Surviving the Pandemic: From Auditing World’s Biggest Hotel Chain to Selling Masks & Lechon Belly

He was trotting the Caribbean and Latin America. Stayed in some of the world’s best resorts and hotels in exotic places. Access to the club lounge with all its perks of free-flowing drinks and canapés was a routine. It was what his work offered. And he enjoyed it. Until the pandemic hit the United States hard. 

Danny in Panama

Danny Luzada was Regional Manager for Internal Controls for the Caribbean and Latin American Regions of the Marriott International, the world’s biggest hotel chain. Life took him up the corporate ladder quite smoothly from his life in the Philippines to the United States. He was blessed in many ways, a high achiever in his field, with 32 years of solid experience in accounting and finance under his belt. Never did it cross his mind that his career would be on the line. 

Three days before he was due to fly to Mexico City on the third week of March, Danny received a phone call from his superior. He was informed to cancel his trip. Little did he know that this would be the start of his life’s 180-degree turn. A few days later, he received a furlough notice effective 4th of April. What made it worse? This came two years after his promotion as Regional Manager. 

“Depression set in. Fear of the unknown prevailed. I explored other jobs in the market only to find out that hundreds of thousands were competing over the same job,” Danny says. 

He was still optimistic that everything would go back to normal, that he would be restored to the job that he loves. Besides, he breathes the hospitality industry for 24 years of his career from the Philippines to Guam to Saint Kitts and to the United Sates. No, Danny was not about to give up. 

The worst has yet to come, however. 

From Masks to Lechon Belly

Masks made from branded dust bags from Nordstrom

Marielys, Danny’s wife, works at Nordstrom and would oftentimes bring branded dust bags home with her. This was the time when the pandemic hit and there was a shortage of mask supply. A son of a tailor, Danny thought of making productive use of his time and skill in sewing. It was a refuge from worrying about what the future would bring for him and his family.

Coupled with Marielys’ prodding, Danny started to make masks for donation. It was their way of giving back. At one point, he even decked their pine tree on their front yard with masks in Ziplocks for whoever in their neighbourhood to freely pick for free. Placards around it volunteered the masks and screamed a reminder of the importance of wearing them. In order to inspire a similar gesture of giving, Danny shared photos of the masks he made on social media. 

Handmade masks for free!

The opportunity to turn it into a business came when friends started to reach out to him for orders. One former neighbour in Dumaguete asked him to make 40 customised pieces for her — and she was willing to pay! That triggered Danny’s entrepreneurial spirit — one that he never thought was inside him all along. Asked how many he has made, Danny quips that he’s lost track of the number of masks he’s given away for free and sold. 

Even before the pandemic, weekends at Danny and Marielys’ house in Virginia were spent in the kitchen. There was always that smell of something appetising wafting from the oven and the stove.

Marielys holds a culinary degree from Switzerland and was Marriott Cebu’s pastry chef. It was at Marriott Cebu where Danny, who was Finance Director, and Marielys met. She does the fancy cooking, while Danny does the bisdak (short for Bisayang dako, loosely translated as too native and local) version. 

Marielys’ famous torta de Cebu

Marielys had always enjoyed baking pastries and sending them to friends. One of her specialties, which created a buzz, is her torta de Cebu (a type of local sponge cake), for which recipe she inherited from her grandmother — and one that Marielys doesn’t even trust Danny with. She practically bakes her cakes and pastries from memory! 

Danny’s specialties are his lechon belly (roasted pork belly) and humba (stewed pork). He started making it for potlucks and celebrations with family and friends. Whenever he felt he nailed it, he would post a photo of his lechon belly on Facebook, causing people to salivate and imagine the crackling sound as the knife runs across the crispy skin. Those that tasted it got hooked; those who saw in on Facebook, particularly those based in the United States, got intrigued. 

Danny’s sinful lechon belly

Bent on augmenting income derived from unemployment benefits, Danny saw a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel. He gradually converted public interest and curiosity over his gastronomic masterpieces into a business. Together with Marielys, he turned their ordinary weekend favourite hangout space into a test kitchen. At dawn or late evening, Danny would be whipping up Filipino delicacies from recipes he already learned back home from his mother’s cooking to those he researched online. 

“I sometimes get tired, but I keep on moving. I always tell myself that this is all for my family,” Danny says. 

Visit their Facebook page, Heavenly CC, for orders

As orders streamed in and the number of people inquiring about their products grew, Danny created a Facebook page: Heavenly Cravings and Clothings (“Heavenly CC” is the Facebook Page name). “Clothings” was added later on as Danny has never really stopped sewing masks — they were only put on hold as he became too focused on experimenting with other Filipino products that they could add to their product listing. 

Apart from their torta de Cebu and lechon belly, Heavenly Cravings and Clothings now carries 11 other delectable Filipino favourites: ngohiong, ensaymada (plain or ube), pan de sal (plain), ube cheese pan de sal, ube halaya, binangkal, pan de coco, banana walnut raisin (or cranberry), ube macapuno roll, cheese rolls and taisan (plain or ube)

The Worst Happened 

Danny did not avail of Marriott’s offer under a Voluntary Transition Program, which in short was hardly different from a voluntary retirement. His superior also encouraged him to remain positive and to stay put. Danny was not also ready to let go of his career of more than two decades with Marriott. 

From that time he received the furlough notice, Danny kept his hopes high that one day, he will receive a call or an email asking him to return to work. 

On the 21st of August, Danny was delivering an order of lechon belly from his home in Virginia to Maryland with Marielys’ cousin. The lechon belly was an order for the birthday of the daughter of the friend of Marielys’ cousin.

Danny delivering the orders of one of his loyal customers, Al Fuertes

While on the road, Danny’s phone rang. It was the vice president, Danny’s superior. Could it be good news? It was, after all, Danny’s 21st year anniversary in the company that same day!  

But what was supposed to be a cause for celebration, spiralled down as Danny’s most painful experience.

He permanently lost his job that day. 

“After some ‘scripted story’, the VP told me that my job is eliminated and assured me that it wasn’t about my performance. I was speechless,” Danny said. 

Marielys’ cousin advised him to let it out, to shout it out, to cry it out. 

“I tried. I wanted to cry but no tears came down,” he shared. “As reality sank in, depression also crept in.” 

Danny immediately texted his wife who was at work that time. 

“My biggest fear was more on the financial aspect of having lost a job. If no one was depending on me, if there was no house mortgage to settle, and if I had no daughter to put through college, it would have been a lot easier to take it and move on,” Danny says. 

He was in a dilemma, torn between ensuring their savings could tide them over until he finds a new job and stocking up their pantry as food and household supplies were getting wiped out from the shelves due to panic buying. 

Coming Out Stronger 

Danny may have lost his job with Marriott but he has not lost his optimism and determination. He sources his strength through prayer and from his wife and daughter, Marieska, who’s studying journalism at Emerson College in Boston. 

“I began questioning: ‘Why me?’ But in the process, I also appreciated myself more, that I wasn’t only good at what I was trained for back in college but that I also had innate abilities, like sewing and cooking, that just needed a push by this pandemic to shine through,” Danny says. 

Danny sewing masks

Heavenly Cravings and Clothings is taking on some branding and generating following on Facebook. His daughter Marieska designed a logo for their modest family business, while she was finishing her first year online from home. While they are full force only on weekends when Marielys is not at work, they have managed their orders well, with a welcome problem of high demand approaching holidays and special occasions. Income has been decent, Danny says. 

His latest creation, budbod

Like a true entrepreneur, Danny piggybacks on the popularity of their torta de Cebu and lechon belly but doesn’t stop there. He tirelessly tests out Filipino recipes in order to offer more and reach a wider market with discerning palates. Two of the delicacies that are on the road to perfection are delicacies of Dumaguete, the place he is originally from: budbod kabog (a steamed delicacy made of millet, coconut milk and sugar then wrapped in banana leaf) and a variation with native chocolate. 

“I still have a great sense of optimism that things will get better. This is the worst of all times. When I survive this one, no amount of bad circumstances in the future can ever threaten me,” Danny says. 

A Meaningful Journey 

Danny’s life is an upward journey. He graduated from Silliman University High School in 1981 then went on to the University of San Carlos in Cebu for college where he obtained his degree of BS Accountancy.

Of his 33 years of professional experience, 17 were spent in the Philippines and the rest abroad: Guam, Saint Kitts and the United States. 

Danny with his wife, Marielys, daughter, Marieska, and their dog, Marshall, a Chinese Shar Pei

It was on his third year as Director of Finance at Marriott Cebu in the Philippines when he explored a transfer to the United States. Due to lack of opportunities that came with visa sponsorship, he grabbed an offer to be Group Controller of two major hotels in Guam that were owned by a Chinese family. He later moved to Saint Kitts in the Caribbean to rejoin Marriott, taking up the post of Senior Assistant Director of Finance of a 620-room resort there. Before he left Saint Kitts, he opened the Marriott St. Kitts Vacation Club as Controller. 

An opportunity came for Danny to finally be in the United States when his former general manager at Marriott Cebu tossed to him the position of Multi-Property Director of Finance and Accounting for two Marriott hotels at Washington Dulles in Virginia. These hotels, where his former general manager was also working at, was willing to sponsor his L1 visa. He did not waste time and relocated there with his family. 

He continued to move up the corporate ladder. From 2007 to 2012, Danny became Director of Finance of the Washington Dulles Airport Marriott and the Washington Dulles Airport Suites. He then joined Marriott International (corporate headquarters) as Global Policy and Controls Manager for six years, from 2012. And in 2018, he was promoted to Regional Manager for Internal Controls for Caribbean and Latin American Regions. 

Danny makes masks for different ages and of any design

His recent promotion as Regional Manager for Internal Controls for Caribbean and Latin American Regions was incidental, if not providential. Danny inquired about the vacant position from a hiring manager for a Latino friend who was based in Miami. But while that friend had the needed skill set and could speak Spanish, that friend passed up the opportunity as his wife was pregnant and he didn’t like the frequent travelling the position required. Two weeks later, without her knowledge that the initial inquiry was for someone else, the hiring manager asked Danny if he was still interested in the position. Danny grabbed the chance by the neck. The next thing he knew, he was already negotiating his package with the vice president. 

Danny in action in the kitchen

Danny shares some advice to those who are in a similar situation.

First is to learn a new craft, cultivate your creativity and be passionate about it.

Second is to continue to network with people, careful not to burn bridges. His colleagues with whom he shares great friendship have played an instrumental role in his every transition in his career.

“And, third and most importantly, never forget to have a constant conversation with your God as He knows very well your journey and destination,” he says.

Contact Danny at dannyluzada@yahoo.com.

2 thoughts on “Surviving the Pandemic: From Auditing World’s Biggest Hotel Chain to Selling Masks & Lechon Belly

  1. Danny I didn’t know your story. But truly your are so inspiring. I’ve seen your growth during this trying time without knowing the circumstances behind it. I have no doubt this will become or rather a success story now. I am just lucky I was one of the beneficiary of your talent. Trust me they were treasured and appreciated. Kind regards ❤️

    Like

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