eat tuyo" and "Fueled by pancit" were well-received. So, too, was a follow-up endeavour, a hand-built, full-size pinoy pool table, upon which one can play a popular Philippine game similar to billiards that utilizes flat, wooden discs instead of balls.
He shut things down on both fronts after COVID-19 struck in the spring of 2020, largely owing to government restrictions that made it difficult to sell his shirts in person, and nigh on impossible for people to get together to shoot some stick. (Pre-pandemic, he had been renting out his pinoy tables under the banner Don’s Pool Tables for family gatherings and events, in an effort to drum up local interest in the game.)
In November 2020 Fernandez guessed he should at least devise a plan to get his T-shirts into the hands of interested parties in time for holiday gift-giving. He knew the pandemic had caused people to shop online in record numbers, so he decided to go that route by developing his own website. He mentioned what he was up to on the aforementioned Facebook site, asking others to weigh in on what he described as "a Filipino store at your door."
He shouldn’t just sell clothes, many commented, but other things associated with their culture, too. He couldn’t have agreed more.
Leila Castro is one of 204 Filipino Forum and Marketplace’s chief administrators. The group has been around since 2015, and currently has a shade over 52,000 members, 90 per cent of whom are Filipino-Manitobans.
"The reason we started the group was to help out recent Filipino immigrants who were looking for everything from a used car to a rice cooker, but it’s since expanded to include (Filipinos) selling things like spring rolls or traditional Christmas lanterns," she says. "I like to describe Don as a pioneer, because his is the first platform I know of that brings all these products embodying Filipino culture together in one place."
Castro, who especially gets a kick out of Fernandez’s sense of humour (a shirt reading "My head says fries, my heart says rice" is a personal fave), says it’s been a pleasure to get behind his Bentahan venture, which currently has eight shopping categories, including clothing, home, souvenirs, garden and sports.
"I know Don personally and one of the biggest reasons we’re all supporting his efforts is because he is so supportive of the community himself, and of Filipino culture in general," she says.
"There are a lot of Filipinos doing amazing things, not just in Winnipeg but across the country, and having a virtual store like Don’s to show off what’s available is greatly appreciated."
Lately, Fernandez has been splitting his time between fatherhood — his daughter just turned four — signing up new vendors and monitoring the website. The way things work is when an order comes in, he alerts the seller, who is then responsible for ensuring the buyer receives it in a timely manner. There are no associated fees aside from a percentage he receives from the sale, which covers administrative and shipping costs. That’s a small price to pay, his clients tell him, considering the majority aren’t set up to sell online themselves, nor do they have a bricks-and-mortar location to peddle their goods from.
"The advantage for them is I’ve already done all the work building the website etc. Now it’s just a matter of spreading the word and attracting more customers," Fernandez says, adding a future goal is to join forces with various grocery stores in the city that carry Philippine items on their shelves.
Food traditionally associated with the Philippines is becoming more mainstream, he’s found, but quite often someone still has to visit three or four different spots to get everything they need for a specific recipe. It’s his aim to establish a tie-in with those stores, whereby people could hand him their shopping list, so to speak, and he would deliver everything to them in one fell swoop, versus them running all over the city.
If all that isn’t enough, he is also making final preparations to enter what he laughingly refers to as the family business. All six of his siblings are nurses, and later this month he is scheduled to begin a three-year nursing program at Red River College.
"When I started Bentahan I kind of looked at nursing as my down-the-road safety-net. Now that sales are starting to pick up though, who knows? It might turn out to be a 50-50 split when all is said and done."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.