Tam Nguyen and Johnny Ngo were nervous as they stood in front of the news media at the Whale Spa salon furniture store in Huntington Beach on Tuesday morning.
Both are second-generation owners of small family businesses started by their Vietnamese American refugee parents in Orange County. Nguyen is president of Advance Beauty College, and Ngo is president of Whale Spa and Skyline Beauty Supply.
Neither had held a news conference before. They’d never had a reason to.
But following Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order calling for many nonessential businesses to close to prevent gatherings that could spread the COVID-19 coronavirus, Ngo found himself home watching the news, seeing the rising numbers of people infected with the virus and realizing that front-line healthcare workers were running out of protective items that many in the beauty industry use in their salons: masks and gloves.
Weeks ago, Ngo noticed an increase in his mask sales in their retail stores. At first, he limited the amount that people could buy to prevent hoarding, but soon he was moved to see his nail salon clients buying masks to donate them to health workers. He stopped selling masks and started donating them himself.
With the help of Nguyen, Christie Nguyen of Tustin’s Studio 18 Nail Bar and Ted Nguyen, who manages public relations and social media for the Orange County Transportation Authority and grew up around his family’s nail salon, Ngo started rallying the community to donate supplies.
They call their project “Operation: Nailing It for Health Care Workers.”
At Tuesday’s media event, Ngo stood in front of stacks of boxes containing 45,000 masks and 280,000 gloves, the last of his stock. Some 30,000 other masks had been collected in the days before.
“We’re just trying to help get the message out to get anyone and everyone to donate,” Ngo said. “We gave away all our stock, so there’s nothing more we can give. But we wanted to do more.”
Those with supplies to donate can drop them off at collection centers at Advance Beauty College’s locations in Garden Grove (10121 Westminster Ave.) and Laguna Hills (25332 McIntyre St.).
Hours after the news conference, SaigonView restaurant in Santa Ana donated 500 masks, and Dr. Christopher Nguyen, a Westminster orthodontist, made a donation and pledged to encourage other dental practitioners to do the same.
Four students from Cal State Fullerton who are children of nail salon owners said that, while they didn’t have money to donate, they had time and wanted to help.
With the core team of volunteers immediately doubled, they sent boxes of masks with the students to deliver to St. Jude Medical Center, Children’s Hospital of Orange County and West Anaheim Medical Center.
“We are delivering to all O.C. hospitals we can get to,” Tam Nguyen said. “They all have various degrees of need, but all are preparing for the next couple of weeks for a possible surge.”
He said he also received a message from an assisted-living facility that had no protective equipment.
Tam, who initially planned to become a doctor, finished medical school but decided not to practice. Instead, in 1999, he and his sister Linh took over their parents’ company, then named Tam’s Beauty College, and rebranded it as Advance Beauty College.
He said the past two weeks have been the most difficult time in the 33 years of the family business.
“We consider the nail industry and the beauty industry to be ‘high-touch and low-tech,’” he said. “You can’t do a manicure, haircut or facial without touching … and to be thrown the curveball that you have to be a technology company overnight, you have to provide digital learning for your 400 students, has been so hard for us.”
Despite feeling ill-equipped, he acknowledges they were lucky to be able to pivot their business with the help of supporters such as MindTap for Milady Standard Cosmetology, a provider of digital tools for beauty education that provided its services for free, and attorney Mike Vo, who has provided pro bono consultation for local small businesses thrown into turmoil during the coronavirus crisis.
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“It’s heavily affected our business because we have no income coming in,” said Christie Nguyen, who runs Studio 18 Nail Bar with her parents, Michelle Le and Alan Nguyen. “Now we’re relying on gift card purchases. Everything helps at this point.”
Her parents are former engineers who dreamed of owning a business and opened the nail salon in 2017. They started noticing a drop in business as early as January.
Still, she said, she gets five to 10 calls a day from people hoping to find a nail salon open.
“It’s not just nails — our clients treat it like therapy,” Christie said. “They pour their hearts out. ... We really get to know our clients, and we miss it.”
Though it’s a rough time for the salon industry, it’s been gratifying to put aside personal worries and turn attention to helping the medical community, Christie said.
“There’s no way for us to get through any of this without them,” she said.
Tam thinks of his sister-in-law, a nurse working with COVID-19 patients in intensive care. She usually lives with his family but has temporarily moved out in order to keep them safe. His children write her letters asking her to please stay healthy.
“It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “We’re all stretched. We all have work and we all have families. But I love that a crisis like this amplifies kindness, and we do what we can.”