Chef Helen Nguyen’s first restaurant, Saigon Social, was on track to open in the middle of March right when reduced capacity guidelines and shelter in place orders swept the nation. Since then, her New York restaurant operation has become part delivery-only business, part charity hub, and she has no idea how long she can keep it going.
Nguyen joined Eater’s Digest this week to talk about what it’s like running her operation during the pandemic.
Listen and subscribe to Eater’s Digest on Apple Podcasts and read the full transcript of the interview below.
Daniel Geneen: All right. So Chef Helen Nguyen, welcome to The Digest. Thanks for joining us.
Helen Nguyen: Thanks for having me.
DG: Could you tell us a little bit about opening a restaurant in the last few months?
HN: Well, it’s an adventure, to say the least. We waited about 11 months just to get our gas services turned on. It was this whole ordeal with Con Edison and a lot of frustrations. The day that we got our gas turned on was pretty exciting. I mean, to be able to stare at the appliances and see flames come out and actually cook from them and not induction burners was a huge victory for me. And so, we quickly started training and then retraining and hiring and then rehiring, and we’re very excited for a March 13th opening and then the whole mandate of the 50% occupancy kicked in.
DG: Yeah, and this is your first restaurant?
HN: It’s my first restaurant. I don’t know what I’m doing. And then I thought I knew what I was doing and then I was like, “Okay, now what do I do?” Just literally three days before I saw full opening. I felt completely confident with both the front and the back of the house team and I was like, “Okay, this is it. We’re ready to go. We’re going to start.” And then I had to go back and tell them that, “I’m really sorry but I don’t think I’ll have a job to offer you after this weekend.” So I sat down with everyone and we had a deep cleaning session. I told everyone to cook whatever proteins we had in the walk-in, which was a lot, because we were prepared to have a pretty strong and pretty busy couple of days of friends and family and just having people in the neighborhood in.
And then as people were working, I called each employee in and had a conversation with them one-on-one. We went over all of their hours. I gave them a last paycheck and gave them some extra cash and basically told them that, “You know what? I don’t know if we’re going to be open next week. This might be the last day. And I know that even though we haven’t even started, I just don’t have a good feeling about this and I’m really sorry.” And if they had other job opportunities elsewhere then please, don’t let this delay be a factor in moving forward. Because at the end of the day people have financial responsibilities and obligations.
So it was a very hard conversation to have. And they left and they packed all the food with them. And I stayed back and I stared at the wall for the remainder of the day. And I think I probably bunkered up in the restaurant for three days and was just cooking up a storm with whatever I had left. My fiance, who was also my partner, was like, “Who are you cooking for?” I’m like, “I don’t know.” This is just my way of just mourning or just coping. The only thing that really soothes me is just being able to be in the kitchen. So I think I just needed that time just to process and reassess.
And as I was in the kitchen alone, I see a lot of neighbors come by and they’d peek in and one of our gates was open because I left it open just so that we can still be able to receive mail and get knocks on the window. I’d open it and my neighbor is like, “Oh, hey, are you open?” I said, “No, but I did make a pot of soup today, so if you want some I’d be more than happy to share it with you.” So then two to three bowls a day turned to a dozen, two dozen, and I figured, you know what? Maybe I’m going to try this takeout thing, since there’s a little interest in it. If it just means me feeding a dozen of my neighbors upstairs, I’m going to do it just because what else am I going to do? While we try to figure out what’s going on and how the government’s going to be handling things. And-
Amanda Kludt: So have you just been doing takeout ever since?
HN: I’ve been doing takeout ever since. The first week I said, the first five days it was just me. I was the one answering the phone. I updated our phone number, which we never did before, and the phone was ringing. I was like, “This is really strange.” Having to answer the phone and then also having to cook and then also having to take orders. And so it was a one-man band for the first four or five days. And we’ve been really lucky with the support of the community, mainly just our neighbors.
And so, I decided, okay, well maybe I’ll diversify the menu a little bit and not just offer a chicken pho or just grilled protein over rice and maybe offer two to three things or four things and with that I would be able to bring on maybe one of my prep cooks and be able to provide hours. At that point we weren’t making any money and we still aren’t making any money, but if I’m able to stay afloat and just be able to pay for food costs and be able to take care of just one employee, that really was what kept me going and pushing forward. And for that first week that we were open, it was mainly neighborhood people that are within walking distance that lived upstairs, and I had so many requests for deliveries, but we just couldn’t handle it. I think about the insurance and then having to hire a driver and it all just didn’t make sense. I just couldn’t afford it.
HN: So then I reached out to... I started actually researching. I had a few people reach out from Grubhub and from Seamless, and then I did some research on my own and decided to sign up with Caviar because they had a promotional discount for the first 30 days.
DG: You went with Caviar because they offered you a free month?
HN: Yes, Caviar and DoorDash. I mean, from what I understand, DoorDash acquired Caviar a couple months ago.
HN: Although they’re operating under the same umbrella, they’re very different in terms of the services that they provide, the support that they provide. And both are offering a promotional 30 day period, which is ending actually next week. So then I have to make a decision as to whether or not I’m going to continue, because with the menu that... I mean, our menu changes quite often, because I’m just using whatever resources I have. And even with our purveyors, there’s some days they’ll have produce and some days they won’t be able to have the things that we request just because their supply line isn’t working or has some kind of delay. So with that, that dictates our menu and I created the menu with the community in mind. So we’re already offering very discounted prices. And so, you think about the high commission that these delivery companies are charging, there’s just no way that I would be able to continue because I’d be operating at a negative.
AK: What are the commissions compared to one another? Like Caviar versus?
HN: 30% is a standard. I know that a couple days ago there was some announcements that were made that they were offering a 50% discount through the end of, I believe May, but still you’re looking at 15%. And with where I’m at right now, our margins are pretty much, there are no margins. It’s like I’m working just to provide hours and just... It’s really at a break-even point for me. I mean, I haven’t even looked at our latest utility bill. So, I mean I don’t know what that is and I’ve been able to factor and control certain food costs, but in terms of utility, I haven’t had an opportunity to sit down and update to see what that cost is and if it’s even responsible for me to continue operating after everything is said and done.
So I don’t know. I’ve really just been taking everything on a day-to-day basis, not knowing what... If we were to completely cut off Caviar and DoorDash because of the commission rates, how many people are actually going to drive or walk or be able to come and pick up their food? Because that essentially will be the deciding factor of whether or not we would be able to continue.
DG: What are some of the aspects of delivery that have been challenging? What’s it like picking up even takeout containers and stuff? It’s crazy?
HN: It’s crazy. I mean, I started doing Restaurant Depot runs just out of boredom and it just was a sense of comfort for me. So every morning around seven o’clock I pick up a rental car for the week and I would drive down and just wander between the aisles and sometimes I would purchase things, sometimes I wouldn’t purchase things, but just being there just felt like it was a routine. And I mean, the first two weeks was relatively assessable. I mean, all the containers that I usually use were available. But in the last four to five days, my Restaurant Depot ones have been very frustrating because now a lot of the shelves are starting to be empty. And as I’m talking to a lot of the employees there, they used to be able to tell me, “Oh, okay, on Tuesdays we get this, on Thursdays we get that.” Now they’re like, “We don’t know when we’re going to get this or if we’re ever going to get it back.” Just because of the way that things are right now.
So then, this morning I went and I hoarded as much as I could into the truck that I have. And I plan on doing another run later on this afternoon, just with that vision of the empty shelves in mind, thinking that, “Okay, if I’m going to continue this I need to be able to provide containers that can safely transport the items that I’m providing.”
AK: How long do you think you’ll be able to keep running the restaurant like this?
HN: For as long as I can continue feeding people. We’ve been very fortunate to be able to partner alongside with some organizations that have been able to provide some stipends and funding to be able to, per plate, just to help with some of our costs. But again, if I’m not able to purchase these containers, these to-go containers, I won’t be able to provide the delivery or takeout services to the community or the hospitals or anybody for that matter.
DG: So what’s going on with the hospitals? How did that all get started?
HN: So I try to respond to as many messages I can. And I get a lot of people that go, “Hey, I’m a nurse. I’m a doctor. I’m a pharmacist. I’m this.” All these healthcare professionals are sending messages into my personal as well as our business account asking for assistance. And some of them are just really finding a person to vent to and they’re like, “Hey, I worked X amount of hours. This is what’s going on in our unit. The morale is is going down. We could really use a warm comforting meal.”
And so I started doing very small-scale deliveries, just based on the first few people that had messaged me and based on our capabilities. Because, like I said, that first week it was just basically me cooking, cleaning, packing, answering the phone calls, doing the deliveries. And as we started to bring back staff and have the support, I then had a message one day from Frontline and he’s like, “Hey, I’ve been a fan of the restaurant and I’m part of this nonprofit organization. Do you have a few minutes to talk?” They’re receiving donations from private entities. And what they are essentially doing is providing restaurants with resources, monetary resources, to bring back their staff. And then in turn, the restaurant can help provide more meals to these hospitals and these healthcare workers.
And so, we started off very small with about 50 meals a day, and then were approached by another nonprofit and then also referred to by another nonprofit. And now going on our second week, it’s Tuesday today, yesterday we sent out 245 meals. This week we’re slated for about 1500 meals between the two nonprofit organizations as well as some of my personal funding and some of the donations that my partners and friends back home sent. And so, I don’t know, it’s still very new. I’m still trying to figure out the logistics and how I’ll be able to accommodate, because obviously you don’t want to say no to anyone, but at the same time it’s been very difficult for me to get out of bed every morning at the time I usually do when I... Like last night I returned at 1:00 AM from a midnight delivery. And this morning I woke up at 6:00 and I just don’t want to burn out. I want to be able to continue serving but also be very conscious and be able to set aside time to take care of myself. But-
AK: Yeah, it’s an impossible situation that people are being put into. You go into this thinking you’re going to open a restaurant and instead you end up cooking for frontline workers and working by yourself and it’s insane.
HN: It’s been hard and I feel like I’m almost keeping myself busy and distracting myself from...
AK: It’s so impossible.
HN: I feel like if I just have a moment alone just to think and absorb about things, I have little breakdowns like this where I just sit and I think and I cry and it’s not that it’s a bad thing, it’s okay to be able to process and feel these emotions, but I don’t want to perpetuate it. I’m a firm believer of just manifesting certain energy and just being more in control of your mood and your perspective.
DG: It must be really hard because I feel like there’s so many people trying so many different kind of organizational structures and everyone’s got some idea of, we’re going to feed hospital workers. I feel like someone like you that’s says yes to a lot of those things, you must be getting pulled in infinite directions.
HN: And the numbers keep on going. It’s just every day I log onto Instagram on our social media site, it’s like, Hey, I’m this and, Hey I’m that. Before it used to be one a week, one a day, now it’s, on average, I get five to six different requests and I feel so bad because a good percentage of them are from small hospitals in Brooklyn or hospitals up in the Bronx and the Harlem where people, they don’t get the kind of coverage and support that a lot of the main hospitals in the city do. And those are the ones that you want to help the most because they don’t have the resources.
I’m willing to do that, but at the same time it’s like, “Oh wait, but I also have dinner service and the community that I’ve committed to, to takeout and deliveries.” And it’s important to maintain continuity and not just be like, “Oh, today I’m open, tomorrow I’m not. Oh, today I might be closed for half of the day, but I’ll be back in a couple hours.” It’s hard. It’s hard. But it’s also hard saying no to people, because there’s a lot of people that are struggling right now and truly need the assistance a lot more than I do.
DG: If you commit to bringing 100 meals or something to a hospital that’s not as well covered, can you then report that back to one of the organizations that you’re working with and then have those meals covered financially?
HN: Yes. So I actually reached out to my contact over at Frontline, was like, “Hey, I’ve been getting an overwhelming response and just people reaching out through email and through Instagram.” And even though they’re very well funded at this point, I feel like their resources are also very limited. There’s just so much that they can do because a lot of the contacts that I communicate with are donating their time to this nonprofit, and they all have full-time jobs. So, I mean, they may be like, “Okay, we will take on these three hospitals.” But it won’t be until maybe two weeks down the line. Whereas it’s like, well, if I have a slow lunch period on Thursday, I want to go to that hospital on Thursday and not have to wait for things to be answered into the system and be looped in through a process, right?
DG: How much can they actually provide per meal?
HN: It’s been ranging. Some organizations offer $10 a meal. Some organizations offer up to $17 a meal. A lot of the hospitals, from my understanding, their cafeterias have completely shut down. And prior to the shutdown, they’re getting just sandwiches and just very, very simple soups and different breads. And when I think about it, it’s just, these are the people that are helping our city a better, they’re risking their life every day coming into work, working long hours, just as long as we are in the kitchen. And they also, more than anyone, deserve a nice meal. To be able to sit down and just enjoy something that was made with a lot more love and care, more so than just a salad that you get from the cafeteria. But although the budget is there and the help is there, I just feel as though that it’s just... When you account for the labor costs and all the other costs that we have to deal with at the end of the day, it’s a lot more substantial than what we’re getting in. But we’re doing our best to try to make everything work.
AK: Aside from the hospital work and the charity and then I guess the delivery business, is there any other support your business can get? Are you able to apply for any of the stimulus relief funds or are you not eligible because you don’t have a payroll right now? How does that work with a new business?
HN: It’s been really exciting to see all these relief funds that are available. But unfortunately we aren’t eligible, just because, I believe there’s two funds where if you were in business prior to, I think it was mid-February. But with us we were in such a weird position with gas and with opening and just not knowing what the official date was going to be, we didn’t have anything established until much later on in March. And for that reason, we just didn’t make the cut for a lot of the grants and a lot of the help that is available, just because we weren’t open and operating as a fully functional restaurant yet.
AK: That sucks.
DG: When we’re through and back when we’re in boom times, are you going to permit yourself to have a real opening day, an opening night?
HN: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, everyone that comes by to pick up food, they peek through the window and they’re like, “Oh, we can’t wait to be able to sit down.” And I’m like, “I can’t wait to personally serve people.” I mean, we built the restaurant with an open kitchen in mind so that we can provide that experience, not only just for the staff, but also for the consumers. Or they can be able to like, “Oh, my food’s being made. I can watch my meat being grilled or my soup being scooped out.” And just being able to have people in enjoying the atmosphere, I for sure am going to have an official grand opening date where we can officially celebrate as a full service restaurant and not just a takeout window where have to stay six to ten feet apart and have to really focus to be able to hear what people are mumbling through the masks. Yeah, we very much look forward to that day.
AK: Thank you so much for sharing your story with us and for all the hard work you’re putting in. It’s truly incredible.
HN: Thank you so much for having me.