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Turning a dream into a business

Bryan Passifiume photo

For Whitecourt restaurateur Ronald Zabala, 2014 marks his 22nd year living and working away from his native Philippines.

With sadness beginning to overtake his characteristic smile, he explains that while leaving his children and wife behind to find work overseas was an incredibly difficult decision, it was one he genuinely made with his family’s best interests at heart.

Zabala was fortunate enough to be reunited with is wife after he managed to bring her to Whitecourt. The topic of his children, however, is still a difficult subject.

Zabala has two daughters, aged 26 and 22, who both have children of their own.

All girls, he proudly states with a smile.

Giving up on his efforts to hold back his emotions, tears form in Zabala’s eyes when conversation turns to his granddaughters.

Waging a losing battle to maintain his composure, he continues on.

“I missed seeing my kids grow up,” he exclaims after a pause. “I always try to go home every three years, but when I do I can only spend a month with them.”

With that, Zabala excuses himself from the interview.

It’s a common story among many Balikbayans (the Tagalog term for a Filipino who works overseas.)

With well-paying jobs far and few between at home, many leave their families and children, often for years at a time, to take jobs outside of the Philippines. While many take jobs at sea, either as engineers or mates on cargo ships or guest service roles with cruise companies, others take service and labour jobs throughout Asia, the Middle East and Canada.

With the moratorium making headlines across western Canada, comparatively few column inches are set aside to tell the stories of the workers. Aside from the stress of being away from their families, they often endure difficult working conditions, racism and even abuse.

For Zabala and his business partner Gerald Titong, their ambition upon coming to Canada in 2008 under the temporary foreign worker program wasn’t to just merely work in a restaurant, it was to eventually own one.


Hearty Fusion Express, founded by Titong and Zabala along with Whitecourt business owner James Kazoleas, is the culmination of their dream of coming to Canada.

Having served nearly 10,000 customers since opening for business in January, the hilltop eatery boasting fresh ingredients and healthy meal options has proven to be a resounding success.

The opening of any independent business in rural Alberta is cause for celebration. The story behind Hearty Fusion Express is just one of many successes that have come out of Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker program.

Titong and Zabala came to Canada at the start of this wave. After working as butlers at a five-star hotel in the United Arab Emirates, they came to Whitecourt as one of this town’s first Filipino foreign workers.

The pair were hired as servers at Mountain Pizza and Steakhouse, a job that gave them both contacts and experience in the Canadian restaurant industry. Not only did they work hard, they spent their time observing and learning what it takes to operate a successful restaurant in Whitecourt.

Titong credits the support of Mountain Pizza manager Joanne Belke and owner James Kazoleas with helping them during their journey.

“We were so fortunate to have a really good employer,” he said. “Joanne has been really good to us since we’ve been here.”

Kazoleas had so much faith in Zabala and Titong that he became an investor in Hearty Fusion Express.

Adjusting to the challenges of Canadian weather can be a challenge for those who come from countries with warm climates.

Arriving in Canada during 2008’s brutal winter, the two men got a very quick lesson in the realities of life in Canada.

“We had just come from Dubai, where it was 45 degrees,” Zabala recalls with a laugh. “When we landed in Edmonton, it was minus 45. The snow was up to my belly -- we wanted to go back onto the plane!”

With only $300 between them and windbreakers as their warmest garments, the two slowly acclimated themselves to living in a country that was about as far removed as the arid desert of Dubai or the humid tropics of the Philippines as you can get.

For foreign workers with parents, siblings and young children back home to support, a good portion of their paycheque ends up being sent home.

While some would balk at the low salary they earn for travelling across the world for work, consider that an entry level restaurant job in Whitecourt is comparable to many professional salaries in the Philippines, where the average monthly wage is 14,000 pisos (about $350 Canadian)

Both Titong and Zabala are among a growing number of entrepreneurs who have taken advantage of the opportunities that Canada presents them.

In addition to owning Hearty Fusion Express, they also own a photography businesses as well a busy snow removal company.

The two can often be seen zipping around on their brand new Bobcats, keeping Whitecourt’s driveways and parking lots clean and tidy. That’s in addition to their regular shifts at Mountain Pizza & Steakhouse, which they are still proud to work for.

Titong and Zabala are working hard to counter the increasing amount of ignorance, racism and even verbal assaults that foreign workers face in Canada, even right here in Whitecourt, since the moratorium on foreign workers was announced.

“Not every foreign worker comes here to send money back home, bring their families over, make themselves better and then go home again,” Titong said. “We come here with an ambition to make our lives better. If given the chance to stay in Canada, we are happy to help the community by putting up businesses. Many Filipinos who achieve permanent resident status start their own businesses, where we are happy to hire Canadians.”

While Titong and Zabala do employ foreign workers at Hearty Fusion Express, most of their staff are Canadian.

For many foreign workers, becoming an active part of their new home is an important way of coping with the stress of being away from their loved ones.

Titong and Zabala are both members of the Whitecourt Filipino Association, a way for Whitecourt’s balikbayans to not only support each other, but to give back to their new home.

As the association’s president, Titong helps to organize community events and fundraisers that benefit Whitecourt charities and support organizations.

“Its very important for us to give back,” Titong said.

Both men are proud to consider Whitecourt their home.

“We don’t want to go anywhere else,” said Zabala, pride replacing the earlier sadness in his eyes.

“This is our home, we don’t want to go anywhere else. This is our future, this is our life.”

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