(Photo by Kim Johnston)

Fili Bakery: Bringing Filipino flavors to the Arizona desert

By Rita Connelly
November 1, 2022

Markets & Makers

When it came time for Kim Johnston to return to work after taking time off to raise her two kids, she wasn’t sure she wanted to go back to a preschool classroom, “That’s what got me trying to start a new path,” Johnston said. That path eventually led her to create Fili Bakery and to become a social media maven.

(Photo by Kim Johnston)
A Bit of Background

Johnston was born to a large family in the Philippines; they moved to Phoenix when Kim was seven years old.

Because her parents and her aunts and uncles worked, Kim and her cousins spent every day after school at her grandparents’ house, where her grandfather was the cook. He made sure that, although the family was no longer in the Philippines, the children knew their culture through the Tagalog language and Filipino food.

Johnston attended the University of Arizona and majored in creative writing for a couple of years before teaching preschool for six years and becoming a full-time mother. Baking had always been a creative outlet for Johnston, so turning that energy toward making a little money was a logical step.

“I started Butter & Flour in March of 2020,” she said. “I was nervous because I waited awhile to tell people about it and as soon I announced it on my Facebook page…lockdown.”

(Photo by Kim Johnston)
Surprise Successes

This might have been a fatal blow for her fledgling bakery but instead, Johnston said, “A lot of people were looking for ways to help local businesses.”

Her pies, cookies, and cupcakes were the familiar American favorites but they were especially good and orders were steady.

Like many owners of startups, Johnston had to do her own marketing. “I discovered a love for social media through photography, copywriting, and all the other parts of running a business,” she noted.

She found the “Keep Tucson Local Alive” Facebook page and began posting about small businesses she frequented. “My posts caught the attention of business owners as well as of Yocal, a tech startup company,” Johnston said.

Among the business owners who noticed her posts was Ray Flores, president of Flores Concepts.

A Baker and Social Media Maven

Yocal is an app designed to promote local businesses and connect them to Tucsonans that may need their services. They include accountants, personal trainers, pain clinics, car repair shops, barber shops…and, of course, restaurants.

The folks at Yocal were so impressed with Johnston’s work that they hired her as their Director of Community.

Flores, on the other hand, was interested in her baking. He wanted to sell her baked goods at Barrio Charro and at The Monica, which had just opened.

Dulce de Ube by Fili Bakery (Photo by Kim Johnston)

But he noted that everyone makes pies and cupcakes and suggested that she look toward her Filipino heritage. “He told me, ‘That’s what you should be doing. That’s your story.’”

At iba pa! — Tagalog for “and so” — Fili Bakery was born.

“Ray’s been a bit of a mentor to me,” Johnston said.

Noting her social media talents, Flores also hired her to help Si Charro’s Marketing Director, Amairani Fong, with social networking, photo shoots, and special events.

Meanwhile, she began developing desserts with ingredients that were unfamiliar to most Tucsonans. “The Filipino flavors I use in Fili Bakery all stem from childhood foods I grew up eating with my family,” she said.

(Photo by Kim Johnston)
Special Cookie Ingredients

Currently, Johnston makes two kinds of cookies: ube and buko pandan.

Ube? Buko Pandan? Here’s a short primer:

  • Ube: Princely purple in color and slightly sweet, this Filipino yam is versatile, ideal in both sweet and savory dishes. Like its cousin the sweet potato, ube is high in fiber and good carbs. It also contains high levels of antioxidants.
  • Pandan: Resembling palm tree leaves, pandan adds a fresh green tint and a grassy flavor to any dish. Beta carotene and Vitamin C are just a few of the healthful elements found in pandan.
  • Buko: Its soft texture makes buko, the flesh of young coconuts, easy to scrape out of the hairy fruit.
  • Buko Pandan: In this popular dessert fruit salad, pandan jelly cubes are served in a blend of buko and several types of milk.
(Photo by Kim Johnston)

Johnston’s ube cookies look like standard chocolate cookies, but one bite proves they are a whole different experience. The texture is buttery and light -- not quite cake, not quite a brownie, both familiar and not. The subtle taste from the ube tempers the sweetness of the chocolate.

The buko pandan cookies are light green with flecks of white from white chocolate chips mixed in. They are creamy and soft, with a grassy, almost vanilla-like, flavor.

Beyond Cookies

Although Johnston’s focus is on cookies, they are not the only treats in her repertoire. I had the opportunity to try her buko pandan cupcakes, traditional key lime pie, and ube hand pies.

Like the cookies, the buko pandan cupcakes are light green, and they are topped with a thick swirl of white frosting. Light and floral with a hint of vanilla, these little gems are just sweet enough to satisfy any sugar cravings. They would be a hit at a kids’ party.


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A post shared by Kim Johnston (@kimmyeatstucson)

The key lime pie is a work of art. Rosettes of whipped cream are shaped into a quarter moon on top. The filling has that wonderful tang of key lime with just a hint of sweetness. And that graham cracker crust? A perfect crunchy complement to the creamy filling.

As the name suggests, the round ube hand pies fit in your hand perfectly. Like the key lime pie, these tiny treats are works of art. The crust, edged with a braid, is buttery and flakey. But it’s the thick and creamy filling with its sweet and savory ube flavor that makes these pie-lets stand out. These would work for a get-and-go breakfast, a quick lunch, or a pick-me-up snack. The only regret I had about the ube hand pies is that I didn’t order more of them!

Johnston currently doesn’t make traditional Filipino sweets such as mamon (sponge cake), kakanin (sticky rice cakes), pandesal (sweet rolls topped with breadcrumbs), or lengua de gato (sugar cookies), but if she can find a way to produce any of them in volume, she may add them to her repertoire.

These treats can be found at Scented Leaf Tea House & Lounge on University Boulevard, The Monica, downtown, and Barrio Charro on Campbell Avenue. Quantities are limited. Johnston still does custom orders, but for now she is concentrating on the retail side of her business.

A Convergence of Talents

Looking at her various outlets, including Yocal Tucson’s Facebook page, you can see that Johnston has a talent for social networking. The photos of her baked goods and other food stir the tastebuds. Her copywriting is sharp and clever; clearly, her creative writing courses didn’t go to waste.

And if her name already seems familiar to you, perhaps it’s because you’ve read one of her stories on Tucson Foodie or seen her posts on her Instagram pages, kimmyeatstucson and filibakery.

Flores sings high praises for Johnston and not just because of her cookies.

Buko Pandan Cookies (Photo by Kim Johnston)
Buko Pandan Cookies (Photo by Kim Johnston)

“Kim personifies the local small-batch food community. Not only does she put her heart into everything she bakes, she is a positive new force in the local food scene. Her cookies are delicious and her personality is helping to shed light on so much of what being the City of Gastronomy is all about. Kim helps keep Tucson cooking!”

Johnston calls her path “serendipitous,” but she seems to have found her niche. And yet something tells me there are more adventures down the road. Stay tuned.

For more information, follow Fili Bakery on Instagram


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A post shared by Fili Bakery (@filibakery)

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Rita Connelly is the author of “Lost Restaurants of Tucson,” “Historic Restaurants of Tucson,” and “Arizona Chimichangas,”all published by The...

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