Undeterred by Looting, Pandemic, Chicago Lunchbox Stands Strong With Local Hospitals

Shattered glass. Stolen cash.

After looters smashed his storefront, John Nguyen spent all day on Monday picking up the pieces at Chicago Lunchbox, his small, fast-casual restaurant in the Loop.

“Yesterday, I woke up around 8 am and checked my cameras after a bunch of friends with businesses (in our area) said they got looted,” John says.

“When I checked, I saw glass everywhere. My register was missing. POS system, gone. Yesterday was a pretty long day.”

The last few months have been tough. John and his wife, Tanya, have two toddlers at home, Dean and Dylan. And with COVID-19 freezing business at his restaurant and two food trucks, John worries “every day” about providing for them.

“One of my trucks serves University of Illinois at Chicago daily,” John says. “Since we started, we sell out every time we go there. When this pandemic happened, every student left. Business was a wrap. I closed the restaurant a week later.”

Now, with Black Lives Matter protests and riots literally showing up at Chicago Lunchbox’s front door, the Nguyen’s have thousands of dollars in damages to answer for. John is in full support of the fight against racism against the black community and police violence but waking up to see his restaurant smashed “was a little discouraging.” He’s waiting to hear back from his insurance provider, hoping to recover his losses.

“It’s sad,” he says. “There’s people out there protesting the right way, but there’s also people taking advantage of the opportunity out there for themselves. And small businesses are struggling right now. Really, really struggling.”

But this is not the Nguyen’s story. It doesn’t end with shattered glass, stolen cash or broken hearts.

The Nguyen’s story is as follows; For months now, they’ve made meals for frontline hospital workers battling the same virus plaguing their business, taking money away from their family. They will not stop.

“I’m just glad the looters didn’t touch our actual equipment,” John says. “I still have everything we prepared for this week’s frontline donation meal, so we’re going to deliver on that.”

The Nguyen’s partnered with Frontline Foods recently, but they started feeding hospitals the moment they had to close their business due to social-distancing protocols.

“I think it was around mid-March,” Tanya says. “There was a drastic change in business, and we decided to shut it down.”

“John saw what medical workers were going through at hospitals and just decided to go in and give out lunch.”

There are safety risks.

“In similar ways to medical workers who come home to their families (during this pandemic),” Tanya says, “John has to go through the process of taking a hot shower, getting rid of all the clothes he’s wearing, making sure he doesn’t contaminate our home and our kids.”

“When we first started making meals for frontline workers,” John says, “Tanya asked me if I was sure I wanted to do this. (COVID-19) is a really contagious disease, and not only am I going to where infected people are, I’m dealing directly with the people treating them.”

But it’s all worth it in the end.

“I’d rather be out there,” John says. “These doctors and nurses are sacrificing way more than we are. So, I told Tanya, “Let’s just do this.” This is what we do. We’ve always tried to give back.”

Uncertain times. Setback after setback. Unbreakable people. This is the Nguyen’s story.

“I think about it all the time,” Tanya says. “When am I going to tell my kids this story? When are they going to understand? I’m proud we were able to give back with all this negativity around us. I’ll be happy to tell them about that one day.”

“I’ve documented all this,” John adds, “because when Dean and Dylan are older, I want to show them. I want them to know while all this was happening, we were still out there doing good.”

The Nguyen’s don’t know when, if ever, business will be back to normal at Chicago Lunchbox. Ordinary is forever ago. But they will keep picking up the pieces. They will keep trying to do what’s right.

“You’re not going to hold us down,” he says. “Our windows may be smashed, but we’re going to continue doing what we do.”

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