“The Eggrolls” volunteering on December 13, 2020. From left to right, Kathy Zamsky, Lia Belardo, Leslie Boniface, Julie Tran and Laurren Henson. Photo by Greg Bennick.

We are facing an unprecedented crisis of poverty. With nearly 11,200 individuals in King County experiencing homelessness and 129 deaths on the streets of Seattle in this year alone, it’s abundantly clear that our institutions are not equipped to handle this critical moment.

As Seattle communities continue to witness so many residents slip into instability and anguish, many struggle to find an answer to a simple question: how can we support our neighbors in need?

Thanh-Nga Nguyễn (who goes by ‘Tanya,’), the owner of the vegan Vietnamese restaurant Chuminh Tofu, asked herself this question two years ago. She arrived at a simple answer, “I don’t know what to do, and I cannot do a lot — but what I know is that I can cook. I can make food.”

Her idea quickly took shape. Every Sunday morning she would serve a hot meal for anyone who wants it, no questions asked, and free of charge.

Tanya Nguyễn, owner of Chuminh Tofu.

For those who know Tanya, this should come as no surprise. In the nine years since she’s opened Chuminh Tofu she’s quickly become a local celebrity, for both her unmatched tofu-based meat substitutes, and her legendary generosity; it’s hard to leave Chuminh without being given a couple free egg rolls and a hug.

“The first Sunday… I wish that we had a picture! We were so busy we never thought of something like that.” Tanya smiles, “I think we served on that day… 50 people! That was wonderful.”

At first, her effort only involved herself, her husband Pablo, and a couple of family friends. But since then a devoted group of volunteers, now dubbed ‘The Eggrolls,’ has taken form.

Leonardo, one of Chuminh’s Sunday morning regulars comes in from Ballard every week to enjoy his hot meal right. He shared that Chuminh is a safe and trusted source of food, which isn’t always easy to come by. “[With free food] you don’t know what the people put inside. It’s too dangerous on the street,” he explains.

Another guest, visiting for the first time, enjoyed his meal of yellow tofu curry, fried rice, and a couple eggrolls. ”This is perfect, like we really need it.” He said, “This helps a lot because we rely on food stamps and it’s $6.40 a day you can spend. Usually you can’t buy hot food, it’s just cold food.”

Volunteer Laurren Henson stays physically distant while serving a hot meal.

A typical Sunday morning sees waves of visitors coming to the side door of Chuminh Tofu where The Eggrolls set up their table each week. At times there is a small crowd of 10 or so patiently waiting, followed by a few quieter lulls when the visitors and volunteers can take a little more time to chat as their food is prepared. “I think one of my favorite parts of this is the regulars.” Says volunteer Jonny Fikru, “It’s cool to see such familiar faces at a time like this, especially with the pandemic and everything.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the group to adapt and evolve. When the state shut down, The Eggrolls created new protocols to stay safely distanced among each other and the visitors. And as local hospital ICUs pushed their capacity in April, they provided free meals for frontline healthcare workers. 

As the pandemic’s effects wore on and the weather began to turn, The Eggrolls began responding to a broader range of their Sunday visitor’s needs. With their meal, they can also receive items such as masks, reusable bags, socks and other hygiene products—all crowdsourced by the volunteer base. A usual Sunday sees a minimum of 50 meals handed out in two hours, with 20 more packed and delivered to encampments. 

 “I think that the idea of responding to community is essential,” explains Greg Benick, who began volunteering with The Eggrolls in early October. “It empowers people to ask for what they need, or rather, it empowers people period.” 

What makes this effort remarkable is its organic growth and consistency; food has been served every Sunday since starting nearly two years ago. Although it’s a massive undertaking to serve thousands of meals a year, The Eggrolls make the experience fun.

“I feel like I have a party every day at Chuminh,” says Tanya. “I love it, the feeling of having a party when people come laughing, hugging, and go home with gifts. I love that.”

Chuminh Tofu isn’t the first business to give food away, dozens of restaurants across the city regularly donate during food drives. And there are many local efforts to feed the Seattle community at no cost. Farestart, TeenFeed, Plant Based Food Share, and Feed The People are all local organizations that are providing consistent meals by collaborating with local restaurants and drawing from a strong volunteer base.

Other groups like Food Not Bombs, Emerald City Drives, and From the Heart PNW are grassroots efforts specifically supporting unhoused communities by providing meals for various encampments across the city.

However, most Seattle businesses are not engaging in these initiatives. Many are understandably concerned with their own survival. In Seattle alone over 600 restaurants and bars have closed this year. Tanya faces the same uncertainty herself. “I’m worried about paying rent, paying for employees, all those things. So right now I’m afraid. If it continues like this I’m worried.” 

While it’s certainly a financial sacrifice to give away product, Chuminh has seen many positive impacts from their generosity. Their Yelp page is full of reviews mentioning Sunday mornings, and when Chuminh devoted proceeds for flood victims in Vietnam last month they saw lines up the block. Over $26,000 was raised.

Other businesses may want to offer consistent support, but simply don’t know how to take the first step. To them, Tanya offers encouragement. “Just do it!” she says. “You need to trust you, trust yourself.” Whether it’s pledging to offer a bathroom, advocating for policies and politicians that support rather than punish unhoused neighbors, or donating goods to a community organization—everyone has their own unique asset to offer. And for any business owners who want to start their own initiative Tanya is happy to be a resource.

“I think Tanya’s shown the blueprint for what can be done.” Says Jonny Fikru. If one restaurant and a handful of volunteers can feed over 70 people on a Sunday morning. What could a whole neighborhood do? A whole city? A small initiative can’t resolve poverty—but perhaps it can awaken a contagious spirit of community care.

“Life makes us so busy and hurried,” Explains Tanya “But stop for a moment and see that we have so much love. And we have so much trust in each other. With that you can change other people too.”

“If I pass away, the first thing I really want [the restaurant] to do is continue to do Sundays.” A floral mask covers her face, but her eyes are smiling, “just make it traditional for Chuminh Tofu, so if you can, please do that. If Chuminh survives, if we’re still there—do it.”

“The Eggrolls” volunteering in Summer 2020. From left to right Jonathan Fikru, Kathy Zamsky, Laurren Henson, Tanya Nguyễn, Ella Henson-Hughes, Julie Tran, and Elliot Crane. Photo by Matthew Nguyen.

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