Taste of Saigon switches to Styrofoam amid staff shortage

The Canal Park restaurant is operating at half-staff with no servers.

Closed sign in a restaurant window.
The Taste of Saigon restaurant in Canal Park is closed Wednesdays and is not offering table-side service due to staff shortages.
Steve Kuchera / 2022 file / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — The Taste of Saigon has long been a staple for Asian-American cuisine in Canal Park, located on the first floor of the historic DeWitt-Seitz Marketplace.

As the small Vietnamese family-owned and operated restaurant approaches its 37th year, it's breaking out the Styrofoam plates and plastic cutlery — much to the dismay of longtime customers.

An announcement was made on the restaurant's website about the new dine-in procedure that no longer offers table-side service: "The dining room is still open for use, but dine-in is ordered, paid for and picked up at the front counter. Thank you for your understanding."

The change in format comes as a result of a staffing shortage, said general manager Duy Nguyen. Since the change, dine-in numbers are down, though sales remain steady, he said.

"Canal Park gets more day-to-day visitors than the Mall of America. If there was any place to run a restaurant, it's in the Canal Park area," Duy Nguyen said.


The DeWitt-Seitz Building in Canal Park.
Naomi Yaeger / File / Duluth Budgeteer

The restaurant is co-owned by his parents, Lan and Hiep Nguyen, and business partner, Hung Vo, who joined over 20 years ago.

The Nguyen family, along with their close family friend, Vo, were refugees from the Vietnam War. They arrived to Duluth in 1975 through the sponsorship of three local Lutheran churches: Salem, Grace and Zion.

"They were running from the war-torn country," Duy Nguyen said. "Once they got here, they had to figure out their way. They had achieved the American dream, but that's not what they set out to do."

Lan and Hiep Nguyen first met while serving as police officers before coming to the United States. Hiep Nguyen was also in the military.

Neither spoke English when they arrived, Duy Nguyen said. "When you finally can find work, it is the lowest-paying work with the longest hours," he said.

Eventually, Hiep Nguyen was hired at the Chinese Lantern to unload trucks, chop vegetables and wash dishes. After a decade of experience working his way up in the hospitality industry, the Nguyen family decided to open their own restaurant in Canal Park.

The last restaurant in Duluth with family ties to Joe Huie's Cafe will close Aug. 31.

At the time, Canal Park was largely an industrial area with a few restaurants and shops. Prior to opening the Taste of Saigon in 1986, Hiep Nguyen served as the head cook of the Chinese Lantern, which closed in 1994 after it was destroyed by fire.

"He learned to cook there, but created a new menu for the Taste of Saigon," Duy Nguyen said. "Nobody makes food like we do."


Growing up, Duy Nguyen recalls helping out at the restaurant by washing dishes and chopping vegetables. He later served food while attending high school and college, before gradually transitioning into the management position.

The menu offers 124 items, including favorites like the sweet and sour chicken, lemongrass chicken and egg rolls. Prices were increased in 2020 to reflect an increase in food supply costs, and hadn't been raised for four years prior to that, Duy Nguyen said. The restaurant never implemented a service charge while staffing was available, he added.

Up until the pandemic, employee retention at the Taste of Saigon was strong. According to Duy Nguyen, some servers and cooks stayed with the business for three decades.

Erin and Matt Glesner have been working to fill in the void in Duluth's gaming scene.
The new wine and spirit bar with 'speakeasy' vibes opened earlier this year.
Shrimp po'boys and Cajun shrimp tacos are coming soon to the Rambler.
My tuna sandwich came out as a turkey sandwich, and I've no regrets.
Wrapped in a quality corn tortilla, the birria comes with beef brisket, onions and cilantro, and is spotted with hefty, melted shards of Oaxaca cheese.
The new site in the heart of Canal Park will open Memorial Day weekend.
The burger boasts two-thirds of a pound of quality, juicy beef. After a second to plan my route, I dug in.
Take your pick from salted maple granola with seasonal fruit compote to an egg and bacon sandwich with aioli on a toasted baguette.
A vote is anticipated by mid-May on whether to unionize, with an "overwhelming majority" of support among staff.
BoomTown and Trellis Co. are teaming up to provide a new space for catered events.

"A lot of the family works here and people who work for us worked here for many, many years. It was rare to replace workers," Duy Nguyen said.

The pandemic was the turning point, he said. Although all his employees returned to work after the mandated business shutdowns across the state, the Taste of Saigon slowly lost its staff over the last three years.

The Taste of Saigon began closing Wednesdays over a year ago to allow employees a day off.

"If we didn't close that one day no one would have a single day off. Sorry about the inconvenience, we're doing what we can just to stay open," Duy Nguyen commented in response to a social media post.

At full capacity, the restaurant could have up to 12 employees, including five servers in varying shifts. It is currently operating at half-staff with no servers. The loss of kitchen and front staff resulted in the change in service that has some customers complaining.


Honestly, I've been getting a lot of blowback. So many have turned around and walked out.
Duy Nguyen

"I get half a look of pity, and then half a look of disappointment," Duy Nguyen said. "Honestly, I've been getting a lot of blowback. So many have turned around and walked out. I have had longtime customers look at me and blame me. It's been really hard to take. Especially when people look at me and say, 'Maybe if you'd pay your employees better,' but that is not the case at all."

The situation is stressful for the remaining employees who are experiencing burnout, Duy Nguyen said.

"We didn't do it to save money. We didn't do it because we're not already working super hard. There's just a huge staffing issue," Duy Nguyen commented on a social media thread.

He went on to say: "We had one server — a single server for over a year. Anyone else you saw serving was not a server but me or another supervisor stepping in to serve because we couldn't fill those positions. He obviously got burnt out because as stated earlier, he worked six days a week. Four of those days were double shifts."

also read
The Unity Fund will award $5,000-$10,000 to applicants.
Little Waldo Farm will host a plant sale from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday.
Five Daughters Farm won five blue ribbons at Wisconsin Alpaca & Fiber Fest.
After growing its taproom in Duluth's Lincoln Park Craft District, plans for a potential second location are brewing.
Eleven locally owned small farms will open weekly self-service farm stands May 28 through October.
The animal clinic resumed operations May 1 in its new West Duluth space.
Members Only
The School of Yoga and Nature Arts opens June 3 in Beaver Bay. Expect classes in forest bathing, astronomy, herbalism and more.
The new branch office will be led by local resident Nathan Feist, who has over 10 years of engineering experience at the company.
This week in Northlandia, we take you inside a Lake Superior beachside cottage bookstore in Grand Marais that's more than just a pretty space.
Drury Lane Books in Grand Marais may have a picturesque location, but what keeps people coming back is the tailored selection and the sense of community.

While finding help is difficult, training in newly onboarded staff is also a challenge.

"The way we do things here is a little different than a franchise or chain. It takes time for new employees to become proficient," Duy Nguyen said.

While Taste of Saigon employees aren't offered benefits due to the small nature of the business, the pay is "more than competitive," according to Duy Nguyen.

"Why don't people want to work? There's jobs out there. There are good-paying jobs out there," Duy Nguyen said. "We know that this is not what anyone likes, and it's not what we want."

Brielle Bredsten is the business reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.

She earned a bachelor's degree in Professional Writing & Technical Communication, with minors in Advertising and Creative Writing from Metropolitan State University, in addition to a two-year professional paid internship as reporter/editor of the student newspaper.

She is an award-winning professional writer, photographer and editor based in rural Minnesota. Over the past decade, Brielle Bredsten has contributed more than 1,000 articles, feature stories, non-profit press-releases, photographs and columns. Her work has been published in several community newspapers.

Send her story tips, feedback or just say hi at
What To Read Next
Get Local