Sahra Nguyen raised more than $90,000 for undocumented workers
December 10, 2020
Read Time 3 mins
Photo: Eric Medsker
The James Beard Foundation is committed to supporting women in the food and beverage industry, from chefs and restaurateurs to entrepreneurs dreaming up new ways to make our food system more diverse, delicious, and sustainable. Our Women’s Leadership Programs (WLP), presented by Audi, provide training at multiple stages of an individual’s career. As part of the Foundation’s commitment to advancing women in the industry and the Audi #DriveProgress initiative, we’re sharing stories of trailblazers who have stepped up to help their communities in light of COVID-19, as well as individuals who are putting inclusion and equity at the forefront of building back better. Through #DriveProgress, Audi is committed to cultivating and promoting a culture that enables women to achieve their highest potential by removing barriers to equity, inclusivity, growth, and development. Below, Peyton Garcia spoke to Nguyen Coffee Supply owner Sahra Nguyen about her initiative to support undocumented restaurant workers affected by COVID.
In March when New York government officials announced a statewide lockdown of all non-essential businesses, Sahra Nguyen’s business Nguyen Coffee Supply was affected. Without the option of in-person sales through restaurants and cafes, the company immediately lost 35 percent of its revenue. Fortunately, Nguyen Coffee Supply’s prominent e-commerce presence helped to staunch the bleeding. But while her business was able to stay afloat, Nguyen knew that many were not so lucky.
Her thoughts went straight to the undocumented workers that make up so much of New York City’s restaurant scene, individuals who don’t qualify for federal unemployment assistance. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 10 percent of the restaurant industry is made up of undocumented individuals. Revolutionizing Asian American Immigrant Stories (RAISE)—a New York-based grassroots organization dedicated to the stories of undocumented pan-Asian Americans and justice for all American immigrants—estimates that there are 725,000 undocumented immigrants in New York City alone.
“When the lockdown happened, it was such a scary time,” Nguyen said. “Everyone had to shut down, everyone was struggling, and there was a lot of conversation amongst my friends who are restaurateurs about how everyone was getting unemployment except for undocumented workers.”
Without hesitation, Nguyen, who has been a prominent figure in the local activism community for years, reached out to her friends at RAISE to create the Undocu Workers Fund. Launched in March, the fund was created to support undocumented restaurant workers in Manhattan and Brooklyn who were unable to apply for unemployment benefits.
“It was one of those rapid-response moments where there wasn’t much thinking or planning. I just immediately knew I needed to do something to support my community,” she said.
In a little over a week, the fund raised over $20,000 and was able to provide financial relief to 100 undocumented individuals. As word of mouth spread, she saw people raising funds by selling art or baked goods, and even hosting virtual dance parties via Zoom. Soon they had enough for a second round of donations, expanding the fund’s reach to help other undocumented workers living across New York in low-wage industries. By the time the fund closed in July, they had raised over $90,000 and provided mini-grants to nearly 500 undocumented people.
“I really need to give most, if not all, of the credit to the folks who donated,” she said. “I was so touched by the power of community. There were people who are not a part of the restaurant or undocumented communities who came through and did their part in so many creative ways.”
Nguyen also got her business involved. “As a company, we at Nguyen Coffee Supply really wanted to do our part as well, because a lot of our partners in restaurants and cafes were really hurting, and we still had a means to sell,” she explained. From March through June, Nguyen donated five percent of all Nguyen Coffee Supply sales—about $10,000—to out-of-work undocumented individuals, COVID relief efforts, and Black-led organizations fighting social injustice.
Supporting the lives and work of undocumented immigrants, especially that of Asian Americans, has long been a cause close to Nguyen’s heart, stemming from her identity as the child of Vietnamese immigrants. Nguyen has advocated for the rights of Asian Americans and refugee immigrants throughout her multi-faceted career, which includes efforts in poetry, film production, freelance journalism, and food. Nguyen Coffee Supply is no different—the business’s mission runs deeper than just bringing new flavors of specialty coffee to New York. Through importing, roasting, and selling her own label of direct-trade Vietnamese coffee beans, Nguyen has created economic advancements abroad while simultaneously addressing a blatant lack of representation in the coffee industry.
“The channels are different, but really, my mission is consistent,” Nguyen said, “it’s rooted in increasing representation for my community and members in other marginalized communities, and bringing more diversity and inclusion to all the spaces that I work in.”
But as confirmed cases of COVID-19 continue to skyrocket across the country and the pandemic’s ramifications continue to impact businesses and the livelihoods of their employees, Nguyen’s call to action is simple: “The restaurant community is doing plenty. They are going above and beyond. I would ask people who aren’t in the restaurant community, ‘How can we do more?’”
Peyton Garcia is a writer and editor based in Colorado. You can find more of her work at peytongarciamedia.com.
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