How does one emerge in these trying times when the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has greatly affected not only our health but also the economic situation of our country?

Well, for Xavier Mercado, the 39-year old owner of the well-known Halo-Halo de Iloko (HHDI) located in San Fernando City, La Union, it was not an effortless battle.

His fiercest weapon? His great love for the province of La Union, its local food, culture, and tradition, including the people.

With only Php 25,000.00 starting capital, he began his dream of having his own restaurant pushing his way through various manpower, finance, and supply challenges.

“When I conceptualized the business, I visualized that it will be a showcase of everything about being an Ilocano and the experience of being in our beautiful province, and mostly how I am going to give back to the community,” Mercado said.

HALO-HALO DE ILOKO BALAY – Photo shows the facade of Halo-Halo de Iloko, owned and managed by Xavier B. Mercado located in the City of San Fernando, La Union. (Photo grabbed from HHDI Page)

Mercado relived and innovated the culinary tradition of the La Union province, and supported its local products and its tourist destinations as he applied the farm-to-table concept.

“HHDI is not just a restaurant to feed customers, it is a home to promote the gastronomic culture of the Ilocanos, it is an avenue to advocate the vibrant tourism and agriculture industry of my beloved province, an inspiration to local farming and a support system to local employment,” he added.

Already known to many, his halo-halo’s ingredients were exclusively supplied by the different farmers and local manufacturers in the province.

Further, another innovative comfort food is the IgadObas or igado, an Ilocano stew made of strips of liver and pork tenderloin braised in tangy and savory soy sauce-vinegar mixture along with spices and raisins.

ZERO TO HERO: XAVIER MERCADO – IgadObas ti La Union, the winning dish of Xavier Mercado during the 2019 Kitchen Hero of Region 1 Chef’s Cook-Off Category organized by the Department of Tourism (DOT) in the Ilocos in partnership with Solane liquified petroleum gas. (Photo edited by AHFF/PIA-1)

But instead of plain vinegar and raisins, he used the Naguilian Basi (sugarcane wine) along with the grapes and guapple of Bauang, and the diro (honey) of Bacnotan.

In 2019, the dish helped him bag the Kitchen Hero of Region 1 Chef’s Cook-Off Category organized by the Department of Tourism (DOT), in partnership with Solane liquified petroleum gas.

Currently, Mercado has a total of 43 employees of whom seven have hearing and speaking impairment.

Moreover, these persons with disability help in the restaurant and the production of catchy-named products of HHDI such as maniyakis (sautéed peanuts with dried anchovies); sumayet or mildly spiced vinegar; and the newly-introduced el Diablo or native super spiced vinegar.

He also supports the deaf and mute community by marketing beaded bracelets made by them and are being displayed for sale at his restaurant.

“Hindi ko na iniisip na kikita pa ako sa gitna ng pandemya na nararanasan natin kasi ang mahalaga sa akin ngayon ay ang makatulong ako sa ating komunidad upang maibalik ang sigla ng turismo at agrikultura, at pati na rin sa aking mga empleyado na umaasa sa kanilang sweldo para mabuhay ang kanilang pamilya,” he ended.

HHDI was declared by the DOT in the Ilocos as a tourist destination under culinary tourism in July 2019 and is one of the top three tourist arrivals generators in the region.

It is also a DOT-accredited tourism enterprise.

Mercado is the past president of the Association of Tour Guides of La Union, and the Association of Tourism Industries and Networks of La Union; and he represents the tourism sector in the Multi-Sectoral Governance Council of the Provincial Government of La Union.

Moreover, he is the current president of the Region 1 Tour Guides Association established by DOT-1; one of the Board of Directors of the Chamber of Commerce of La Union; and the Co-Chairman of the City Tourism Council of San Fernando, La Union.

He was selected to represent the entire Luzon island as one of the five successful micro, small and medium enterprises during the launching of the Pilipinas Angat Lahat Alliance in August 2018 and was graced by President Rodrigo Roa Duterte who personally congratulated him.

In 2017, he was awarded as the Injap Sia Outstanding Young Entrepreneurs of the Philippines conferred by the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

INJAP SIA OUTSTANDING YOUNG ENTREPENEURS AWARD – Photo shows a social media card posted by the Province of La Union to show their support and pride to Xavier B. Mercado, owner and manager of Halo-Halo de Iloko when he bagged the Injap Sia Outstanding Young Entrepreneurs of the Philippines, a national award conferred by the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 2017. (Photo courtesy of PGLU).

Finally, Mercado is a Department of Trade and Industry (DTI)’s Kapatid Mentor ME program graduate and this year’s DTI Zero to Hero Awardee of the Ilocos Region. (Anne Hazel Fajardo-Flores, PIA Region 1)