LOS ANGELES — Standing up for social and economic justice as an activist for years didn’t end when Chef Uyên Lê opened her first restaurant.
"The minimum wage was never enough, especially how expensive it is to live in Los Angeles," said Lê, owner of Bé Ù Kitchen. "If I were to have a place of my own, that was always part of the plan."
Lê opened Bé Ù Kitchen in February 2020. Bé Ù means "chubby baby" in Vietnamese, which was her childhood nickname. The chef wanted to share her love for the food she grew up eating and enjoying in the small alleys of Saigon. On top of sharing her favorite dishes, she also wanted to share economic opportunities with the people who work with her.
"There’s probably a people-pleaser side of me that really loves this aspect of it," she said. "I wanted to be able to create a space where there is economic justice, to a certain extent, or at least fighting towards some goals."
The state of California currently requires employers like Lê to offer a minimum wage of at least $13 per hour if they have 25 or less employees. Employers with 26 or more employees are required to pay a minimum wage of $14 per hour. Lê has seven people on her payroll and starts every worker at $18 dollars per hour.
“I’ve been calculating, and it’s anywhere between $5 to $8 additional per hour, per worker, because we pool and we split all of the tips," she said. "This makes a big difference in the ability of folks to be able to provide for their families, and that’s just really important to me."
The chef believes if people get paid a living wage and are given paid sick leave, they’re more likely to stay, work hard and pursue opportunities within the business. Lê hired Erick Lopez to be her line cook a few weeks ago.
“It was hard trying to look for another job, but Chef Uyên gave me the opportunity to come over here and work with her,” said Lopez.
Lopez explained how it was hard finding a job during the pandemic, but he needed to find something fast because he has a 9-month-old daughter. He said he never before worked at a job that paid more than minimum wage.
“We’re human beings and we deserve to get paid the right way for the things we’re doing," he said. "We’re killing ourselves. We’re working hard and to be getting paid low minimum wage doesn’t feel right for a person."
Lopez added that getting paid $18 per hour changed his life. Not only is he able to afford more bills, but it’s motivating him to work even harder.
Lê noted that most of her employees are parents like Lopez who need to be paid a livable wage.
“It was important for me to start small where I can test all of these ideas out that I don’t have the answers to,” she said.
While it wasn’t Lê’s plan to open her business during a time that many restaurants are shuttering, she hopes to weave her restaurant into the fabric of the Silver Lake community to give her neighbors good food and her employees some stability.
Bé Ù Kitchen is located on 557 N Hoover St. in Los Angeles. For more information, click here.