On March 18, Nam Viet, the family-owned Vietnamese restaurant that’s been serving Arlington residents for over 33 years, closed its doors in an effort to counter the spread of COVID-19.
While it was a difficult decision, Richard Ngyuen—operations director and son of owners Ngyue Van Thoi (who has since passed) and Ngoc Anh Tran—knew it was the right one. Since closing, he has been staying connected with his staff and loyal customers, cooking at-home meals with his mom and looking ahead for ways to come back strong, with Nam Viet’s reputation still intact.
Here, Ngyuen shares what it’s been like to enact an extended closure of his family’s restaurant for the first time in three decades.
When news of the coronavirus first started to spread, what were your initial next steps and how did the spread affect your business strategy?
When it first started, some people took it seriously but it seemed like the coordinated efforts between the DMV weren’t there; there was something new and different each day in terms of guidelines. I think local leaders in DC and Virginia were looking to Hogan for advice.
We ended up closing on March 18, and the week leading up to then, our sales dropped about 50%. Once we got the 10-people mandate and switched to only serving takeout, the stigma of dining was completely altered. People were very fearful. From a cost basis, it takes us about between $1,900 to $2,100 to break even for the day. The first day we had a 10-diner limit, we only made about $800. Then when we switched to takeout only it was only about $100 more. At that point, we were making what we would in one day in three days or less, so we made the difficult decision to shut down.
What was that experience like for you?
You know, the safety dynamic with it is what really impacted our decision. We have about 15 employees who have worked for us for over 20 years. They are all taking public transportation to work every day, they all have families. What happens if one of them gets sick? Is it really worth it? We were very mindful to not open just for the sake of opening; you don’t want it on your conscience. Safety always comes first. We started an employee relief fund a little bit ago and that has really helped them too. We’ve raised about $9,000.
Have you thought about reopening with just takeout options?
It’s a wait-and-see approach. We are really just at that point where we have to do something. You have these takeout companies like Doordash and Uber that are taking 20% to 30% of your profit, and that’s disheartening when takeout was less than 50% of our revenue before. We’ve been around long enough to be mindful and not raise prices too, like a lot of restaurants have. So it’s very much a waiting game.
You were able to donate food to health care workers last week. What was that like?
That was very humbling. We have friends at Virginia Hospital Center … What’s funny about this is that every Christmas Eve, we always made it a point to deliver food for first responders. We’ve done it for three years now. So, one of the doctors reached out to us and said there’s a team of respiratory therapists whose morale is shot right now. My mom and I were able to make food all morning and go deliver it to them. You have guys there who had just worked 12-plus hours and they look teary, exhausted and very drained. Apparently about an hour before we delivered, they had lost two patients. It was very humbling to see firsthand their experience.
How are you staying connected with customers and the local community right now?
We try to stay active and transparent on social media, and they remain patient and are understanding. You have to understand, being one of the oldest restaurants in Arlington, the reputation is something you really have to maintain. If one person gets sick here, that hurts us. It’s a whole new playing field for us because it’s like … you have your gluten-free people, vegan, dairy-free, low-sodium and now you add people who are worried about viruses; it’s an uphill battle. That being said, my family is optimistic. We’ve been in Arlington since 1986. We’ve weathered every storm. My parents are refugees who came to this country with nothing in their hands. We can come back from this.
What’s been the most challenging aspect of being closed through this for you?
Honestly, I just want people to listen to science. What sparks my concern is that the U.S. is 50 states but it almost seems like it’s 50 countries right now. I hope everyone understands that nobody is trying to keep you from earning a living. It disheartens me every day to turn on the news—you have protesters on one part of the country and people who are mindful on another. Everyone says they want to go back to normal but there isn’t a normal to go back to, and that’s something I think everyone’s had a hard time grappling with. If there’s ever a time to be united, this is it.
What are you most looking forward to once you can reopen?
I can’t wait to just see and greet people. You build a repertoire with these people. When customers walk in, you know them. That’s what I miss. I have been in this restaurant since I was 12 and I remember when many couples brought their kids in back then, and now they are graduating. You miss those people who grew up with you and you grew up with them.
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