Saigon Social, a Vietnamese restaurant on the Lower East Side, has only ever existed in pandemic-era limbo.
It opened two years ago to labor shortages, supply chain snarls and sudden shutdowns.
Its owner, Helen Nguyen, had to play every role in the restaurant, all while running around the city to track down ingredients, containers, and condiments.
When coronavirus cases in New York City spiked again in December, businesses announced temporary closings. Saigon Social was among them.
The restaurant has mostly operated at a loss since it opened. As she faced her second pandemic winter, Ms. Nguyen approached her breaking point.
How One New York City Restaurant Fought to Survive
Photographs and Text by Gary He
Saigon Social was originally set to open March 13, 2020, just three days before Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered all non-essential businesses to close their doors.
In other words, Saigon Social’s grand opening happened at the worst possible moment. It opened too late to be eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program, a signature part of the federal relief effort. But it was too early for Ms. Nguyen to have a loyal customer base and a takeout friendly menu to help weather constantly evolving restrictions.
“I slept at the restaurant every night that first month because I was so depressed,” Ms. Nguyen said.
New York is a restaurant city, and Ms. Nguyen has been a rising star in it. She spent years working for the acclaimed chef Daniel Boulud. She has participated in the prestigious Bocuse d’Or cooking contest in France, and has made regular TV appearances on the 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 extremely thin margins, and sometimes the smallest disruptions can be the difference between winning acclaim and closing for good.
We spent three months with Ms. Nguyen this winter as the arrival of the Omicron variant threatened the survival of a restaurant that was already battered by the pandemic. She had to figure out how to keep cash flowing while her dining room was closed and staff tested positive for the virus. She bartered for tests with alcohol, and reinstated masking rules inside the restaurant. On top of that, she navigated racial violence in a neighborhood that is home to a large Asian diaspora.
Two years after first opening its doors, Ms. Nguyen was still trying to find a way to transform the restaurant into what she had originally envisioned.
As spring approached, the restaurant changed drastically — one more time.
“Having to turn so many diners away is heart wrenching.”
The streets emptied in December as cold weather set in and fear again gripped the city. Virus case counts were exploding, and Saigon Social’s dine-in business fell to a trickle.
Earlier in the pandemic, Saigon Social relied on takeout and delivery orders. Catering also became the restaurant’s largest revenue source, which allowed Ms. Nguyen to shut the dining room when Omicron hit to minimize potential exposures.
“Having to turn so many diners away is heart wrenching, but it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “I can’t risk it.”
At-home Covid tests quickly ran short, so Ms. Nguyen canvassed her neighbors, offering to trade shots of Fernet Branca for spare kits.
Testing became a daily ritual at the restaurant. “Don’t worry, I used to work in a hospital,” Ms. Nguyen would tell her employees. “As an interpreter.”
Catering orders came in only once or twice a week, and on some days, takeout sales would barely exceed $500, nowhere close to being able to cover labor costs. Negative test results would often be the only good news Ms. Nguyen would hear most days.
She ended many nights by clinking glasses of amaro with friends: “Fernet about it!”
“Even as she’s going broke, she still cooks for us.”
Ms. Nguyen is part of a cultural vanguard of influential Asian Americans. Philip Lim, a fashion designer, and the comedian Ronny Chieng are friends and customers. Her inner circle, as she describes it, is an “Asian restaurant girl boss crew” filled with successful business owners from around the city.
Ms. Nguyen’s community also extends to elderly people and others in need around her neighborhood. She produces hundreds of meals a week for Heart of Dinner and Feed Forward, nonprofit organizations focused on hunger. These catering jobs helped Ms. Nguyen to keep the restaurant afloat.
“You feel that you’re helping the community, but it’s actually the community that’s saving me,” Ms. Nguyen said.
Early in the pandemic, Ms. Nguyen befriended En Bao Chen, sometimes bringing him meals as he collected recyclables from garbage cans outside her restaurant. “Even as she’s going broke, she still cooks for us,” Mr. Chen said.
Mr. Chen, 78, was assaulted on the street several times in the past year — part of an alarming wave of anti-Asian violence. In one case last month, a woman was followed to her apartment in Chinatown and fatally stabbed more than 40 times. It was a shocking tragedy, close to home for Ms. Nguyen in several ways.
The killing took place just blocks from Ms. Nguyen’s apartment. Just a month after, she was also followed home by a stranger. She was able to get inside her apartment and bolt the door before anything could happen, but the experience shook her. “I try to go home a little earlier now,” said Ms. Nguyen, who has since asked friends to walk with her. “It’s scary out there.”
“I’ve been a one man band from the very beginning.”
Most nights, Ms. Nguyen is the last one to close the restaurant, pulling down the gates. She’s also routinely the one to open it up a few hours later.
Normally a restaurant would have a chef in charge of the “back of the house,” running the kitchen and cooks. A manager would direct the front, overseeing servers, decor, reservations and everything else not related to food. At Saigon Social, Ms. Nguyen often does it all.
“I’ve been a one man band from the very beginning,” Ms. Nguyen said.
The economic recovery during the pandemic left a severe shortage of workers, including in the service industry. According to the Labor Department, in January there were more than 11 million job openings around the country, an increase of 61 percent from just before the pandemic. Ms. Nguyen simply hasn’t been able to find enough qualified people to work for her. Even when there were lines of diners spilling out the door last summer, she was forced to limit service.
So when Omicron began spreading, she closed the dining room, rather than risk exposing her few employees to infection. Some got sick anyway.
Shortly after the new year, her first server tested positive. Then the sous-chef and another server quickly followed. Ms. Nguyen was soon hustling between every station in the kitchen while also fielding orders on the phone and tablets.
“We’ve been running on a skeleton team,” she said in mid-January, when deserted streets invited even more vandalism than usual. “I feel pretty burnt out 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 went up across the board.
Ms. Nguyen spent hours each week scouring Chinatown supermarkets, suppliers in New Jersey and a wholesaler in Queens, hunting for slightly more favorable prices, eating up time that could have been spent hiring more workers and figuring out how to re-open.
“I still feel like I’m in survival mode,” Ms. Nguyen said.
“She was trying to do everything, but it’s an impossible task.”
As the number of infections in the city finally began to slow in late January, help arrived — with a plan to give the restaurant the grand opening it never had.
Emily Yuen, a friend who spent the last five years as the head chef of Bessou, a Japanese restaurant in NoHo, offered to help rework the menu to make it less focused on takeout and to put long-term systems in place for the kitchen.
Jennifer Saesue, who managed a 53-person team at Fish Cheeks, a Thai restaurant, signed on to optimize the front-of-house operations. The goal was to make Saigon Social dine-in only for the reopening.
Ms. Saesue took advantage of the improving labor market to spearhead a hiring drive, tripling the number of servers. Fixtures that were set up for delivery orders were dismantled, creating enough room in the restaurant to double the number of seats. “All she sees is dollar signs,” Ms. Nguyen said of Ms. Saesue.
“She was trying to do everything, but it’s an impossible task,” Ms. Saesue said. “We have enough people now to get the ship started.”
“It’s a different energy”
By late February, just weeks before the two-year anniversary of the pandemic, the number of new Covid-19 cases in the city had fallen sharply. New Yorkers were once again on the streets and going into bars and restaurants.
Ms. Nguyen and her team suddenly felt a newfound sense of optimism.
New staff members were being trained, and the reopening of Saigon Social was quickly approaching. The revised menu was taking shape, filled with dishes that Ms. Nguyen long wanted to serve but could not because they wouldn’t travel as well in takeout containers.
“It’s a different energy, plating it nicely and not just doing it into a box,” Joshua Lemi, the junior sous chef, said of the new menu. It featured dishes like Bánh Bèo Chén, steamed rice cakes topped with shrimp floss served on six sauce plates.
“Whatever you’ve seen the last two years is not what I wanted to cook,” Ms. Nguyen said. ”We don’t just want to be a banh mi and noodle shop.”
Saigon Social’s reopening in early March was preceded by two days of “friends and family” service, which typically has fewer guests to allow the new team to get acclimated.
But once word got out that the restaurant had reopened for indoor service, diners just showed up.
“I’m a little overwhelmed,” Ms. Nguyen said. “This is the most people I’ve ever had in here. This is the most staff I’ve ever had.”
The mood was celebratory. Crowds have continued to fill the dining room since. Servers and kitchen staff found their grooves. For the first time in months — maybe even in two years — Ms. Nguyen started going home before midnight.
Ms. Nguyen was recently nominated for a James Beard award for best chef in New York State. The awards are colloquially known as the Oscars of the food world.
“I underestimated what it took to build a restaurant, but now I have the support,” Ms. Nguyen said.
A few days later, she reflected on how far the restaurant had come. “Baby Saigon is thriving,” she said.
Gary He is a photographer and writer based in New York City
Produced by Gray Beltran and Crista Chapman