By Jean Trinh
Justin Foronda was born and raised in Los Angeles’ Historic Filipinotown, where he channeled his creativity through playing music, professional breaking, and cooking. After years of pursuing a nursing career, he wanted to scratch his artistic itch. In 2019, he opened HiFi Kitchen, a Filipino-Angeleno restaurant named after the neighborhood. Foronda still splits his time running his restaurant and working as a hospital nurse in the pandemic.
The first time I saw breaking in person was at a school dance in sixth grade. I was watching a big circle at the other end of the hall, and people were cheering, and I saw legs in the air. I was like, “What the hell is going on over there?”
When I got over to the cypher circle, I was like, “Yo, I need to do this.” People at my school predominantly listened to hip-hop, and I grew up listening to punk like Rancid, Green Day, and Blink-182. I was not considered cool because I listened to those things. When I saw breaking, I was like, “Wait, so people are cheering for these people, and they’re listening to hip-hop? I can finally be cool. Sign me up.”
That night after the dance, I went straight home. My brother is 11 years older than me, and I was like, “Hey, Kuya—‘Kuya’ is the word for ‘brother’ in Tagalog—can you teach me how to break?” And that night, he taught me my first two moves—the worm, and what he called the “shuffle” at the time, but is technically named the six-step.
Breaking means so much to me in regards to how I perceive the world and go about pretty much everything. The thought process that I utilize when I take on a project—like in nursing, food, or music—all traces back to what I’ve learned from breaking. I know it sounds kind of crazy, but when you discover at a young age that you have creative autonomy, that you can make a move that maybe no one else in the whole world has done, that’s big. You’re daydreaming about moves, and you try them—and then they come true. You’re literally making dreams come true.
If you learn those lessons, you apply those things as you grow older and learn to take risks. Learning how to do some of these moves are really crazy—like air flares, for example. You’re on one hand, and you have to flip over to the other side, and it’s really scary, but you just have to try it. Then you fall, but you find out that the fall isn’t really that bad, and then you get up and you try again. When I was signing the lease for the restaurant, that’s what I was thinking. I was like, “This is scary, but after you sign, you’re just going to figure it out because you’ve always done that.”
In nursing, someone calls a code blue. A patient’s not breathing. We’ve got to bring a CAT scan, bring a crash cart. All these things are happening and people are yelling at you and you have to be present and stay calm. That’s very indicative of what it’s like to be dancing. You’re listening to a song and you may be nervous, but you’ve got to breathe that out. You get nervous in code blues, you’ve got to breathe that out. You’ve got to listen. The music that we dance to is not predetermined—it’s just whatever the DJ is playing. The song could change, so you just have to go with that. While you’re dancing, and especially while you’re spinning in midair, you also have to be listening. And an opposing crew is talking shit to you while you’re doing it. You have to be present in the middle of chaos and continue to be composed while also thinking ahead.
When I’m cooking on the line at the restaurant and there’s a lunch rush, oh my god, so many things are going on at once. You’re cooking so many different things, and certain things have to be different temperatures, and your timers are going off, and you’re making sure you’re not burning something. It’s very similar to what I’ve already experienced as a child. I’m still just breaking. Everything I do in my professional life and my career, I’m still breaking.
I’m still employed at the hospital, but as soon as I signed the lease for the restaurant, I went per diem. Pretty much when everything started getting real serious with the pandemic, I hit up my boss and I was like, “Yo, I’m back. I got you guys.” I know how to do nursing. Not everyone knows how to do nursing. There’s no one right answer—I could either not go to the hospital and make sure that my family and I are safe, or I can utilize my knowledge to serve during this pandemic. I don’t think either one would have been the wrong move, but I felt like I couldn’t just sit there and do nothing.
Prior to the stay-at-home orders, like late January or early February 2020, I was already taking precautions at the restaurant. I’m connected to the medical field, and I was hearing about COVID, and I was like, “Wait, let me read a little more about what’s happening.” I started changing things at the restaurant based on the data I was receiving from the news. Early February, we stopped taking cash. We stopped doing silverware. I didn’t want my staff to touch things and have to wash things that customers would touch. So I was like, “You’ve got to use gloves.” I was implementing my nursing knowledge at the restaurant.
At the time, we didn’t know how the virus moved, we didn’t know how it was contracted—and we’re still learning a lot about it. The stay-at-home orders hit two weeks after we celebrated our restaurant’s one-year anniversary. I was like, “Is my staff going to lose their jobs? I have to talk to my landlord about what rent is going to be like.”
I had to sit down with my team and be like, “Hey, do you guys still want to work, personally? Second thing, I’m going back to the hospital. I don’t know what’s going to happen, so I need to step back.” Thank goodness for my crew stepping up and taking more responsibility, because they could have easily just been too cautious about work, which I respect. We’re such a small team that if even just one of them was like, “Nah, I don’t want to come in, I have an elderly at home,” then we wouldn’t be able to operate. But they braved it out, they stuck it through. They were down to work and keep the restaurant running for the neighborhood.
They all took on more responsibility and more hours, and when I left, I would just do admin stuff like payroll and scheduling on my computer when I was off nursing shifts, or I would go grocery shopping and drop it off when no one was here. I didn’t feel comfortable cooking in the kitchen and working in the restaurant because that could have been another outbreak.
I had to get creative. I had to learn how to make the team’s schedule in a way that would minimize the impact on payroll, but still be efficient. I had to play to the strengths of the team and their schedules and not burn myself out in the end. If I’m going to the hospital more regularly, that means I’m at the restaurant less, so there’s more work to be done at the restaurant. So, I have to pay for more labor. I know that I’m going to have to take a hit on payroll—that’s just a given—but how do I get creative? How do I minimize impact on my payroll?
We cut down our hours, so we’re only working half the week instead of a full week. At first there were only three of us, including me. Then I brought someone on and trained them, and then as soon as they were comfortable, that’s when I left the restaurant. That was in late March 2020.
At that point, I hadn’t been in the hospital in many months, so my first day back was during the pandemic. There were all these new rules, and I was scared shitless I would contract this virus. I felt like an infant again.
I did that for about three months where I didn’t work at HiFi Kitchen. After that, we were all more educated about the virus and how it’s contracted. I hadn’t contracted it at that point, so I felt more comfortable. I was like, “I’m going to come back, and I’ll continue to do what I’ve been doing because it’s been working.” I came back to the restaurant full-time in July, but am still working at the hospital part-time.
I accepted that I may have to invest part of my paycheck to the restaurant, because if the pandemic has affected us and all the offices around us, which are our bread and butter, the people there are all now working from home. It’s like a ghost town around us. Where’s the money going to come from? A lot of restaurants have teams of people, like multiple owners that control different things—like a person is in charge of marketing or PR. I don’t have that.
If there’s no one around us and it’s a ghost town, then I need to step up my marketing, my website, and Instagram game. But how do I do that? You can post more, but that’s not really effective if you’re not hitting your demographic. That’s something else I have to sit down to learn. While running the restaurant and being a nurse, it’s just like, “Holy shit, I need to surrender some form of control to an expert and consultant because I can’t do that on my own.” These are things that I’m now just learning during the pandemic. I was trying to do it on my own for the whole operation.
At the restaurant, we’re seeing our pre-COVID earning numbers again, which is good. It means we’re back to normal. But we had just celebrated our one-year anniversary at the start of the pandemic, so we hadn’t even gotten our feet wet yet. We’re still figuring it out. Our pre-COVID numbers weren’t enough yet to sustain the business, which is understandable for restaurants for the first year or two getting started. I don’t know how our numbers will translate when businesses around here start coming back. Everyone that’s ordering from us now is local, but as soon as they start going away for work, then those orders will just be replaced by the people that come back to work around here. So we’re just treading water—and that can’t happen.
I’m now making moves and investments that should move us forward. If COVID didn’t happen, I feel like I would still be doing the hands-on stuff. I thought being on the line and doing all the manual work would save on payroll, which it did, but there was no one steering the ship. COVID allowed me to realize that we’re still in the same place, and I need to hire on to drive that shift. I have to sail the ship while I steer. And everyone’s told me that, but I guess you don’t hear it until you listen.
It’s important to figure out what you can delegate, not be scared, be flexible, and be open to trying things you haven’t done—which a lot of restaurants have started, like joining delivery apps and opening patios. It’s really a time for you to tackle the things you’ve been putting off since prior to the pandemic.