Generosity bankrupts local charity kitchen

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Kindness not enough to feed the massive number of Ho Chi Minh City's poor, tired and weak

Thousands of VND2,000 meals are served every lunch time at Nu Cuoi restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City. The photo was taken on November 27, 2013 at Nu Cuoi 4 in"ˆDistrict 4

A local restaurant providing VND2,000 meals to the poor has just announced it will soon be closing because it simply gave too much.

There are only 23 days until Nu cuoi 4 (Smile 4) in Ho Chi Minh City's District 4 closes. The 4th branch of the popular charity kitchen had been providing hundreds of nearly-free lunches to the needy every day since it opened in September.

"Running out of money" is the main reason, of course, but not because Le Van Chinh, who founded the charitable fund Tu thien tinh thuong (Charity of Mercy) last year to run several charitable projects for the needy including five Nu Cuoi restaurants in the city, does not know how to balance the budget.

But instead it looks like the restaurant's unbounding kindness to its customers most of which are lottery ticket sellers, street vendors, construction workers, homeless people and poor students is what sunk their coffers. The charity has given up every last dime it had to serve as many customers as possible.

"There are more customers than we anticipated," Chinh, president of Son Ca Media, told Vietweek.

"During the first week, we only prepared 150 servings everyday, but now we serve over 700 800 meals that include main dishes, stir-fry vegetables, soup, rice, and fruit, because long lines were forming outside our place every day at 10 a.m. even though we don't open until 11."

He says his staff couldn't stand to see people waiting long hours in the scorching sun so they started serving at 10:30 a.m. and the restaurant broke with Nu Cuoi's traditional VND2,000 meals when it also began serving instant noodles with vegetables and pork for only VND1,000 to those who arrived late after the rice had run out.

So far, apart from the noodles, the daily 800 meals include 100 to 150 plates made up of food donated by local company Vissan. In addition, every Thursday, the restaurant staff coordinates with other volunteer groups to prepare special lunches featuring traditional Vietnamese cuisine, such as pho, bun thit nuong (grilled pork on rice vermicelli), and banh canh (pork noodle), to satisfy "customers' appetites after a week of eating only rice," according to the fund's vice president Nam Dong.

"These dishes costs double to thrice the cost of meals on rice," said Dong, former editor-in-chief of Phap Luat Thanh pho Ho Chi Minh newspaper, "yet we charge only VND1,000 so that those who are not satisfied with one bowl can have another."

Thus, it takes more than VND10 million every day to run the restaurant. The project's leaders say they are currently only making from one fifth to one seventh of that on an average day.

Though Nu Cuoi 4 has received generous donations and support from the public, including the use of a major land lot on Ben Van Don Street in District 4 for its location (the local benefactor has asked to remain anonymous), it's not enough.

The sum total of all the help is only "moderate" compared to the needs of the poor, according to 51-year-old Chinh, who made his name known to the public in 2004 after he at that time as chairman of Vitek VTB spent VND100 million to purchase the copyrights of the famous poem Mau tim hoa sim (Violet shade of the Tomentose myrtle) by poet Huu Loan (1916-2010) to promote the company's products, home and communications electronics.

"We carry out very few activities to promote the restaurant to the public," said the Son Ca Media chairman, who dreams of opening 100 Nu Cuoi restaurants in the country. But he said the main reason the District 4 location is about to closing is that many people in the area are too poor to even afford Nu Cuoi and the district had yet to develop a strong culture of charity work.

One from many

Le Thi Nu, a scrap vendor from the central province of Quang Ngai, told Vietweek that she often visits Nu Cuoi 4 for lunch because "the food here is tasty, and more importantly the staff is very friendly and hospitable to me."

Nguyen Viet Minh Thu, a third-year student at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Law and one of several volunteers at Nu Cuoi, told Vietweek that the food is even tastier than most of the places she and her friends normally eat, but it's much cheaper.

From Mondays to Saturdays, Thu and her college friends prepare and serve food at the restaurant from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. As unpaid volunteers, they help clean the place, prepare and serve the food, and then they clean the kitchen and have lunch together at the restaurant before leaving for afternoon class.

The volunteers and staff are famous for their respect of the customers as well, often going out of their way to please.

The comfortable, well-decorated restaurant is made beautiful partly by paintings on the wall by local painters and poets who have agreed to contribute half of their sales to support the fund.

Though no paintings have been sold, customers can also buy old books and clothes at the restaurant at the same price of the meals. The books and clothes have been donated by people around the country.

Can you sell kindness?

"We don't serve food for free in order not to hurt people's pride," says Chinh. "We give the customers the feeling that they are buying the food with their earned money," says Chinh.

Chinh added that Nu Cuois never try to distinguish who is really poor and who is not, and welcome all people no matter how rich they are.

"We want to "˜sell' and promote kindness among people the most," said Chinh.

"Though some of our customers are indeed not poor, our pure purpose and love toward people might move them to give their hands to others after few meals here, I believe."

NU CUOIS

Tu thien Tinh thuong Fund
Add: Mai Thi Luu Street, Da Kao Ward, District 1, HCMC
Phone: (+84 8) 3910 7612 - Ext.104
Website:
www.tuthientinhthuong.org

Nu Cuoi 1: 6 Ho Xuan Huong Street, District 3

Nu Cuoi 2: 46/22 Nguyen Ngoc Nhut Street, Tan Quy Ward, Tan Phu District

Nu Cuoi 3: 298A Huynh Tan Phat, Tan Thuan Tay Ward, District 7

Nu Cuoi 4: 132 Ben Van Don Street, District 4

Nu Cuoi 6: 43 B Trung Trac Street, Hiep Binh Chanh Ward, Thu Duc District

Nu Cuoi 5 is still underconstruction in Hanoi

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