Since opening the all-vegan ChuMinh Tofu deli in Little Saigon in 2011, Chef Tanya Nguyen has carved out her own place in Seattle’s pantheon of plant-based restaurants. In addition to its plentiful selection of soy-based curries, banh mi, pho, noodle dishes, and buffet, ChuMinh is also garnering attention for its free meal on Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The Sunday meal is made possible with help from a dedicated group of volunteers who call themselves the “Egg Rolls,” a nod to ChuMinh’s popular side dish.
For Nguyen, serving free food to those who need it is a “dream come true”; she’s thankful for her customers, volunteers, and unhoused neighbors. “They have wonderful hearts,” she says. “Just talking to them I can feel it, how grateful and beautiful their hearts are, and how much love they have for others.”
The volunteers – long-standing customers and friends, mutual aid activists, and neighbors – arrive around 10 a.m. on Sundays, set up a fold-out table under the restaurant’s awning, and prepare a food station with options like rice, curry, vegetable dishes, and, of course, Nguyen’s popular vegan egg rolls served hot. During the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, the Egg Rolls upped their commitment to helping unhoused people in Little Saigon, distributing donated items like socks, sanitizer, blankets, and other survival supplies, along with the Sunday meal. The added aid came around the same time as the city swept homeless encampments in the area in April and May 2020, despite the city’s promise to suspend sweeps during the pandemic.
Volunteer Nathan Bombardier said a dedicated effort to feed those in need started about three years ago, with just “Tanya, two family friends, and her husband. Within a couple months, regular customers got involved.”
At the beginning of 2020, the group started coordinating via group chat, an “Egg Roll call,” says John Bartlett, a long-time customer who became a volunteer in the last year; throughout the pandemic, the number of volunteers grew to more than 50. Bartlett, who has also participated in spring cleaning community events in the Chinatown International District before, said, “Tanya was doing this for years … this is somebody who is truly doing this out of the goodness of their heart.”
The collaboration with volunteers happened organically. Regular customers caught on to Nguyen’s generosity and volunteered to help. “They started asking if we needed volunteers,” she remembered. “‘Do you need help with this?’ ‘Oh, yes,’ I said of course.”
From the start, Nguyen made it a point to never turn anyone away who asked for free food, as long as the deli’s busy pace would allow. In fact, what Nguyen considers success for her restaurant is having the capacity to feed those in need. It goes back to a story she read as a kid about a successful woman who, because she had more than enough, started cooking and feeding those in need. The story had a lasting impact on Nguyen’s generosity. “I think that’s one of the reasons [I give to others]. Deep down in there, I still remember that story,” she said.
Even though ChuMinh’s Sunday meals have received greater attention in local news, Nguyen still doesn’t accept any direct donations for the food she makes and gives away. The Egg Rolls accept donations via Venmo (@TheEggrolls with note “donation”) that helps purchase takeout boxes, masks, sanitizer, socks, and toiletries, and provides reimbursement for the volunteers’ $10 food worker permits. Donations like blankets, winter coats, or other supplies are best dropped off in a grocery or heavy-duty trash bag labeled “for the Egg Rolls” during the Sunday meal. “We need travel-sized toiletries, new socks and underwear, and reusable bags or backpacks,” said volunteer Chloe Huber.
The Egg Rolls are considering starting a separate community meal fund. “Right now, guests who come during the week asking for food Tanya usually serves for free,” Huber explained. This floating meal fund would help cover the cost for someone who needed food during the week, paying for trips to ChuMinh’s buffet — a seemingly bottomless feast with rice, steamed vegetables, Mongolian tofu, curry, sesame balls.
For now, Nguyen is trying to give egg rolls to as many people as she can. “We welcome everyone,” she said.