How a New York restaurant fought to survive
It opened up two years ago to labor shortages, supply chain issues and sudden closures. Its owner, Helen Nguyen, had to play every role in the restaurant, while scouring the city for ingredients, containers and condiments.
When coronavirus cases in New York rose again in December, businesses announced temporary closures. Saigon Social was among them.
At this point, I don’t even mind,” Nguyen said. “We were closed and delayed for so long that I never really got a chance to open.”
Despite her bravado, Nguyen approached her breaking point as she faced her second pandemic winter. But February was better than the previous month, and in early March the mask mandate in New York was lifted and restaurants were no longer required to check for vaccination status. It reopened with a new menu, leaving behind the takeaways that were needed to survive.
But as cases rise again in New York, up 30% in two weeks, his mettle will again be tested.
Saigon Social was originally scheduled to open on March 13, 2020, just three days before Governor Andrew M. Cuomo ordered all non-essential businesses to close.
In other words, Saigon Social’s grand opening happened at the worst possible time. It opened too late to be eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program, an integral part of the federal relief effort. But it was too soon for Nguyen to have a loyal following and a take-out menu to cope with the ever-changing restrictions.
“I slept at the restaurant every night that first month because I was so depressed,” Nguyen said.
New York is a city of restaurants and Nguyen is a rising star there. She spent years working for the famous Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud. She has participated in France’s prestigious Bocuse d’Or cooking competition and has made regular television appearances on Food Network and Vice’s Munchies. Saigon Social is her first restaurant on her own.
But running a food business in New York means operating on razor-thin margins, and sometimes the smallest disruptions — let alone a pandemic — can mean the difference between winning accolades and shutting down for good.
The streets emptied in December as cold weather set in and fear once again gripped the city. The number of virus cases skyrocketed and Saigon Social’s catering business dropped to a trickle.
Earlier in the pandemic, Saigon Social relied on takeout and delivery orders. Catering also became the restaurant’s biggest source of income, which allowed Nguyen to close the dining room when omicron hit to minimize potential exposures.
“Having to turn away so many diners is heartbreaking, but it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “I can’t take the risk.”
At-home COVID testing quickly petered out, so she approached her neighbors, offering to trade photos of Fernet Branca for spare kits.
The tests have become a daily ritual at the restaurant. “Don’t worry, I worked in a hospital,” Nguyen told his employees. “As a performer.”
Catering orders only arrived once or twice a week, and some days take-out sales barely exceeded $500, nowhere near covering labor costs. Negative test results were often the only good news Nguyen heard. She ended many evenings by toasting with friends: “Fernet on this subject!”
Nguyen is part of a cultural vanguard of influential Asian Americans. Philip Lim, a fashion designer, and comedian Ronny Chieng are friends and clients. She describes her entourage as a “team of Asian restaurant bosses” filled with successful business owners from across the city.
Nguyen’s community extends to the elderly and others in need around his neighborhood. She produces hundreds of meals a week for Heart of Dinner and Feed Forward, hunger-focused nonprofits. These restaurant jobs have helped Nguyen keep the restaurant afloat.
“You feel like you are helping the community, but it’s actually the community saving me,” Nguyen said.
At the start of the pandemic, she befriended En Bao Chen, sometimes bringing him meals as he collected recyclables from the bins outside his restaurant. “Even though she is on the verge of bankruptcy, she still cooks for us,” he said.
Chen, 78, has been attacked in the street several times over the past year – part of an alarming wave of anti-Asian violence. In one case last month, a woman was followed to her Chinatown apartment and fatally stabbed more than 40 times. It was a shocking tragedy, close to home for Nguyen in many ways.
The murder took place a few blocks from Nguyen’s apartment. Just a month later, she was also followed home by a stranger. She was able to enter her apartment and lock the door before anything could happen, but the experience shook her. “I’m trying to get home a little earlier now,” said Nguyen, who has since asked friends to walk with her. “It’s scary out there.”
Normally, a restaurant would have a chef in charge of the “back of the house”, managing the kitchen and the cooks. A manager would run the front, overseeing servers, decor, reservations, and anything unrelated to food. At Saigon Social, Nguyen often does everything. “I’ve been a boy band from the very beginning,” she said.
The economic recovery during the pandemic has resulted in a severe labor shortage, including in the service sector. According to the Labor Department, in January there were more than 11 million job openings nationwide, a 61% increase from the day before the pandemic. Nguyen was simply unable to find enough qualified people to work for her. Even when there were lines of diners pouring out the door last summer, she was forced to limit service.
So when the omicron started to spread, she closed the lunchroom rather than risk exposing her few employees to infection. Some still fell ill.
Shortly after the new year, his first server tested positive. Then the sous chef and another server quickly followed. Nguyen quickly jostled between all the stations in the kitchen while responding to orders on the phone and tablets.
“We ran with a reduced crew,” she said in mid-January, when deserted streets invited even more vandalism than usual. “I feel pretty exhausted right now.”
At the same time, the pandemic continued to break the global supply chain, limiting the availability of take-out containers, condiments and other products. Prices have gone up everywhere.
Nguyen spent hours each week scouring supermarkets in Chinatown, vendors in New Jersey and a wholesaler in Queens, looking for slightly better prices, taking the time she could have spent hiring workers and finding how to reopen.
“I always feel like I’m in survival mode,” Nguyen said.
At the end of January, two friends came on board to help him restart the restaurant and organize the grand opening party he had never had.
Emily Yuen, who has spent the past five years as head chef of Bessou, a Japanese restaurant in NoHo, offered to help revamp the menu to make it less focused on takeout and delivery.
Jennifer Saesue, who led a team of 53 at Fish Cheeks, a Thai restaurant, joined as an associate to optimize indoor operations. She took advantage of the improving labor market to conduct a hiring campaign, tripling the number of servers.
“She was trying to do everything, but it’s an impossible task,” Saesue said. “We have enough people now to start the ship.”
The revised menu was taking shape, featuring dishes that Nguyen had long wanted to serve but couldn’t because they wouldn’t travel as well in take-out containers.
“It’s a different energy, putting it right and not just putting it in a box,” Joshua Lemi, the junior sous chef, said of the new menu. It featured dishes like banh beo chen, steamed rice cakes topped with shrimp silk served in six sauce plates.
“Not everything you’ve seen in the past two years is what I wanted to cook,” Nguyen said. “We don’t just want to be a banh mi and noodle shop.”
The reopening of Saigon Social in early March was preceded by two days of “friends and family” service, to allow the new team to acclimatize. But once news broke that the restaurant had reopened, friends and fans showed up.
“I’m a bit overwhelmed,” Nguyen said. “It’s the largest number of people I’ve ever had here. It’s the most staff I’ve ever had.
At the moment, the restaurant is carefully monitoring the number of cases but has no plans to close again. Most of the time, Nguyen is able to focus on the positive.
She was recently nominated for a James Beard Award – known as the Food Oscars – for Best Chef in New York State.
And she won another kind of award.
For the first time in months – maybe even in two years – Nguyen began to return home before midnight.
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