Featured photo: Joseph Olson started Kuya Bear in 2021 as a pop-up to make extra money. Now, he runs the operation full-time out of a food truck.
They’re not all nurses. That’s what Joseph Olson wants people to know about Filipinos. That, and the fact that their food doesn’t really taste like other Asian food.
“I feel like Filipino food is very different from all other Asian cuisine in that it’s not very Asian-y,” says Olson. “It has so many different influences and it’s not the typical Asian flavors like you get when you go to Chinese or Japanese or Thai restaurants.”
Because the taste is hard to explain, Olson prefers to let people try it instead. For the last two years, he’s been running Kuya Bear, a Filipino food truck out of Winston-Salem.
At first, it started as a way to make extra money.
“In December 2021, my friend was doing these food pop-ups at Krankies and I saw other people doing burger pop-ups and I needed money,” says Olson, who has lived in Winston-Salem since 2017. “At the time, I worked in education.”
Now, Olson runs Kuya Bear full time as the head chef, social media manager, swag creator, truck driver and basically anything else that needs to get done.
“It’s essentially just me,” he says. “I do all the booking, decide what’s on the menu, the social media.”
But it suits Olson’s entrepreneurial spirit. Coming from a background in the skate and hardcore music scene, Olson took the skills he learned like making flyers, self-promotion and graphic design and has poured them into his new food business.
“I’m self-taught in everything,” he says.
And that kind of includes the food.
Growing up, Olson says his mom, Deana, made Filipino staples like lumpia for meals. The way that he explains it is it’s like a “long fried dumpling” that looks akin to a thin spring roll but with meat.
When he saw his friend and others doing food pop-ups, he decided to take his mom’s lumpia recipe and make a batch using a camping stove and a pot of hot oil. Almost two years later and he’s expanded the business to add more to the menu including crab rangoon rolls and ube lumpia, a sweet dessert version of the savory staple. He’s also added other Filipino dishes that he taught himself to make, like tapsilog, which is a traditional Filipino breakfast consisting of fried rice, sliced tomatoes, a fried egg and marinated steak. Instead of serving it all on a plate, Olson prefers to wrap the contents in a tortilla and serve it like a breakfast burrito. He’s also got a chicken adobo burrito that uses chicken that’s been braised for hours so that it’s tender and juicy.
Perfect for the winter is the nilaga, a Filipino pot-roast soup that comes full of garlic, ginger, bok choy, napa cabbage, daikon, onion, oyster sauce and short ribs; it’s also Olson’s favorite food.
“I grew up in the Midwest,” he says. “And I would go out sledding, and it would be so cold and I would come home and my mom would have nilaga made.”
Despite the fond memories, Olson says that Filipino food isn’t his favorite cuisine.
“Admittedly I don’t really love Filipino food that much,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s because of my taste budget or if it’s because I grew up seeing my friends eat mac and cheese. I don’t even eat my own lumpia.”
But seeing the dearth of options in the Triad made him want to bridge the gap, he says.
“I saw that it was a need in the area in terms of availability,” he says. “I was also raised more American than Filipino so I feel like I can bridge the gap between the cultures. I feel like I have the knowledge to expose more people to Filipino culture. It’s helped me to connect to my culture and heritage more and try dishes I’ve never tried before.”
In addition to exposing more people to the food, Olson says that another part of the business that he enjoys is the ability to be creative. As a self-taught designer who loves to follow streetwear trends, he’s had the opportunity to make his own logo and design his own swag for the company, something he wasn’t able to do in his former job as a school counselor.
The logo for Kuya Bear depicts a cartoony bear in a traditional two-step “Running Man” pose, something that a lot of hardcore merch designs use, Olson says. The bear even has an “X” on its hand as a shoutout to straightedge culture. On Nov. 30, a promotional Kuya Bear skate video will be premiered at Sayso Coffee from 7-9 p.m.
“My business has become a vehicle for me to do things that I like to do,” he says.
Olson stays connected to younger generations by doing a design collaboration with other Filipino artists who he features on the Kuya Bear social media every month.
“I do most of the graphic design myself but I like to partner with other local artists and I want to highlight younger creatives,” he says. “There are so many talented young kids, and I want to be a platform for those kids as well.”
Now that he’s found more of a Filipino community here and in states like New York, where he goes for food festivals, Olson says he wants to help bolster others like him who chose the arts over nursing.
In that way, he’s kind of like the “kuya,” or the older brother, to those he’s worked with.
“Being able to share my experience and relate to others has been really cool,” he says. “And it makes me feel proud finally after all these years. It’s funny, I felt like an outcast when I was younger, but now I can use those memories to connect with others.”
Follow Kuya Bear on Instagram at @kuyabearfood.
Join the First Amendment Society, a membership that goes directly to funding TCB‘s newsroom.
We believe that reporting can save the world.
The TCB First Amendment Society recognizes the vital role of a free, unfettered press with a bundling of local experiences designed to build community, and unique engagements with our newsroom that will help you understand, and shape, local journalism’s critical role in uplifting the people in our cities.
All revenue goes directly into the newsroom as reporters’ salaries and freelance commissions.