Cooking Up A New Dream: KOTO's Covid Story
Updated: Apr 26
The First 30 Days
Schools in Hanoi were the first to close to ward off the spread of the Coronavirus, immediately following the Lunar New Year holiday . It was a big decision to make. But by most accounts it was effective. Coronavirus struggled to get a foothold in Vietnam.
But it didn’t stop there. As the coronavirus spread around the world, tourist numbers declined. Though the Van Mieu restaurant remained profitable the writing was on the wall. Around the world lockdowns were becoming commonplace. It was only a matter of time before a lockdown hit Hanoi.
In March of 2020, it finally happened. The borders to Vietnam were closed and the city of Hanoi went into lockdown. Bars, clubs, and karaoke parlous were closed - and of course, restaurants.
Our Van Mieu restaurant, after twenty years of operation, was forced to shut its doors. Our trainees returned to the training center where they would have to wait it out all the while losing the valuable real-world training experience KOTO is known for. Experience that has helped make our trainees some of the best.
This was a scary time. We were headed into unchartered territory with over a hundred young people from all sorts of diverse and troubling backgrounds depending on us for a brighter future.
Hanoi enters lockdown
Filled with uncertainty and concern for not just their own health but that of their families, our students were looked down at the Yen Vien training center. The days were long but filled with activities carefully executed by our amazing staff who really came through when the going got tough.
Ms Hang, for example, one of the cooks, volunteered to give up three weeks of her life with her own family to lockdown at the trainee center with KOTO’s.
“I volunteered to stay because I was worried about the health of the trainees and most importantly their mental health. I was concerned they would lose their hope without normal classes and formal activities and many of them were very concerned about their families too.”
But spending three weeks with KOTO trainees, as you can imagine, wasn’t all that much of a chore.
“It has been wonderful to see the trainees use our limited food selection to creatively cook delicious and varied meals, organize extracurricular activities, study together and help one another,” Hang said at the time.
“They appreciate all the support they have received from our amazing supporters and are more united and determined to succeed seeing the love from around the world and especially staff, volunteers and their big brothers and sisters (our alumni)”
The lockdown in Hanoi was relatively short compared to the rest of the world. After just three weeks restaurants were able to reopen and, in April of 2020, we returned to the Van Mieu restaurant although a lot had changed and, as you can imagine, not for the better.
Reopening Van Mieu
There was truly nothing sadder than the Van Mieu restaurant when it reopened. Our trainee staff were still as cute as ever. They were still smiling and determined and anxious and nervous but the tourists, that had been KOTO’s bread and butter, were simply no longer there. Our trainees were left nervously smiling at an empty restaurant.
It was hard to see.
It wasn’t just that our restaurant was empty either. Our partners in the hospitality industry were struggling too. Our anxiety was double: on the one hand we worried that our trainees might not receive the full well rounded training that we are known for; and on the other hand we worried that we may not find jobs for them when they graduated.
But it wasn’t just the quality of our training and the ability to find jobs for our trainees that concerned us.
Our restaurant, before COVID-19 had accounted for 50% of KOTO’s funding. Our bottom-line had taken a huge hit. Our training program, however, spans two years. Even if we reduced our next in take we still had over 100 students with more than 6 months left.
We needed more money. We needed help. And, luckily for us, we got it.
Staying Alive, Hanoi Rallies
It may seem trivial, and inexpensive, and maybe not that big of deal but to our trainees and staff a trip to the Hanoi Waterpark was worth its weight in gold.
The United Nations International School of Hanoi and the Hanoi International Women’s Club pooled together in June and paid for all of our students to get out of the training center and cool off in the pools, ride the waterslides, and just have an all round, well deserved reprieve from the stress that COVID had created.
Notably, they weren’t the only ones to come through for KOTO.
Tan My Design in the Old Quarter offered up a space for us to install a small cafe. It’s now fully operational, offering cakes and coffees among Tan My Design’s trendy furniture.
German homewares vendor, Häfele , offered up their rooftop space for events and dinners and anything else we could think of to use it for. Most recently it has hosted the final assessment dinners of our current graduating class.
Most amazing, however, was that our 1,000-strong alumni along with former KOTO staff, heard our call for help, and responded from all around the world. They paid it forward raising a whopping $17,000 to keep our trainees fed and clothed and sheltered while COVID-19 induced uncertainty threatened an organisation that so many people had worked so hard to create.
We were getting by but the outlook wasn’t good. No one knew how long COVID-19 might last, no one knew when the tourists would return, and no knew if Van Mieu could survive.
Behind closed doors senior staff spent hours strategizing and plotting a way to protect the KOTO brand, to maintain the quality of our training, to make sure that our trainees were fed and clothed, and to ensure that our work could continue long into the future.
This was all done under the pressure of knowing that the budget outlook was bleak. We were estimating, at this point, we were facing a $500,000 shortfall.
But not only were we coming up short, demand for support was also increasing.
KOTO staff were fielding calls from at risk and disadvantaged youth all over Vietnam. Young men and women already vulnerable were becoming more and more desperate.
It was now that KOTO was needed more than ever but being able to support our current cohort, let alone new trainees, had become so much harder.
Closing for good
Action needed to be taken. It was July and though a trickle of business had returned to the Van Mieu store it wasn’t enough to make it sustainable.
Hard decisions needed to be made a