Above: Eric’s Restaurant has been serving tasty Hunan-style cuisine since 1991; all photos provided by Minh Mao.
When Kim Dang, 60, first came to the United States from Vietnam at age 19, she couldn’t even afford to buy her son a soda. She would spend her mornings learning English, then head to her job at a sewing factory where she earned a mere $7 per day cutting thread.
Eventually, Dang spotted an ad in the newspaper hiring for a waitress. For 20 years, she worked at Eric’s Restaurant, a tasty eatery serving Hunan style food, as a waitress and manager. Now, she’s the proud owner.
“Throughout the 10 years, although it took a lot of work, it’s been a successful business and is pretty smooth sailing because it’s established. The hardest times are right now during COVID because we are not able to do dine-in, so the business is definitely way down,” Dang said.
Feeding the Community
When COVID-19 first hit, Dang’s daughter Susie Mao saw that some of her neighbors were delivering soup to one another. Mao told her mom, who decided to start something similar on a bigger scale. They posted on Next Door that they would be delivering meals to anyone and everyone who requested one.
“Soon we were delivering over 50 meals [per day]. We delivered five days out of the week to our neighbors, no questions asked. If they say they’re in need, we deliver,” Mao said.
What started off with Dang cooking and delivering the meals herself turned into a 10-12 volunteer operation. Dang said that the people she’s helped out have made her feel happy, as she’s received many thank you cards and even flowers.
“I’d describe my restaurant and customers as one big family because I’ve been working there basically since it opened in 1991,” Dang said. “I’ve developed a relationship with much of them … When I was delivering the meals, I was encountering my customers who had been my customers for 20 years.”
Before COVID-19, customers would come into the restaurant and chat with Dang. Sometimes she’d even gift them a bottle of wine. The warm family atmosphere Dang has established within her restaurant even extended into her personal life.
Dr. Donald Abrams, an Integrative Oncologist at the University of California San Francisco’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, had been a long time customer of Eric’s Restaurant.
When Dang was diagnosed with an aggressive form of kidney cancer twelve years ago, Mao contacted Abrams about her mom’s state. He immediately emailed her back and referred Dang to an oncologist. Within a week of her diagnosis, Dang’s kidney was removed.
“I view it in that he saved my life,” Dang said. “Most people get shuffled down the line and have to wait. This is the kind of relationship I have with customers at the restaurant. I treat them like family and they treat me like family.”
Worth the Hard Work
Oftentimes, restaurants aren’t willing to hire people with no waitressing experience. However, because Dang was hardworking, her bosses were more inclined to teach her. She earned more money by waitressing, which allowed her to purchase clothing for her three children and save up money.
At the age of 34, Dang got a divorce. By then, she had saved enough money to buy a permanent home for her family with a small loan from her sisters. Now, Dang said, she is completely financially independent and still working today.
“I did have a hard life,” Dang said. “I worked seven days a week and worked crazy hours in my life. At this point in my life, business is going well and I am most proud of my three kids. I have a lot of joy in my life now.”