A daughter’s TikTok of her father in his empty Santa Rosa restaurant went viral. Now customers are finally coming
The clip lasts all of seven seconds.
The video shows Vuong Lee, wearing a red winter jacket, leaning on the counter of his empty Hopper Avenue restaurant in Santa Rosa. He fiddles with his hands and stares out the glass front door.
It’s dark outside.
He doesn’t know he’s being filmed.
The music that plays over the video cuts off at the end, but starts with “I don’t care how long it takes, as long as …”
It’s a song about loss. It’s a song about love.
And then there is the 24-word caption: “it makes me so sad to see my parents just wait for customers to walk through the door to eat at their Vietnamese restaurant.”
Jennifer Lee, 21, made the video the night of Jan. 17 while helping out at her parent’s restaurant, Lee’s Noodle House, and posted it on social media platform TikTok the following morning.
Something about the image of Vuong Lee staring into the distance, something about the song, something about a daughter’s caption, lit up TikTok’s collective attention.
By Tuesday afternoon, it had more than 906,000 views. More than 110,000 users liked it and nearly 2,500 commented.
“I’m not in cali but I want to support them!!!”
“Okay Okay! I live 40 minu away but imma try and make it up there this weekend.”
“I’m in Sonoma County — I’ll bring my family!”
“I wish I could go! Only if I lived in CA, but I wish you and your parents the best in everything”
Up to that point, Jennifer Lee, a master’s degree student at Long Beach State, used TikTok to post videos of fun dances, nights out and her dog.
But she was home from school, helping her parents at the restaurant and just felt compelled to share.
“First I posted it just to help my parents because when I was there helping them, it was really empty and quiet and we were just sitting around the majority of the time,” she said. “I thought ‘I’ll give TikTok a chance.’ I know a lot of kids used TikTok.”
In the days following the clip’s explosion on the platform, new faces have appeared at the restaurant, telling the Lee’s that TikTok sent them. Regulars have looked around, amazed to find more company in the small corner restaurant.
The Lees, who opened their restaurant in 2003, hope this very modern brand of marketing holds.
Lee’s Noodle House is a family affair.
Jennifer’s mom Ha Tran is the head chef. Her dad, Vuong Lee cooks and serves. Jennifer’s older sister worked at the restaurant for years before becoming a nurse. Jennifer worked there all through high school, as has her younger sister Jessica and their younger brother.
The seven-second video captured love but it captured some sorrow too.
“What made me do it? I think it made me really sad,” Jennifer Lee said posting the clip. “I just wanted people to come. That was his actual reaction. He was really sad.”
Vuong Lee, too, asked why Jennifer had posted it. It was, after all, a moment of vulnerability.
“She surprised me a lot … I didn’t know she did that,” he said, taking a break from kitchen duties Monday afternoon.
“But it’s a fact,” he said. “How come at nighttime nobody dines in? It’s so stressful. We usually close at 9, now we close at 7:30 because you can’t afford to pay PG&E gas and electric and all that and you cannot wait for customers.”
It wasn’t always this way.
Lee’s Noodle House opened on Hopper Avenue in 2003.
For years they were buoyed by lunch regulars from medical office buildings to the north and Medtronic and Kaiser Permanente offices to the east. Things were good.
In 2017, the Tubbs Fire burned the nearby Coffey Park neighborhood. Still, business remained steady.
But it was the spring of 2020 that changed everything, Vuong Lee said.
The COVID-19 pandemic shuttered nearly everything in Sonoma County, and restaurants were particularly hard hit.
Located in a small strip mall and tucked among a liquor store, a barber shop and a fish and chip shop, Lee’s Noodle House struggled to offer any decent outdoor seating. So they were left to rely on takeout orders.
“Before the pandemic it was really, really busy,” Jennifer Lee said. “Back in 2018, 2019, but right now when COVID hit, it was dead silent.”