Saigon Grill’s owner Simon Nget is Chinese, too, but his coming-to-America story is very different from those of the deliverymen. He grew up in Cambodia and fled the Khmer Rouge with his family. In 1981, eight family members—Nget, his parents, two sisters, a brother, and two nephews—came to New York City as refugees and were settled into an apartment on East 187th Street in the Fordham section of the Bronx. Nget’s father had owned a general store in Cambodia; in New York, both parents found jobs in a garment factory.
Nget graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High School and did a year and a half of college, but eventually dropped out and supported himself by waiting tables in Chinese restaurants. At 26, he bought his first business—a coffee shop in Long Island City—with tips he’d saved up and contributions from his family. Six years later, he sold the coffee shop and opened the first Saigon Grill, paying $100,000 to take over an ailing restaurant and signing a $9,000-a-month lease.
Now that he has achieved the classic immigrant dream of entrepreneurial success, Nget has been beset by legal tangles. The subject of the deliverymen’s lawsuit makes him bewildered and angry. “I work hard,” he says. “I take good care of people. I’m not a guy who lives in a big building. I’m a family man.”
Today he lives with his parents, wife, two children, and assorted other relatives—a total of 21 people—in two two-family houses next door to each other in College Point, Queens. Just about all of them work at Saigon Grill: Nget’s wife, Michelle, their two children, and all seven of the relatives who left Cambodia with him. His sister is an assistant manager, his brother is a host, his nephews tend bar, and even his 78-year-old parents help out, with his mother making dumplings while his father repairs chairs and fixes the broken teapots.
Nget says his troubles with the deliverymen started long before the pickets and the lawsuit. “They don’t cooperate with you,” he says. “They gamble outside. They spit. Sometimes they fight. You cannot really control them. They do whatever they want.” In a flyer he distributed to customers, he likened the men’s behavior to that of “thugs” and “gangsters.” “Everybody in Chinatown knows these men from the Fujian province”—particularly those from Changle, the area where many of the deliverymen come from—“they know this little village—the people are very no good,” Nget says. “The people are very, very no good.”
Nget denies all of the allegations in the deliverymen’s lawsuit. “They make up stories,” he says. “Everything they say is not true.” He always put out enough food for them, he says, and he never made anyone pay for their own medical expenses. But he refuses to say how much he paid the deliverymen: “After the taxes and meals are factored in, everything is lawful.” So he was deducting the cost of meals from the deliverymen’s wages? “No,” he says, contradicting himself, “it’s a free meal.” Nget prefers to talk about how much the men made in tips. “If you add the two together, they make $20 or $30 or $40 an hour,” he says. “They make more than enough.”
Nget claims he dismantled his delivery operation because the deliverymen were trying to “extort” money from him by threatening to sue. The decision has put a big dent in his business. Nget estimates that delivery made up 25 percent of his revenues and that Saigon Grill’s delivery orders used to total about $200,000 a month. To offset this lost revenue, he has raised his prices 10 percent for customers who dine in. “If I didn’t increase that 10 percent, I couldn’t afford it,” he says. But the deliverymen’s protests are having an effect on the dine-in business as well. “It affects a lot,” says Nget. “Many people don’t come.”
Nget is not about to give in. But the deliverymen may soon have one victory: The owners of Our Place have been negotiating with them, and it seems likely they will settle the lawsuit. The agreement is still being finalized and the amount remains confidential, but the sum will be split among the deliverymen who sued that restaurant, a group that includes both Wu—the original instigator—and Justin, who worked at Our Place for two years before Ollie’s.
And the deliverymen’s lawsuits and pickets are beginning to have a ripple effect in the industry, inspiring other immigrants to sue for fair wages. Deliverymen from Flor de Mayo, a Chinese-Latin restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue, noticed the protests taking place seven blocks north, outside Saigon Grill. On July 20, four deliverymen, all immigrants from Mexico, filed a lawsuit against Flor de Mayo, heralding a new wave in this deliveryman revolt.