It’s been two months since the federal government revealed that Uptown pho shop Tank Noodle paid nearly $700,000 in back wages to 60 workers following a wage theft investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor. Now, a new behind-the-scene story from the Tribune shows how one employee was a key source in an investigation that spanned over two years — and brings to light failures by city and state officials in uncovering the restaurant’s labor practices and enforcing minimum wage laws.
The frustration experienced by the Tank Noodle worker, especially when trying to get the government to respond to their issues, points at a larger sense of invisibility being felt by some chefs in Chicago’s Asian restaurant community. This year, Chicago’s restaurant community has been especially active in raising awareness, with even more efforts coming to light as Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month kicks off.
Tank Noodle, also known as Pho Xe Tang, is a 21-year-old pho shop in the Argyle district in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. Earlier this year, its owners came under fire for attending the Washington, D.C. rally to protest President Joe Biden’s Election Day win. The rally turned violent with five dead and 140 injured. Tank’s owners say that did not participate in the insurgence. Despite a call for healing from family who owns the restaurant, including Thu and Thuc Ly, social media users bombarded the restaurant’s page with negative reviews and comments. Two months later, the Labor Department announced the results of its wage theft investigation.
As reported by the Tribune, the Tank worker at the center of the federal probe said city officials did not take their complaints wage theft seriously enough. A city investigation concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to show management was paying its workers less than minimum wage. That left it up to federal authorities to hold Tank Noodle’s ownership accountable with its own investigation.
Chef Palita Sriratana of Thai pop-up Pink Salt say she wasn’t at all surprised by the city’s handling of Tank Noodle. “It’s a trickle-down effect from being a model minority,” Sriratana says. “When there is this picture of Asian Americans that we do well and have higher household incomes than other minorities, the ones that are struggling aren’t seen, aren’t heard.”
To amplify community voices, Sriratana is among 18 Chicago chefs in the Asian-American diaspora contributing AAPI Baker’s Boxes designed to showcase local culinary talent in the community. The effort’s organized by With Warm Welcome, an Asian-American community group for the hospitality industry — 10 percent of sales will go to Chicago-based book drive for kindergarten through high-school aged students called One Book, One World. Preorders are available via Tock with talent from Yugen, Kasama, Aya Pastry, and Chiu Quon Bakery on board.
Chicago’s restaurants have launched several initiatives to raise money as the community faces a spike in racist attacks. Even earlier this week, Cook County prosecutors charged a white man with attempted murder after police say he took his pickup truck off road to run over picnickers in Logan Square; witnesses say the driver yelled anti-Asian remarks.
Racist occurrences like these have pushed Chicago’s Asian community to act part of the #StopAsianHate campaign. Celebrate Argyle is an effort to draw Chicagoans to Asia on Argyle, a cluster of business that includes Vietnamese restaurants. It’s organizers have condemned Tank Noodle’s treatment of workers. In River North, upscale pan-Asian restaurant Sunda in River North has planned a series of events and specials for this month. Mary Aregoni — a Laotian refugee who runs Vietnamese restaurant Saigon Sisters — and chef Sarah Stegner (Prairie Grass Cafe) will feature a four-course pop-up virtual dinner on Friday, May 14 to mark AAPI Heritage Month with a $100 package for two. Thirty percent of proceeds will go to the Chicago chapter of Asian Americans Advancing Justice via chef Beverly Kim’s Dough Something fundraising campaign.
The ongoing racist attacks are terrifying, but Sriratana says that a national focus on the issue has made her more willing than ever to about her personal experiences. She’s glad to see discussion and education around these issues, especially among her peers in the restaurant industry. The pandemic has wreaked chaos on hospitality in Chicago, but she wonders if it also played a role in a significant shift in understanding.
“I feel like this year amongst any other year of my life I’ve probably had the most open discussions about it,” she says. “I think a lot of people had discounted any struggles we had, and this is the first year where people are like, ‘Wait a second — the model minority is a racial stereotype in itself that’s muting the struggle of Asian Americans,’ and now that’s really coming to a head.”
- Tank Noodle Must Return $150K Pandemic Grant to Illinois After Federal Wage Theft Investigation [Eater Chicago]
- Man told witness ‘watch what I’m going to do’ before he drove pickup into group in Logan Square because he was angered by ‘yuppies with dogs,’ prosecutor says [Tribune]
- Tank Noodle federal investigation that led to $700,000 in back wages for 60 started with 1 employee: ‘We felt betrayed and helpless’ [Tribune]
- Chef Beverly Kim Spearheads Dough Something, a Restaurant Fundraiser Fighting Asian Hate [Eater Chicago]
- Chicago Initiative Teams Up With Asia on Argyle Restaurants to Rally Against Violence [Eater Chicago]
- When immigrants exploit their own [Sun-Times]