A Look into Vietnamese Restaurants in Ontario During COVID-19

Stories of compassion, optimism and resilience amid the pandemic.

In the near future, your neighbourhood’s favourite Vietnamese restaurants may look different, with two-meter markers on the floor and hand sanitizer prominent on the table next to the condiment set. The dining room may be half-empty, with less clinking and chattering. Nevertheless, the friendly welcoming spirit will remain the same. It’s the place you come to hide from the snowstorm outside during the winter and a place to escape the heat in the summer, diving into a bowl of phở or munching on bánh mì, while inhaling the rich aroma of a cup of Vietnamese coffee.

Even though provinces start to reopen, and restaurant revenues may resume, profits remain elusive. “I think in most cases I would be surprised if many businesses turned a profit before 2021,” said Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), in a recent interview with the Globe and Mail.

While it’s easy to fall into the grim narrative around food businesses and mourn the loss of our favourite neighbourhood food stops, it is essential to look ahead and continue to support the ones who are carrying on and moving forward through the pandemic. I reached out to Vietnamese restaurants in Ontario to check in on how they are and what they’ve been doing to stand strong during these trying times.

To Close or Not to Close, That is the Question

Most of the restaurant owners in Ontario I spoke with had to shut their doors for at least two weeks due to the emergency order starting in mid-March, and some places were closed even longer than that. “We closed for two months before it’s safer to open again in June. It’s a risk too much to take,” said Thuận Dương, the owner of Bún Saigon, a 14-year-old shop located in Chinatown, Toronto.

Elsewhere in Koreatown, Rustle & Still, a café serving Vietnamese specialties, such as coffee and bánh mì, started ramping up safety measures, including suspending its bring-your-own-cup initiative and packing the food in disposable containers even to dine-in customers, before temporarily closing on March 17. “Dealing with uncertainty was the biggest underlying challenge. In the restaurant business, we know how much closing for even a day affects the bottom line, let alone an indefinite amount of time,” said Trí Ngô, the proprietor.

Indeed, the food business operates on a notoriously tight margin. According to market research firm IBISWorld, the Canadian full-service restaurant industry recorded a profit margin of merely 3.4 percent in 2019. Without its daily activities, restaurants continue to hemorrhage cash, as utility bills, account payables to purveyors and rent pile up.

Sometimes the decision to remain open does not rely solely on financial terms. Hùng Tôn, who runs Phở 90 on Weston Road, Toronto with three other partners, said: “At the peak of the pandemic, the management considered closing down the restaurant, but we thought of our kitchen staff and the remaining half of the front staff, most of whom are the breadwinners of their families. So, we’ve been open since.”

More Challenges Abound

As fear sank in and people were forced to fend for themselves in the kitchen, traffic to food establishments dwindled. Phở Kingston, situated near the Gardiners exit off 401, was particularly hit. According to the owner, Tuấn Nguyễn, most of his regular customers are retirees who like to dine out at least twice a week and socialize in the restaurant. The fact that they are the most vulnerable group to the virus further weighed on the sentiment. Meanwhile, other principal sources of customers, including tourist groups and incoming traffic from Toronto and Montreal, also suffered.

Phở Kingston’s interior. Tuấn said he wanted to change people’s perception of Vietnamese restaurants, making it a place with proper decoration, where diners can socialize comfortably. Photo by Jennifer P. via Yelp.

To make up for the losses, Nguyễn accepted order via Skip The Dishes and directly from the restaurant’s phone line. He applied for Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA), which offers interest-free loans of up to $40,000 to small businesses to cover operating costs during periods when their revenue was affected by COVID-19. “To be honest, it’s a not big amount, but it’s not small either. I guess it’s better than nothing,” Nguyễn said.

For Tôn, he had to strike his own deal with the landlord for a rent deferment. Phở 90 is not qualified for Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA), as it misses the revenue loss criteria by a small margin. Across Canada, about 36% of small businesses are in the same situation, according to a survey in April by CFIB. The decision to balance business interest, employee job security and public safety has somehow left Tôn in a pickle. “But what’s done is done, I hope there will be initiatives to help support businesses who are not qualified soon,” he said.

Soldiering On

Despite the ever-growing uncertainty, these business owners kept going. Their livelihood is on the line, but they are also motivated by the passion to introduce Vietnamese cuisine to a wider audience, as well as the enthusiasm for Vietnamese coffee beans and street snacks.

Following a two-week hiatus, Nguyễn opened Phở Kingston’s doors again for takeout. To express his gratitude for healthcare workers, he participated in the Feed the Frontline program, delivering meals to the staff at Kingston General Hospital. “People came and loved my restaurant, so I want to do something special to give back to the community,” Nguyễn said.

Rustle & Still restarted in May to launch its online shop R&S At Home. “It’s like starting a new business again because doing things online has its unique challenges. When I’m not at the café, I work on the website, which is still at an infant stage. I learn new things every day,” said Ngô about the juggle.

Rustle & Still’s online order platform

Another setback he faces is staffing. Not everyone is comfortable going back to work. Those who can, prefer to work fewer weekly hours to keep their Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). Most of the time, Ngô and his wife end up working four days a week, leaving their three-month-old baby at home with their parents and feeling guilty afterwards. “Even if things are picking up, we still don’t know. There’s a balance, and maybe one day the effort we put into the business does not justify the sacrifice of family time anymore,” Ngô said when asked if he’d ever considered closing down the café, which celebrated its second anniversary in June.

While Ngô expanded his revenue model by building an online platform, Tôn increased his reach to customers outside the radius of UberEats. For three days a week, those who stay in the North York, Toronto and Mississauga areas can receive their food directly from Phở 90, delivered by their own staff. Tôn went the extra mile to make sure the delivery team is certified by the Canadian Food Safety Group.

Pho 90’s takeout operations. Photo by Pho 90

Meanwhile, he encouraged others to use this down time to learn as much as they can, leveraging on the numerous free courses offered by credible hospitality institutions. “I don’t expect them to stay with the restaurant forever, but they are young and ambitious, and these are good for them,” he said. He chuckled when sharing with me, for his birthday (which was recent), he asked each of the staff to pass an online certificate as his presents. 

What’s Next?

The road to recovery is long and painful. Nguyễn thinks the psychological impact following the pandemic will be long-lasting, given the virus’s widespread transmission. “I just hope that there is a vaccine soon, and until then, everyone will have to be mindful and take extra caution. That’ll help not only themselves but others as well,” he said.

It took a pandemic for us to start appreciating that those who are most essential to our lives are also most vulnerable. Vietnamese restaurants have always played their part in our social fabric, offering comfort, sustenance and community. Stories from the people behind them are tales of resourcefulness, perseverance and passion. Now, it’s more important than ever for us to play our part. Think local, order directly from them if possible, and learn to smile, even from our masks.

This content is also available in: Tiếng Việt

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