Little Denise Foods | Clear Hills County By Kelly Pippin | Photography by Melissa E. Earle
Clara Denise Florendo, 19, is the general manager of Little Denise Foods. Originally from the Cagayan de Oro City in the Philippines, she was separated from her mother, Lulu, during the immigration process. However, the two were finally reunited in Hines Creek in 2018 after eight years apart.
When did Little Denise Foods start?
Clara: My mom started a restaurant in the Philippines in 1996, but we opened this restaurant here in Hines Creek together in May 2021, just last year.
You opened during a time when many restaurants were struggling, but you forged ahead. Where did your inspiration and belief come from?
We just believed in our community, and the people who were always rooting for us.
We sometimes served our skewers at the museum, and we saw how much people loved them. The isolation was unfathomable during COVID, but it showed us a lot about ourselves.
For my family, it meant discovering we really share a common love for food, and we enjoy trying new things and recipes our grandmother passed down. We really wanted to share that love with the community.
What makes your restaurant unique in the region?
Our food is what makes us unique here. A person would have to drive six hours to Edmonton to get good Filipino food before we opened.
We make everything from scratch, and although a lot of our dishes are drawn from our Filipino heritage, we also try to evolve with trends and add a westernized flair to our dishes.
Prior to opening the restaurant, you were selling premade meals in Filipino grocery stores. How did that experience help you navigate the challenges of opening the restaurant?
We learned a lot about perseverance. My mom is a highly creative woman. Little Denise Foods is her vision and dream being realized. I am just the one helping her execute them.
On social media, your restaurant has been described as a “welcome addition to the village.”
What’s been the community’s response to Little Denise Foods?
We have brought a new variety of food to the area, and people welcome it. We offer sushi and boba [known to some as bubble tea] and things one would have to drive to Grande Prairie to get. We brought the food to the people, and the community has really embraced us.
You describe your food as “Asian fusion.” Where do you draw most of the inspiration for your dishes and boba creations?
A lot of Filipino food is influenced by Spanish food because the Philippines was colonized by the Spanish for over 300 years. Filipino food brings in many diverse influences, and we add in our own flair to make them a bit more familiar to people in western culture.
Everyone in your family has a role in the business. What is your favourite aspect of working together?
We were separated from our mom for eight years while she came to work in Canada, and we stayed in the Philippines, so when we first came to join her, it was like rediscovering each other in many ways. My favourite aspect is learning from each other every day and bonding over our love of food.
How has your vision for the restaurant changed in the last year?
I went into the business to serve people. Part of that is understanding customer requests and feedback. At first, I really wanted to shy away from burgers because it is so common, but our customers kept requesting them, so we created our own version and people love it. Some people may not be ready to try more authentic Filipino food, so we want to provide more familiar dishes also.
What is your most popular boba offering?
Our whole latte series is a big hit. Our most popular one is our Brown Sugar Latte.
Our shakes are also popular, even the ones with avocado! Some people are skeptical about it until they try it, but the avocado adds a creaminess to the shakes people really enjoy.
What are your “must try” dishes?
We are getting a lot of feedback our burgers are really great. Anyone can do a burger, but it can be challenging to build a perfect burger, and I think we have done it.
For our Filipino dishes, a couple must-tries are our spring rolls with noodles and our pork skewers.
When it comes to selecting ingredients, what is most important to you?
Quality and freshness matter most. For authentic ingredients, we do support the Filipino stores that supported my mom’s business in the beginning. They import in from the Philippines.
We also support local producers. Our greens come from a business here in Hines Creek, and our quality grain-fed beef comes from a local butcher in the area.
Check out Little Denise Foods on Facebook and Instagram @littledenisefoods