Column: For the Pied Piper of La Puente, no COVID-hit business is too small to tout
When the COVID-19 pandemic first shut down Southern California restaurants in March, Joe Bautista had an epiphany that all of us should have.
He was a local internet personality of some note who went by Man With an Appetite. On his social media accounts, the warehouse worker for a shipping company chronicled cooking and dining adventures almost indistinguishable from those of fellow foodies. Glamorous photos of grub. Selfies. A slew of hashtags.
Life as a movable feast, and little else.
But the financial devastation to small businesses wrought by the pandemic took Bautista back to 2009. That year, he lost his job to the Great Recession and had to sell off prized possessions to stay afloat. Only with the support of others did he make it through.
“People shouldn’t be ashamed to ask for help,” Bautista said, as he and his wife of 15 years, Andrea, stood under a streetlight on a Sunday night near the intersection of California Avenue and Amar Road in their hometown of La Puente. He was about to transform into his latest persona: La Puente Eats, devoted to highlighting mom-and-pop shops in the city during these worst of times.
More than just offer a photo, Bautista now told their stories, Studs Terkel-style. Earlier in the day, Bautista had documented barbershops, glass engravers, general stores and florists.
Now, it was time to eat.
“I’m here at Comida Row, everybody!” he announced on Instagram Live in a boisterous voice that easily rose above the roar of traffic next to him. “You know where it’s at — just follow the lights!”
“Comida Row” is Bautista’s nickname for a street median where food stalls have popped up for years but have increased in numbers with every dining ban. Vendors beamed as the 40-year-old made his way past them. They offered him items — spicy gummy bears, champurrado, Hawaiian food — that he politely declined.
Bautista wasn’t there to take freebies. He was there to preach to those who wanted to listen. He was embodying the spirit of the prophet behind his surname, John the Baptist: Repent of big chains, and prepare the way for small businesses to survive.
“We gotta take care of each other,” Bautista told his audience, as Andrea — a teacher by trade — gently lifted up the two masks that covered his face.
The online audience for La Puente Eats never topped 20. But they responded. People standing in line waved. Some approached him up to a socially safe distance when Bautista stopped filming.
“He’s just everywhere,” said Lalo Bustamante, who was there to deliver a virgin michelada that Bautista had ordered. “I don’t know how he does it, or even why, but he does it.”
“He always tells us the good spots, to give them a chance,” said 24-year-old Juan Aguirre. “It’s a small community, but it’s a good community.”
Adriana Valdez was at Comida Row with her two daughters. Her family owns Camino Real, a 38-year-old La Puente institution that has seen profits drop by 50% this year.
“Joe is like the Pied Piper of La Puente,” said the 44-year-old. “When all this began, he reached out to me and said, ‘Please don’t take offense, but you’re doing your social media all wrong.’ And he told me how to do it right, and didn’t ask for anything. He just gives and gives.”
“This is a city of echándole ganas [hustling],” Bautista said as we walked back to his Subaru. “The government barely helps these people out. So we all gotta do our part.”
Suddenly, a taco vendor shouted, “Thank you for the video, bro! Tag me!”
“It was on IG Live, dawg,” Bautista replied, “but I’ll hit you up!”
I asked Bautista to take me on a late-night La Puente run and explain his mission. He bounced around the Latino suburb like a pinball. We ate well from vendors who set up barbecues in their driveways. Lonely restaurants near the train tracks.
“I’d take you to more places, man,” he said at one point. “But Sunday nights are dead. And so many spots have closed for good …”
He let his thought trail off.
Bautista’s offer to any business is simple: Ask him to shout you out, and he will. The only payment he asks for is that the recipient of his goodwill do the same for others in La Puente.
“People say they support local businesses,” said the son of immigrants from the Mexican state of Tabasco. “Yeah, but they’ll only hit up one spot, then go to a gym in another city. We all need to walk the walk right now.”
“It’s an underdog of underdogs,” Bautista said. “So we gotta help ourselves.”
Everywhere we went, I met struggling entrepreneurs who had subscribed to Bautista’s gospel.
We started at Genesis 2000, a furniture manufacturer that didn’t even have a social media presence until Bautista found them while on the search for toilet paper. Tony and Cuca Moreno had successfully operated for 30 years, but pivoted to selling cleaning supplies once their clients disappeared.
“He’s been a significant source of our success,” Tony, 56, said of Bautista. “And he told me about this Instagram thing. I’m old school, so I never cared for that. But now, we’ll get lines.”
Cuca, 55, recently visited G & D Burgers after La Puente Eats highlighted its story: An Asian American family whose son now helped his parents after he was furloughed from his job as a vice president for an Orange County gym.
“I feel their pain. I have my life in [Genesis 2000] right now,” said Tony.
“Without us helping each other, we’re all gone,” Cuca added. “It’s a chain reaction.”
Soon after, Bautista took me to spectacular Sonoran-style bacon-wrapped hot dogs grilled by Sergio Lopez, who runs Dogos Yaqui. Food influencers have approached the 42-year-old with promises of thousands of followers and hype … for a price.
“Not everyone has a heart like Joe,” Lopez said. “Other people post a simple video, but Joe tells people about us.”
“I can make money if I charge people, but no way!” Bautista said with scorn. “I’m not going to take someone’s food off the table. People are being taken advantage of. I’m not a fly-by-night type of guy. It’s not a one-night stand with me.”
Our final destination was Cortez Brothers, a 46-year-old place where Bautista grew up on its albóndigas but which he hadn’t visited in years until last month. The restaurant had a new owner: Rodrigo Garcia, who bought it in July of last year. He’s a line cook at the Beverly Wilshire who reached out to Bautista this fall in the hopes he might highlight his new place.
Bautista summarily posted a photo of Garcia’s refined albóndigas; Cortez Brothers sold out within hours.
“We need more Joes,” said Garcia, 44, as his teenage daughters helped to close up for the night. “I’m now getting people who say they’ve lived in La Puente their entire life but never visited us until now.”
Bautista still posts on his Man With an Appetite account, and still likes a good meal. But talking to so many La Puente businesspeople instead of just showcasing their food has changed him forever, he said.
“Five-hundred-dollar dinners are fun,” he said. “But what I’m doing now is better.”
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