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Washington state was the initial “epicenter” of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. We followed four women with ties to the service industry, which struggled long before stay-at-home orders became commonplace, in Seattle. We documented their stories by calling them every few weeks, from early April to early June.

On March 13, Yenvy Pham went to New York City to celebrate the grand opening of her friend’s new Vietnamese restaurant, Saigon Social. But as the coronavirus spread, Helen Nguyen — Saigon Social’s chef and owner — decided to cancel.

By the time Pham flew home to Seattle on March 16, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) had ordered restaurants and bars to cease in-person dining. Pham and her siblings, who own and operate several restaurants called Phở Bắc in Seattle, saw sales plummet.

“When the announcement hit, sales tanked by 90 percent,” said Pham, 32. “It was instantaneous.”

They instituted new safety precautions, made sure their employees had masks and gloves and started pivoting.

Phở Bắc’s namesake dish is not something people typically order to-go, Pham said. To appeal to their customers, the Pham siblings introduced a “Pho Now” cup that people could eat while sitting on a nearby curb, on their walk home, or in the car. They also began selling a “Pho Later” meal kit, complete with broth, separately wrapped ingredients and assembly instructions. The restaurant started delivering orders using an old parking enforcement vehicle dubbed the “Pho Mobile.”

Yenvy Pham next to the “Pho Mobile.” (Courtesy of Yenvy Pham)
Yenvy Pham next to the “Pho Mobile.” (Courtesy of Yenvy Pham)

As it became clear that the pandemic wasn’t going to end anytime soon, Pham and her siblings had to start making tough decisions. They closed two of their four Phở Bắc locations, and they were forced to reduce staff. Some people volunteered to stay home, but Pham still had to lay off about 15 part-time workers. She retains a cast of rotating employees who work when they’re available or when the restaurant needs them.

But if any of Phở Bắc’s current or former employees need something, the restaurant owners try to help: “My restaurant dynamic is very Vietnamese,” Pham said. “It’s very practical. If [workers] need money, help [or] loans, we just kind of do what we can.”

‘You’ve got to take care of your own people’

Operating multiple restaurants during a pandemic isn’t easy, but “survival mode is in our blood,” Pham explained. Her parents, Theresa Cat Vu and Augustine Nien Pham, opened the first Phở Bắc location in 1982, a year after they came to the United States. Ultimately, Theresa and Augustine created a nourishing landmark in Seattle’s Little Saigon: The restaurant takes the shape of a red boat.

Yenvy Pham and her Phở Bắc partners, siblings Khoa and Quynh-Vy, are dedicated to supporting fellow business owners in Little Saigon as economic fallout from the pandemic persists.

“It’s my neighborhood, my Little Saigon,” Pham said. “For me, business comes and goes, but the vibe of the neighborhood is so important, and so are the characters here. You’ve got to take care of your own people.”

They recently donated $5,000 in proceeds from the Pho Mobile to the International Community Health Services clinic, where their sister works as a primary care doctor, and a small business relief fund for business owners in the Chinatown International District. (Chinese restaurateurs in Seattle and beyond experienced a significant dip in sales in February — long before stay-at-home orders went into effect — due to racism and misinformation about the coronavirus.)

The siblings are also collaborating with other business owners. They added Hood Famous Bakeshop’s mini Filipino-flavored cheesecakes to their menu. Pham let Mangosteen — a traveling Texas-style barbecue joint from chef Thai Ha — take over one of their closed locations to sell brisket and wings with specialty sauces for pickup.

The pandemic has given people more time to take stock of what’s important, Pham said in late April.

“I like the world stopping for a second to reassess our morality and get us out of this state of complacency,” she said. “We’re doing powerful thinking about each other, ourselves, about the world … and looking at what are priorities and what are not.”

“We’re being more creative too and helping each other out,” Pham added.

Like many people, Pham and her siblings are being forced to put some things on hold. They were supposed to open an Asian-forward bar called Pacific Standard Time in May. The coffee beans Pham purchased for another project — a cafe in a new community space in Little Saigon — are stuck in Vietnam.

Despite the unknowns, Pham is confident that everything will work out. In her family, “we either fix it, we take care of it, we accept it, or we move onto something else,” she said.

“If this is the new norm, we will thrive in the new norm,” Pham said. “We’ll find a way to survive.”

‘How can we gain empathy from our elders?’

On June 5, King County, where Seattle is located, announced restaurants could reopen indoor dining services at 25 percent capacity. A couple days later, Phở Bắc restarted dine-in services at two of their locations. The general rules are: Order and pay first. Wear masks until you’re seated. Draft beer and reusable utensils are out for now.

“The first day was all Vietnamese people,” Pham said with a laugh. “The Viets came back. We blasted the Vietnamese music videos. It was good to feel activated again.”

Attending other recent events to promote Black Lives Matter and change policing in Seattle have also kept Pham energized. She has a history of protesting and organizing — for migrant workers, for her community and against police brutality — but Pham hasn’t seen many transformations as a result of her efforts. The current movement might be different, she says.

“It’s really big, and it’s not stopping,” Pham said. “It’s getting a lot of traction. I want to see if it can spur some changes.”

For now, Pham remains focused on finding ways to address implicit biases held by members of her own community. They witnessed injustice when a King County sheriff’s deputy fatally shot 20-year-old Tommy Le, who was holding a pen deputies mistook for a knife, in 2017. But do they understand the problems that led to the unjust killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Manuel Ellis and others?

“How can we gain empathy from our elders?” Pham asked. She wants to “make our community conscientious of what’s going on. This is how policing is done. Can it be better?”

Timeline of events

Jan. 21: First recognized covid-19 case in Washington state and the U.S.

Feb. 29: First recognized covid-19 death in King County, Wash., and the U.S.

March 4:

+ King County, where Seattle is located, urges companies to allow employees to work from home

+ Major companies, including Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon, encourage employees to work remotely

March 10:

+ Amazon announces a $5 million Neighborhood Small Business Relief Fund for businesses near its South Lake Union (SLU) headquarters

+ Phở Bắc, which has a location in SLU, subsequently applies for relief

March 15: Washington state tells restaurants and bars to cease in-person dining temporarily; Phở Bắc transitions to takeout only and her siblings start offering delivery with the Pho Mobile

March 23: Washington state stay-at-home order goes into effect

March 25: Restaurateur Yenvy Pham and her siblings start offering delivery with the Pho Mobile

April 1: Pham and her siblings temporarily close the Phở Bắc in SLU and their boat location in Little Saigon

April: Phở Bắc applies to the Payback Protection Program, a federal loan from the Small Business Association; receives loan after three weeks

June 7: Phở Bắc reopens at 25 percent capacity along with other restaurants in Seattle

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