Saigon entrepreneurs uses closed kitchens to open 'tactical' charity eatery

By Diep Phan   April 17, 2020 | 12:18 am PT
Saigon entrepreneurs uses closed kitchens to open 'tactical' charity eatery
A 70-year-old volunteer has been helping cook and pack meals at the "tactical" eatery since 7am. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.
Borrowing kitchens from temporarily closed restaurants, Nguyen Tuan Khoi opened an eatery to provide meals for the poor in HCMC.

Early Wednesday morning, Khoi and a several volunteers were ready to begin work at 100 Ung Van Khiem Street in Binh Thanh District.

This location is a restaurant that has been closed under Covid-19 restrictions. Now it is being used as a a "tactical eatery."

Khoi, who runs a food enterprise, explained the name: "The word ‘tactical’ shows speed and mobility in giving meals to the poor. The place for cooking these meals can be changed continuously if we receive the support of other restaurants."

The Covid-19 crisis has also severely affected Khoi's business. But when he saw poor workers exhausted by unemployment and no income, he decided to find ways to support them, at least provide them with meals.

When he set out on his project, the 36-year-old man was able to get food and volunteers, but he had no place to cook and distribute the meals.

When the city ordered restaurants and non-essential services to close, he thought of taking advantage of kitchens in the restaurants that were temporarily closed.

"Cooking spaces are available, we just need to move the ingredients in and cook. If tomorrow we move to another place, it will only take us five minutes to clean up," Khoi said.

In order to ensure compliance with regulations on social distancing, the "tactical eatery" completely avoids distributing the meals on the spot. A group of volunteers will transport the meals to villages and hospital gates for distribution. On the way, if there are homeless people, the volunteers will stop and give the meals to them.

On Thursday morning, Khoi asked the motorbike taxi (xe om) drivers at Ward 25, Binh Thanh District to deliver the meals. He said the eatery will start distributing meals from 10:30 a.m. from Monday to Friday every week. If any driver was free, they could stop by the eatery and deliver the meals voluntarily.

On the first day, three drivers agreed to deliver. "The motorbike drivers are locals, they travel around a lot and know of many people in difficult situations in this area," Khoi said.

At 10:30 a.m., the meals are put in boxes behind the motorbikes for delivery. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

At 10:30 a.m., the meals are put in boxes behind the motorbikes for delivery. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Nguyen Hoang Tuan, a 51-year-old driver, came to the shop to collect five portions to give them to people in need in the area that he knew of. After Tuan finished, he took pictures and sent it to Khoi. Tuan promised that if it was convenient tomorrow, he would come by to deliver meals again. When the eatery offered him a portion, Tuan refused.

"I can afford my own meal, save these portions for people who really need them," he said.

Around 11 a.m., Ngo Thi Trang, 60, pushed her cart past the eatery and was given a free meal.

Trang is from the central town of Hue and she came with her husband to Saigon to survive. They work many jobs to earn a living. The couple lives in a small rented room in an alley on Ung Van Khiem Street. When the Covid-19 outbreak happened, her husband could not work. Trang's main job is to clean houses and this was also paused. She has been collecting used bottles on the street for nearly a month.

Trang is given free meals every day now. For her, these are a rare treat.

"These charity meals are better than our meals at home because they are more nutritious," Trang said, holding a lunch box in her hand.

A patient receives her meal at the Oncology Hospital, Binh Thanh District. Photo by VnExpress/DIep Phan.

A patient receives her meal at the Oncology Hospital, HCMC's Binh Thanh District. Photo by VnExpress/DIep Phan.

Since the day it opened for the first time, the eatery has received support from many sponsors with pre-packaged and hygienic food. The place where the meals are being cooked now is a big restaurant with enough space and cooking tools.

With two main chefs and about 10 volunteers, 500 portions are finished in the morning. Each portion of rice has meat, vegetables and a soup, worth about VND25,000 ($1.1).

With current resources, Khoi can only open another one or two more places like this. What he hopes is that this idea will soon be replicated by other people.

He said: "If any restaurant wants to do this, I’m willing to help. For individuals and organizations who want to donate money, I will recommend food sponsors and you can donate it to them directly."

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