By Lorna Oppedisano | By Steven J. Pallone
Azella Alvarez was born with a passion for Filipino food. The first generation of her family born in the United States, and daughter of an award-winning baker, Azella remembers working in her parents’ bakery in San Diego as a child.
Her parents opened one of the first Filipino bakeries in that area in the 1970s, helping pave the way for the landscape now, with a Filipino restaurant on every corner, Azella said with a laugh.
Although she didn’t return to the food industry until later in life, Azella knew she was destined to follow in her parents’ footsteps.
“It was always in me,” she said. “You just never know growing up.”
After Azella began working as a travel agent, she and her now-exhusband moved their family to the Syracuse area.
She worked a few jobs before eventually taking a position at the Bank of New York, where she realized there was need for her culinary craft. The company had meetings and team-building exercises, and Azella would arrive carrying trays of lumpia, a traditional Filipino spring roll.
“And the next thing you know, people were basing their meetings on my food!” she recalled.
Azella started selling lumpia on the side to friends and family, still keeping her talent relatively under wraps and focusing on her profession.
Then she got laid off at the bank, and was forced to reconsider her options and plan for the future.
“Drastic measures called for drastic change,” she said.
Azella decided to take matters into her own hands, went to city hall and filed a DBA, picking the catchy name “Oompa Loompyas” for her venture.
The new business owner started small, getting involved with the Syracuse Food Truck Association and popping a tent at food truck rodeos. After that, she found more events where she could introduce people to her Filipino fare, and things started to snowball.
“It was awesome,” she said. “I knew that if I had the drive, I was just going to keep going, no matter what. I knew it was a good product. It was selling itself.”
Eventually, Azella found semi-permanent space in a bar. As it turns out, lumpia pair well with beer and wine. But soon, she realized she needed more room.
Knowing she needed either her own space or a food truck, Azella began looking, and noticed an ideal location in the Hawley–Green area. As fate would have it, she was perusing Craigslist the following day, and saw an ad for that very space. She signed the lease, set up shop and opened in May 2016.
Oompa Loompyas now offers diners a variety of Filipino and fusion food, including burgers, bowls and, of course, many choices of lumpia.
Since opening the physical location of Oompa Loompyas, Azella’s greatest challenge has been adapting to the different pace. When she had a pop-up location, people would rush to the food. Now, she sometimes has to play the waiting game. However, she does have a loyal following she’s met over the years at food truck gatherings and festivals.
It helps that Oompa Loompyas is the only Filipino restaurant in the area. Like her parents and their bakery in San Diego, she’s paving the way for a new style of food in the Syracuse area. It’s clear to anyone who stops in to the restaurant for a lumpia and chat with Azella that she’s passionate about her food and her culture.
“It’s a beautiful mix,” she said, describing the combination of Spanish, Chinese, Malaysian and Indonesian. “I think we are the melting pot of all ethnicities rolled into one. It’s really cool. Our flavors — when people come in here for the first time, I describe it. But I kind of want them to just experience it, because it’s really just a different deal.” SWM
Oompa Loompyas is located at 600 Burnet Ave. in Syracuse. Keep an eye out for Azella at festivals like The Taste of Syracuse. For more information, visit oompaloompyas.net, call the restaurant at (315) 876-5398 or order online at grubhub.com.