Following the arrival of COVID-19 to America, local restaurant Pho Van Fresh, owned by Elizabeth and Lam Nguyen, initially shut down on March 16. On the 17 and 18 they tried a take-out only approach. They only tried this for two days and then shut down completely after losing 90% of their business. It was unsustainable to continue running a business that was making less than it was spending on rent, employees and food. Pho Van Fresh opened again on April 20 with takeout using the Fivestars reward program for funds. The Fivestars organization provides local businesses, such as Pho Van Fresh, with the tools to financially build their business. The restaurant primarily relied on word of mouth to spread the news of their reopening, and in June the governor allowed restaurants to reopen in phases. Customers were able to utilize the limited indoor and outdoor seating. Through reopening with takeout and dine in, Pho Van Fresh was able to increase their business sales, noticing takeout was more popular in the evening and dine in sales increased during lunch time.
During the shutdown, Pho Van Fresh kept on all their employees. They were supported by the Payment Protection Program, and Lam and Elizabeth joined their employees in filing for unemployment. Pho Van Fresh was adamant about keeping their employees, despite the drop in sales, as some had been there for 15 years and there was a very low turnover rate for their employees. Lam and Elizabeth assured all their staff that “[they would] not fire anyone, you are protected under this COVID-19 pandemic unemployment benefit,” but there would be a cut in their paychecks moving forward because of reduced hours. Both the owners and employees were scared about the future of their restaurant. Lam and Elizabeth had to take it day by day to decide what to do, but with little national guidance. Working under the Trump administration struck more fear into them, knowing the poor leadership and racist remarks he broadcasted could hurt their business.
Pho Van Fresh moved forward hoping for the best and keeping their spirits up. The staff stayed together via phone calls, emails, and the occasional in-person meeting to discuss the future of the restaurant. Eventually when Pho Van Fresh did reopen with grants and sales increase, they were able to add more hours to staff paychecks. Currently, the restaurant has managed to bring back in person most of their staff, some leaving for safety reasons, and sales are up to 60%.
Elizabeth recalled being “in shock and everything dropped inside, and fear too, took over,” while her husband was more confident that everything would be fine. Lam found his faith in knowing that they had been through worse when leaving Vietnam—Lam in 1983 and Elizabeth in 1975— to come to America. Lam and Elizabeth worked hard to build Pho Van Fresh in the Pearl District, and their restaurant is a testament to all the trials and triumphs the Van family overcame.
In 1983 the Van family fled Vietnam by boat and arrived in France after the French Navy rescued them from their travels in the China Sea and Indian Ocean. After the Van family made it to Texas, they stayed there for five years before coming to Portland, Oregon and opening their restaurant in 1992. As of 2020, the Van family owns several Pho Van restaurants with Lam and Elizabeth investing and owning Pho Van Fresh in the Pearl and Pho Van in Beaverton, Oregon. Elizabeth’s optimism towards getting through the pandemic comes from her and Lam’s family values of working hard and pushing through during difficult times. She recounts that when she and her husband came to America, they were faced with racist stereotypes, like people assuming they had the Swine Flu or calling them “the boat people.” But the strength of travelling across oceans by boat gave her hope to survive a world “that has been taken hostage by this pandemic.” While Lam and Elizabeth “worried and feared what would be in the near future, or the long future” and losing their entire business, they had comfort knowing they were an essential business and could accept to-go orders.
Moving into the colder months, Elizabeth says her restaurant has already begun to experience the turbulence the cold brings, saying “anything can happen during the winter.” She feels optimistic but will have to take it day by day. To make the best decisions, she stays informed through the news, online updates and any announcements from Governor Kate Brown. Naturally takeout orders have increased and customers aren’t as willing to sit outside, but there still is the option to sit indoors or outdoors.
To keep their business running, Elizabeth says, “[they] will have to purchase an outdoor seating heating to make dining out comfortable,” and ultimately every customer counts. Elizabeth noted “a few hundred dollars more every day, it helps.” Having the option of indoor and outdoor seating is crucial to keep the restaurant alive, but precautions inside are much stricter to minimize the risk of catching any virus. The employees are required to wear masks, socially distance, wash and sanitize their hands constantly and the same is expected from the customers.
With cold season approaching, mandatory temperature checks will be done at the door to prepare for the winter. Three feet of distance is acceptable under the guidelines so long as the individuals are passing by, but for table seating six feet is required to ensure safety. Lam and Elizabeth are prepared financially to lose some money over the holiday seasons as they take some extra time off for the first time in 28 years, but loans and grants are able to support paying wages, utilities and rent.
As outdoor seating gets colder and with limited indoor seating, Pho Van Fresh is expecting a surplus of takeout orders as opposed to dine in, but they don’t expect a significant loss in sales or customers. As Elizabeth said, “people love our food, they have to love us to come back.” And their food is incredibly lovable and very worth ordering whether in person or over the phone.