At Vie Nail Bar in Lakewood, co-owner Mai Duong carefully rearranges a large display of nail polish bottles to maintain the rainbow color scheme.
“I know every single color,” she says with a smile.
That attentiveness has helped her not only keep her first business Mod Nail Lounge alive during the pandemic, she also opened Vie Nail Bar — her second location — in January.
It’s been a complete turnaround after a rocky year. Last May, her business had dropped about 70% after the statewide shutdown in March. She had to cut back on staff and reduce her number of clients.
Now, business for her first store Mod Nail Lounge is up 80% compared to a year ago. She’s even looking to hire five new staff members at Vie Nail Bar.
“I can really see that a lot of our clients are returning,” she said. “They’re coming back every two weeks. They want pretty nails, and they want their life to be back to normal.”
Capacity restrictions hit the business hard at the start of the pandemic, forcing Duong to turn away customers. A Paycheck Protection Program loan and Small Business Administration grant helped keep her store afloat.
As restrictions gradually lifted, Duong said her customers were eager to return for champagne, good conversation and a little pampering.
Lynlee Kessler came into Vie Nail Bar for her biweekly mani-pedi, bringing her friend along after they finished a Pilates class. She’s been a loyal customer for three years.
“I keep coming back because I love her salon,” Kessler said. “She [Duong] always does the best job. I don’t want to take a chance by going anywhere else.”
Duong’s store is among around 31 million small businesses in the U.S. that had to adapt to a number of changes due to the pandemic and a tumultuous economy. It’s been a year of uncertainty and change with shutdowns, reopenings, safety requirements and the gradual lifting of restrictions.
Despite that uncertainty, Duong decided to move forward with her dream of opening a second shop — and 10% of the proceeds go to a new nonprofit each month.
“I feel like it’s all in our heart, like when you create a business, it’s not all about money,” she said. “It’s about the love that you look at your customers, and you say, ‘I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them.’”
The salon’s Instagram account has allowed them to build a close-knit online community. That community has been key in connecting the store with folks who are in need, whether it’s family, friends or strangers who’ve lost a job or have fallen on hard times during the pandemic.
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Just in the last three months of the store being open, the salon has supported a number of causes. In February, the salon supported 75 mothers who had lost their jobs with water, food, blankets, diapers, milk and other necessities.
“We went out to the homeless shelter, and we were able to meet new people that needed a lot of assistance,” she said. “We met Maria, and she introduced her family to us.”
Duong said they also helped families hit by the catastrophic snowstorm in February by paying for food and electricity bills.
The store supported a golf tournament fundraiser for leukemia in April and plans to support East Dallas’ Mockingbird Elementary School library in June.
Reaching Out In The Face Of Hate
Amid all of Duong’s success, the Atlanta shootings that killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent, and the rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans, present a stark backdrop for her resilience.
As an Asian American woman and business owner, Duong says the Atlanta killings were “heartbreaking” and brought tears to her eyes when she first heard about it.
“I feel so sorry for the Asian Americans that are trying so hard to live this great life and to do what’s right and support their family and continue with their small business, and here we are being treated with no respect,” she said.
When KERA interviewed Duong a year ago, she said she wanted one thing from the community: respect. She said nothing’s changed.
Nail salons have been at the epicenter of conversations about discrimination against Asian Americans during the pandemic. Last year, California Gov. Gavin Newsom claimed a California nail salon was where community spread of COVID-19 first began in the state. He faced backlash after he failed to provide evidence for his claims. A woman was arrested in early April after spewing anti-Asian remarks at the Good Choice for Nails Salon in New York City.
With all the hate crimes and discrimination, she said she’s afraid — for her family, children and 18 staff members. Mod Nail Lounge is right off the highway near the DART station where there’s more foot traffic, so they shut their door as soon as the sun goes down. The shop stays open seven days a week, often late into the night.
“I’m always in fear because there’s so much stuff that I am responsible for,” she said. “We’re always looking behind our shoulders to make sure that everything’s OK because our staff is always there.”
Discrimination against Asian Americans is nothing new for Duong, who faced several racist encounters when she vacationed in Fort Lauderdale,Florida, in early March, just before the Atlanta killings. She said her family was the only family of color at a quiet resort located in an older retirement community.
“We were seated for brunch at a very nice view. I’m sure a lot of the guests that were there wanted to sit and see the view as well. But the minute they saw our family, they asked the waiter to move them,” Duong said.
When her family ate at the restaurant, waiters would respond to any request with “a huff and puff.” She said her 4-and 5-year olds didn’t know what was going on, but her 15-year-old could see what was happening.
“My oldest asked me every single time, ‘Why are we being treated like that? Mom, why does she have to huff and puff when I ask for whipped cream?’ Every question, it was always a why and I didn’t know how to answer her,” Duong said, her voice cracking.
She said her family ventured out of the resort in hopes of getting better service — they were treated even worse.
“We ate in our room two nights in a row because we didn’t want our kids to see what was happening,” she said. “I feel like that’s the reason why I’m so hurt is because I try to give my kids a very blessed life. But then when we are out enjoying life, they witness these things, and how can you control that?”
Then when she and her husband tried to get on the elevator with another couple, they would say they weren’t allowed although the maximum capacity is four people.
Her family also got stopped by resort staff because her children weren’t wearing their wristbands. But Duong said it was their third day at the resort, after the staff had seen her family several times on their visits to the pool and beach. And she said no one else at the beach or pool were wearing wristbands.
But it’s these painful experiences that have motivated Duong to give back to her community. She wants to give the local community a reason to stop and respond to a call to action.
“I want every single one of my customers or my family and my friends to come in here and say, ‘Wow, she’s struggling, we’re all struggling, we’re all hurt, and she’s giving back.’ I want them to question themselves, why is she doing that and we can’t?”
Duong said because everyone’s hurting, there’s an opportunity to understand one another and lend a hand.
“You have to do it from your heart and not be greedy and not be full of hate.”