SANTA ROSA, Calif. - Feeling sad and troubled about the financial struggles her parents were enduring, the daughter of longtime Santa Rosa restaurant owners turned to social media for help. And the overwhelming reaction and reach were more than what the Lee family could have ever expected.
Last month, Jennifer Lee was working at her parents’ restaurant, Lee’s Noodle House, when the 21-year-old looked across the establishment and was struck by the vision of her father standing and waiting at the front counter of the empty business. It pulled at her heart.
So unbeknownst to him, she took out her phone and took video. She panned across the room with its empty tables and showed her father leaning on the counter with a forlorn expression on his face, looking out toward the restaurant’s entrance. The video was set to the wistful song, "I Don’t Care How Long it Takes."
She posted it to TikTok, and she wrote this: "It makes me so sad to see my parents just wait for customers to walk through the door to eat at their Vietnamese restaurant." The post went on to say, "tiktok do your thing & help support my parents Vietnamese restaurant:( my parents haven’t been having that many customers & been feeling stressed dealing with financial issues. if you want to check it out, they make delicious vietnamese food:)"
It appeared that the sadness felt by this daughter and the desire to help touched others too. Tiktok users heard the call and went to work.
The video went viral, and word has spread about Lee’s Noodle House, leading to a big surge in business in recent weeks.
Locals have been stopping by for a meal, checking out the Lees' popular dishes like their vermicelli and rice plates and their specialty pho noodle soups. Others have shared that they planned to swing by for support and a good meal.
TikTok user Maileia Lozano commented, "makes me so sad! i used to go here for years but I stopped n can't remember why, all the food is amazing! Def going to stop by tomorrow!"
@sophihannah wrote, "I ate here 3 days a week when I was in Santa Rosa for a wine harvest season, the food is so special and your parents are so nice!"
MrsDMD commented, "OMG I live in Santa Rosa. Will take my family this week!!!!!"
And there have been many who have gone way out of their way to show their support. "There are people from Sacramento who drove two hours," Jennifer Lee told KTVU.
For those who were too far away to patronize the restaurant, they've contributed to a massive flood of encouragement to try and help boost the business and spread the word.
Jennifer Lee said she’s heard from hundreds of thousands of people, some even from as far away as Germany and Australia, as well as many from across the country who have expressed their support, saying they planned to visit if they’re ever in town.
@itslavenderlee shared, "I'm in Sydney but commenting to boost. Good luck.
And from @Lipsticksuperstarz: "Will visit whenever I come to Cali. Sending love and support from the East Coast!"
With her simple video and heartfelt message, the young woman's hope for her parents have come to fruition. Business has gotten so busy, the restaurant was forced to post a message on Facebook and Instagram on Thursday asking customers for their patience.
"Due to the increase in customers visiting us, there may be longer wait times for dining and take-out orders," the restaurant shared, adding, "We are so grateful for the love and support everyone has shown us the past few days."
Jennifer Lee said that she’s been floored by the reaction, and she’s incredibly grateful. She said her dad, Vuong Lee, was "still in shock about it."
The daughter expressed how difficult it's been to watch what her parents were going through. "It’s their main source of income," she said.
But this wasn't the first time the business had endured hardships. The aftermath of the North Bay’s devastating Tubbs Fire in 2017 was an extremely difficult time, as the Hopper Avenue restaurant was in the area of the Coffey Park neighborhood, which was left in ashes by the firestorm.
But the Lees held on, made due and managed to keep the doors of the restaurant open. And then the pandemic hit. Like so many other small businesses during COVID, Lee’s Noodle House had to scrape by.
Jennifer Lee said her parents would wait for hours for a single customer to walk in. And while they had always closed at 9 p.m. to host a dinner crowd, they were forced to close hours earlier on many nights when no customers came in.
The bills piled up, and the business fought to stay afloat, especially as they faced soaring PG&E bills. "We could barely keep up," the daughter said. "I just want to help them."
Lee, a graduate student at California State University, Long Beach who's studying health administration, said she’s made it a point to come home for breaks to give a hand at the restaurant. She was back home for winter break when she posted that game-changing video.
The daughter shared that she’s one of four kids, and they’ve all spent time pitching in to help their parents. It's a through and through family-run business, as she and her younger teenage siblings, as well as her older sister, have worked alongside their parents whenever they could.
Her whole life she watched her parents work with fierce dedication as they shuttled back and forth, day and night between the restaurant and home.
"Raising four kids, they have to work at the restaurant and come back to take care of us, then go back to work," the daughter shared. "They don't have time to rest. They go to sleep and back to work."
This year marks 20 years since her parents opened Lee's Noodle House. Their daughter told KTVU the restaurant was her parents' dream to bring quality Vietnamese food to their Santa Rosa community.
And the business has been grateful for the longtime regulars, who have helped immensely in allowing the restaurant to stay open, even during the hardest times.
"Always the right amount of people that come in," Jennifer Lee explained. "Returning customers love our food," she said, describing the offerings as authentic and fresh, created with the hope of bringing a taste of Vietnam to their customers.
On the website, the restaurant said, "Each of our food is made with care and warmth to allow others to experience the Vietnamese culture in a home-made style."
It’s something the Lees have taken pride in. And Jennifer Lee said, mom, the head cook, took it so seriously, she’s kept the family recipes very close to her chest.
"The broth-- we use beef bone, won't add any MSG. We use chicken bone," the daughter said, adding, lightly, "My mom won’t even tell me what the recipe is."
She said when her parents were not in the restaurant serving customers, they’re busy shopping for fresh ingredients and prepping their dishes.
"Everything takes hours to make," the daughter shared, noting that even with inflation and rising food prices, her mother has not wanted to compromise on the product they offered their customers. "Everything is so expensive now. She still picks the best quality because she wants to give it out to the customers."
While it was a living they were making, they were also doing what they love.
"My parents, their restaurant, they opened it out of pure passion and wanting to share authentic Vietnamese food, even if there’s hardship," the daughter explained.
She said that she hoped this momentum and upswing in business would continue as people got a chance to taste the food prepared by her parents’ caring hands, by business owners who took pride in the authenticity of their dishes and wanted to offer their customers the best.
"I hope that this is not just a trend. I hope there will be returning customers that really like our food," the daughter said.
When asked why she felt compelled to share the family’s situation on social media, Jennifer Lee shared, "I just want to allow people to see how my parents work and give my parents an opportunity," much like the opportunities they offered her and her siblings.
"My parents," she said, "are the hardest working people I know."
Lee's Noodle House on Hopper Avenue in Santa Rosa has seen a boost in business following a now viral video posted by the restaurant owners' daughter. (Jennifer Lee)
Lee's Noodle House on Hopper Avenue in Santa Rosa. (Jennifer Lee)