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Vietnamese restaurant owner fights to live ‘American dream’ amid COVID-19

May 17, 2020 | 06:00

When Vietnamese restaurant Simply It in Chicago permanently closed last month due to the COVID-19, Tuan Nguyen said it was like ‘losing a small piece of home.’    

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Tuan Nguyen opened Simply It, 2269 N. Lincoln Ave., in May 2006. He described its first several years as “the golden time when business boomed.”

But sales have steadily declined since 2012, when Children’s Memorial Hospital — along with many of Nguyen’s customers — moved from Lincoln Park to the Gold Coast and became Lurie Children’s Hospital.

Simply It’s profit margins were already low, so the COVID-19 pandemic left Nguyen with “no choice” but to close, he said.

For 14 years, Simply It was the light of Tuan Nguyen’s life. Yet the lights are off at the Vietnamese restaurant, where he made his American dream come true.

“Very emotional. This looked like my child for 14 years,” Nguyen said.

“I left Vietnam with nothing in my pocket” Nguyen said. “But now, 45 years after leaving Vietnam, I walk out of Simply It and go back to nothing in my pocket.”

Nguyen is no stranger to hardship. He never lost his resolve, even when the long hours were painful.

“Every night when I would go home, I could not walk anymore. I’d have to hold the stairway,” he remembered.

Nguyen never let go of his dream of owning his own restaurant, a dream he finally saw come true in 2006.

“My passion is restaurants. I love the food and I love the cooking,” Nguyen said. But most of all, he loved the people and they loved him

“They used to call me “Little Uncle Tuan.” I’m a short guy”

In a letter to his customers shared online, Nguyen said, “Life is only going to get tougher, but these much-cherished memories will give me the strength and courage to strive forward.”

Nguyen signed the letter “Little Uncle Tuan,” a nickname from customers who grew close to him over the years.

Since then, nearly a hundred of Nguyen’s “nieces and nephews” have reached out to offer him support.

“It’s like saying goodbye to a dear friend,” Bi Nguyen said. “Tuan is like a father figure in the city. I’ll still see him, but it’s not the same here without Simply It.”

vietnamese restaurant owner fights to live american dream amid covid 19

Bi Nguyen (left) and Tuan Nguyen

Simon Hyun, another Simply It regular customer, raised $1,000 to support Nguyen as his business closed.

“Everyone knows Uncle as a person and how friendly he is,” Hyun said. “We all admire his work ethic and how he goes the extra mile to make people happy. It’s the least we can do.”

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), who frequented Simply It for years, said the restaurant was an anchor for the Lincoln Park community.

“We’re really going to miss him and want to encourage everyone to order from our local restaurants because they’re really suffering right now,” Smith said.

Tuan’s story is a familiar one in the service industry. It’s where weeks of shuttered doors in a pandemic were the final nails in the coffin.

Illinois Restaurants Association estimates 20% of all the state’s restaurants may never open again as a result of the pandemic.

“COVID-19 2020 destroyed my dream,” Nguyen said.

But even in darkness, the 67-year-old is still trying to find the light.

“Everything will be OK sooner or later. Everything is in God’s hands and I strongly believe that,” Nguyen said.

He did apply for PPP, the Paycheck Protection Program, but he didn’t get accepted in time. But Tuan is always looking forward.

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