The arrival of the Omicron variant in New York this winter threatened the survival of restaurants already battered by the pandemic.
The streets emptied in December as the cold weather set in and fear once again gripped the city. The number of virus cases exploded, and in a restaurant we tracked for three months this winter, Saigon Social, the eatery ground to a halt.
Saigon Social, a Vietnamese restaurant on the Lower East Side, has only existed in the pandemic era. The owner, Helen Nguyen, opened the restaurant two years ago due to labor shortages, supply chains and sudden closures. She’s had to play every part in the restaurant, running around town looking for ingredients, containers, and spices.
“I slept in the restaurant every night for that first month because I was so depressed,” said Ms. Nguyen.
New York is a restaurant city and Ms. Nguyen has been a rising star in it. She worked for the renowned chef Daniel Boulud for many years. She has participated in the prestigious Bocuse d’Or cooking competition in France, and has made regular TV appearances on the Food Network and Vice’s Munchies. Saigon Social is her first own restaurant.
But running a food business in New York means operating on extremely thin margins, and sometimes the smallest disruptions can mean the difference between rave reviews and closing for good.
This winter, Ms. Nguyen had to figure out how to keep the money flowing while her dining room was closed and staff tested positive for the virus. She traded for alcohol testing and reinstated the masking rules at the restaurant. In addition, she navigated racial violence in a neighborhood where a large Asian diaspora lives.