Baking and breaking bread amid a pandemic

Kitty Huang | Daily Trojan

My father was a little surprised seeing me up at 4 a.m. He seemed to forget how volatile a college education makes your sleep schedule. I wanted to join him for the first time in years on his daily trip to Saigon Bakery, one of our bakeries located in a Vietnamese neighborhood called Little Saigon in Orange County. I grew up going on these trips with my father, watching him prepare the dough that would become the heart and soul of the bakery as customers began to line up for baguettes early in the morning.

This time the drive was different. It was the first day of California’s stay-at-home order and my first day back home since leaving USC due to the increasing spread of the coronavirus. Despite it being early morning, the usual traffic was gone, as was the line of early customers trying to get Vietnamese coffee and croissants before work. It was an eerie feeling all around the plaza where our bakery was located. 

While my father began his daily bread-making ritual, I realized how easy it was for our bakery to become the next hotspot for an outbreak: Our small interior and open display bakeries coupled with a tight line of customers coming into the store made me realize the necessity for social distancing. So I taped the ground, pushed the spring rolls and straws behind the glass displays and enforced the social distancing restrictions that many businesses were starting to implement in the neighborhood. 

It was strange seeing my second home, usually with a line leading out the door, become a desolate quarantine zone. Undoubtedly, our family business was hurt because of these regulations, as were many other restaurants and stores in the area. Soon masks became the common accessory for both customers and workers, all desperate for bread amid the pandemic. While our bakery did lose customers for the first days of the shelter-in-place order, other restaurants closing and our quick and easy takeout system made our bakery busier than ever. 

But this short breath of relief did not stop all of my family’s worries. The conversation of whether or not we should stay open during the pandemic has shifted to whether or not we should stay open amid the growing worry that our workers or my parents may get sick. I quickly took up the role of the coronavirus specialist for the bakery, regulating social distancing measures and ensuring any point of contact between workers and customers be mitigated to hopefully prevent any exposure. I used the general paranoia that many of us have over the pandemic to make sure everyone who entered the bakery was as safe as possible. 

Coming back from these daily shifts by noon to start classes was definitely rough in the beginning — extremely rough. But with more time to spend with my reduced extracurricular responsibilities, the bakery has become my escape from the uncertainty of the world. I used to despise being stuck in the bakery for hours as a child when I was unable to properly work in the store, and the few trivial tasks I could complete were sweeping the floor or restocking the shelves of soft drinks and Vietnamese desserts. Now, I am finally in a position to begin the sacred practice of dough making. When we were finally in a stable position, both financially and mentally, I was inspired by a post on NextShark, an Asian and Asian American news website, of a banh mi store in Minnesota donating banh mi sandwiches to local hospitals to do the same. 

The donations from our bakery to a couple of local hospitals and Keck Hospital of USC have been one of the few ways my parents and I have tried to show our support to health care workers — people who are guaranteed to be exposed to the virus but still decide to go all in, putting their health and safety aside for others. 

While the coronavirus has canceled my summer internship plans in Sacramento and Maymester in Rome, it has reconnected me to a drifting part of my childhood. I am lucky to have the opportunity to be able to work with my father again, reunited by our father and son business. Despite the raging pandemic in the United States and the world, our bakery remains a cornerstone of the community, delivering fresh bread to people who need it and following the public health guidelines necessary to stop the virus from spreading. While I am ready to come back to USC to have classes and see my professors and peers face-to-face, the quarantine policies are crucial to saving lives. In the meantime, my family and I will continue baking bread to serve the community and those who are fighting to protect us from this disease.