We had the good fortune of connecting with Jae Javier de Castro and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Jae, can you tell us more about your background and the role it’s played in shaping who you are today? Where are you from and how did your background and upbringing impact who you are today?
I am a first-generation Filipino American. My father joined the US Navy in the early 70s and migrated to the United States. Through friends of friends and family he met my mother through being a penpal. They wrote often and got to know each other. It wasn’t long after that they fell in love and he found himself back in the Philippines, for their wedding. And my mother left all that she knew to move to a strange and foreign place to live with my father in the United States. He was often on deployment – out to sea. So she was alone often. Having to figure out how to live on her own and find resources and meet new people all on her own. Life got easier day by day in her new home, Florida. My mom is a smart, tough and strong woman. Both my parents are tough and hard working. It took a lot of guts and faith to do what they did. They eventually brought my grandparents over to the states. Together, they have always instilled a strong sense of faith in God’s plan in each and everyone of our lives. I have a lot of respect for it and I trust that there is a plan and purpose for each of us. The hard work I have seen them endure, day after day, with no complaints instilled a sense of work ethic in me. That you truly do get as much as you put into whatever you do in life. From experience, nothing truly worth it comes easily.
Risk-taking: how do you think about risk, what role has taking risks played in your life/career? I didn’t always understand the values my parents tried to share with me in the early stages of my life. I have to confess I was a bit of a rebellious kid growing up. I took many risks and continue to do so. I felt like the thinking of an immigrant household and the small-town feel of my hometown was not the speed I wanted to live. I always felt the need to break free from the norms of a typical “Filipino American Daughter”. In fact, I resented the expectations my parents had on me. So much that, during my teenage years, I fell in love with a boy early, and with $134 dollars in my pocket I ran away to New York City to escape the pressure and expectations. I didn’t really give myself the opportunity to truly grow up and figure out who I was. I found myself with two daughters and in a 20+ year abusive relationship with the boy I escaped with. It wasn’t until I spiraled deep to rock bottom that intervention happened in my life. Where I found myself in so much pain that I was close to ending it all. The depression and my inability to function because of physical and mental abuse eventually put me in the position of losing a six-figure executive-level job. We lost it all. Our $3.3k, 4 bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side, all our belongings and our car. We had no choice but to move back to my parents home down south. And let me tell you, this was the turning point. Divine Intervention I have always said. I was surrounded, once again, by people who truly cared for me: My parents, my family, and my friends from childhood. With their love I was freed from whatever control, fear or chain that was holding me back.
Since then I have cherished every second, every moment, and every opportunity of my life. I believe my experiences have shaped me into who I am now. I have always been a risk-taker but now I am wiser in the risks I take. I do a lot of self-evaluation and research before I make most of my decisions. But there are times when you can just feel it in your gut when something is right and you just have to go with it. And when this happens, you have to just take a deep breath and dive in 100%. My business is the result of this. In life, I try not to waste any moment to achieve dreams that I had once had for myself or to overlook the several roads that could lead to many great things. I will not lie, I get nervous, but I choose not to let the fear overpower the possibility of what may lay beyond the risk. This has not always brought immediate success, but it has gifted me so many lessons that now contribute to where I am now, thankfully.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
Building relationships is a major factor for our branding and a major contributor to our success. I’ve been blessed to have a great team. They have been by my side since day one, and have stood by me through all the ups and downs. We have had the opportunity to foster relationships throughout the food community which has a reach throughout all industries across the board. Coming from a Marketing & Communications background I understood the importance of branding right away. Having a clear representation of who you are and what you stand for is key. When we first established in New York, our brand was Jae NYC Eats. It represented not only our love of food but it represented our roots in NYC. We are now Keyks, @JustForKeyks. In which “keyks” is the accented way that Filipino’s pronounce Cake. Somewhat a play on words, Just for Keyks and Just for Kicks. We wanted to represent our love of Childhood nostalgic treats that we are known for. We are originally from Queens, NY and are now in the Orange County /LA area. Keyks is a provider of unique, homemade, and artisanal baked goods and treats. We are mostly known for our Twinkie-inspired desserts called Keyks and childhood treats made in a more “delicious fashion” to bring a higher level of childhood nostalgia.
Work life balance: how has your balance changed over time? How do you think about the balance? What was your thought process behind starting your own business?
These two questions go hand in hand. Working in high-level corporate roles for 30 years, I did not have the opportunity to be present for my older two daughters in their most fundamental years. Work was a means of escape and work was also demanding. So not only were they forced to grow up early, their childhood was cut short from having to care for an ailing parent and be responsible for each other. When my son was born, later in my life, I decided to become a stay at home mother. You could imagine that was a huge change from working long hours at an office. From daily adult negotiations and interaction to Elmo and trying to convince my toddler to eat. By month six of staying home, I started to grow anxious. I’m not sure if you remember, but it must have been around 2011/2012 when Hostess was going bankrupt. There was a bit of a panic and people started buying up the last of the twinkies and selling them online. At the time, I felt like my generation was losing something else that we considered nostalgic. It was such a treat when I was a kid. One day my daughter bought a twinkie mold for me as a fun gift. This was around 2012 and it sat there on the shelf for a few years. Until around 2016 when I revisited my love of dessert making and baking during my journey to find an outlet from being a stay at home mom. Our very first Keyk was the chocolate matcha, which became an instant hit with friends and family. Many people were telling me to start selling it. And understanding the importance of relationships and marketing I started reaching out to influencers I followed. I basically messaged them and asking them if they would mind trying our product and if I should bring it to market. The feedback was great! We received so much encouragement and soon after we were set up in Long Island City and the Queens Night Market. Not too soon after, we were getting invited to cater large events and to take part in the New York Wine and Food Festival. Business grew fast. So fast that my original reason for starting my own business, life-balance, soon dissipated and it got quite overwhelming and my personal life once again was compromised by factors outside of the business. I found myself back in another valley. But I chose to embrace change. My younger daughter had an opportunity in the Philippines, so I decided to move with her and her younger brother. We uprooted and finally left New York City. I needed the new surroundings and the time to heal. It was completely different and one of the hardest journeys of my life. This time I was healing in a place that I knew only stories about and had short visits to. Honestly, a culture I resented as a child. To move there was a whole other level. Culture shock was an understatement. However, as always God had a plan and we were surrounded by extended family and friends that became family. I learned so much about who I was and where my family was from. I started to finally understand what shaped my parents and their values. I was given opportunities to explore the culture and the food in depth. It truly shaped me even further in such a creative and positive way. I recovered from so many past hurts and I was awakened in so many ways. Throughout the years we have added a variety of flavors which make up a culmination of life experiences as told through a journey of diverse flavors, textures and colors. Most which were inspired by childhood experiences, from when I was younger and from being a mother and seeing the delight in my kids eyes when they found a favorite treat. We have flavors that were inspired by our travels throughout the world. Where our creation brings back the memory of that whiff of goodness floating through the air from the local bakery or the tastes and smells of the local street vendor on the corner. Then there are the flavors I have recently released that are inspired by my Filipino roots. Flavor combinations and textures combined to bring the essences of our culture in every bite. This has always been the goal of our company, to create childhood treats that bring a higher level of childhood nostalgia in a more “delicious fashion”. I’m a single parent, so being able to grow a business from what has become a passion of mine and be present in my children’s lives has been such a blessing for me and gives me so much balance mentally and spiritually. It has also given my children the tools to venture out and follow their passions and become entrepreneurs in their own prospective industries.
What value or principle matters most to you? Why?
I have a few that I’ve touched on throughout my sharing. Hardwork. Living with No fear. But there are two quotes/scriptures that I feel sums up how I live my life: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” – George Eliot. “But he knoweth the way that I take: when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold.” Job 23:10 KJV
I have experienced many hills and valleys in my life. Many times I have felt that I did not have the strength nor the ability to get out of those valleys but through sheer determination and constant grinding, I find myself always looking over the beautiful skyline of the sum of my life so far.
What’s the end goal? Where do you want to be professionally by the end of your career? It is a volatile environment right now for the food industry. But we have been quite fortunate to grow during this time. Being a small business owner has given me the opportunity to move my business with me wherever I go. My business has been my saving grace financially and mentally. I would love to have our products in multiple locations, where we can share our fun treats and experiences with people throughout the world. To have Keyks become a beloved household name would be the end goal. However, the greatest reward would be that through our journey as a growing small business people see hope in being able to create and follow their own passions without fear. I would love to give more to my parents and family who have stood by me 100% and to give back to the communities that have welcomed us with open arms.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Since I am still fairly new to the West Coast. I have been the one playing tourist this past year. It has been quite interesting trying to accomplish this since the pandemic hit. Especially since I usually travel for food. However, I have found some really great finds throughout the area that I would definitely take my best friend to! I have always been a beach person, so we would hit a different beach everyday from El Morro and Laguna Beach, to Huntington Beach (where I currently reside) and work our way up through Venice, Santa Monica to Malibu. Food spots to try include, Cali Tacos in Orange for some monster 6 pound burritos and Din Tai Fung for some DimSum. For Filipino food I would go to Tatang in Noho for their signature Crispy Pata Bowl and Chaaste Market in Pasadena for everything that tastes closest to my grandmother’s cooking I can get on the West Coast. But we mustn’t forget, The Manila District LA Market, where we have our Keyks Pop Up, other foodies would enjoy great and delicious vendors such as Lobsterdamus, Mano Po, Shuck.it, Taste of the Pacific, Faded Crab, Calajo Catering and Tim’s Thai Tea. A true array of amazing food in one outdoor space in DTLA. Here are two fun facts about me: I love ice cream and I am a lover of film/movies. So I would not let my friend leave without a scoop tour throughout the city. I would take them to Wanderlust Creamery, Afters Ice Cream and Salt & Straw in between the vast amount of filming locations and studio tours throughout the city.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
First and foremost, my parents and my children. They have been my rocks and have given me unconditional love and support throughout. They instilled my faith and given me the cushion to make the mistakes and learn from the hard lessons so that when I get back up again, I come up and out stronger. Then, there is my Marketing and PR team at Block and Ave, Drew Ayasse and Dhariana Lozano along with the inspiration and constant support from Chef Jordan Andino. Their insight since day one has helped me understand the business and how important relationships throughout play a major role in everything we do and everything we represent. There are a multitude of industry people, influencers and close friends who have had unwavering belief in me and I am ever so grateful. Finally, my breakthrough in the LA scene would not have happened without Rayson Esquejo @EatFilipino, Lauren Delgado and the Santa Maria Group for giving me the opportunity and space to grow in the DTLA Arts District @ManilaDistrictLA. Thank you to Shoutout LA for including me. It has been a lot of fun!!
Feature Image: Nico Belasco Photography NYWFF: Getty Image, Mike Coppola Hand: Redner Salonga Three Keyks: Rayson Esquejo
All other photos were taken by myself or my camera.