For the owners of this Brossard coffee shop, family always comes first

In the midst of the pandemic, Philip Penalosa and Jean-Noel Quilatan decided to quit their stable jobs to open a Filipino café, allowing them to reconnect with their family, and community.

2 friends took plunge to open café during the pandemic

Philip Penalosa (left) and Jean-Noel Quilatan (right) opened Café Kuya as a way to explore their love of coffee and be close to their families in Brossard. (Submitted by Philip Penalosa)

After nearly a decade running a video marketing firm, Philip Penalosa decided it was time for a change. So he teamed up with longtime friend Jean-Noel Quilatan to open up a café, just down the street from his home in Brossard, Que., on the South Shore of Montreal.

"It was a great job, I had a lot of fun doing it, but it's almost a romantic feeling of wanting to open your own coffee shop," says Penalosa.

While stuck at home during the pandemic, he had time to discuss his plans with Quilatan, who was working as a high school physical education teacher.

They would often chat about how there weren't any specialized local coffee shops in Brossard. Faced with the newfound challenges of teaching in a pandemic, Quilatan decided to take a year off, and work with Penalosa.

"I'm just a coffee geek," Quilatan says. "All I know about coffee is self-taught, and it led to a point where I felt comfortable enough to offer this service to everybody else.''

Jean-Noel Quilatan prepares coffee at Café Kuya. (Jessica Wu/CBC)

Reconnecting with family

Quilatan and Penalosa met back when they were studying at Dawson College in Montreal. Penalosa grew up in Brossard, and moved back in 2012. A year later, Quilatan moved to Brossard, too.

Penalosa explains that with his old job, there were always emails and questions waiting for him, at any hour of the day. He was constantly working.

Philip Penalosa's family. His old job had him answering emails into the evening, but the café's hours allow him to be around after school. (Submitted by Philip Penalosa)

So the two thought that opening a local café would be an opportunity to be closer to their family. They close at 3 p.m., which leaves them time to pick up their children from school.

"The great thing is that our family will stop by during the day. Even though we're still working, we still get to have this time to spend with our family and friends that come to visit,'' Quilatan says.

Big brother, or protector

When it was time to name their café, Penalosa and Quilatan went with Café Kuya.

They were both born in Quebec, with their parents immigrating here from the Philippines. And in Tagalog, kuya means older brother.

''For me, a kuya is someone who will always take care of his family, that is there, almost like a protector,'' Penalosa says.

Quilatan explained that this describes his relationship with Penalosa. The two have skill sets that complement one another, and "keep each other in check," he says.

It also speaks to the café's relationship with the local community.

"Even though I was not born there, even though I haven't spent a lot of time in the Philippines, it's still our roots, it's still who we are, it's still our heritage and our upbringing. And it's great because this is a chance to share our background,'' says Quilatan.

The two explain that with Brossard having a population made up of widely diverse cultures, Café Kuya is their way of celebrating this diversity by representing the Filipino community.

Maja blanca pie, one of the café's Filipino desserts, prepared by Chef Dre Mejia. (Submitted by Dre Mejia)

Quilatan serves Filipino coffee from a specialty-grade Filipino roaster in Vancouver, and other specialized blends from a Montreal roaster.

Penalosa takes care of the food, including lechon (pulled pork) sandwiches and siopao, or Filipino steamed buns. Other big hits are their buko and maja blanca pies, traditional Filipino coconut-based treats.

"I think there's something really special about working in the community that you live in. You're building roots and foundation in your home area," says Penalosa.

The two want to use their shop as a space to support and highlight initiatives in their community. Among other things, they want to host social events, workshops and tastings during the evenings, when the café is closed.

"We help each other out," Quilatan says.


Jessica Wu

Editorial assistant

Jessica Wu has an undergrad degree in sociology and a graduate diploma in visual journalism at Concordia.