Hoa Binh Plaza banh mi shop closed amid concerns that city agency was ‘weaponized for gentrification’

Nam Son Bakery closed this month. The shuttered shop has become a symbol of cultural displacement to the Vietnamese community.

The owner of Nam Son Bakery behind the counter of the South Philadelphia shop. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The owner of Nam Son Bakery behind the counter of the South Philadelphia shop. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Thomas Sinnison knew he’d eventually have to shut down Nam Son Bakery, his acclaimed banh mi shop in Washington Avenue’s Hoa Binh plaza. He just didn’t think it would happen so soon.

Last month, as Sinnison waited for updates on a developer’s plan to tear down the shopping plaza and replace it with condos and townhomes, a routine health inspection uncovered a number of violations at Nam Son.

Most of them were immediately corrected. But one violation stuck: The inspector cited the bakery for using pork and chicken that was cooked in an adjoining restaurant, as Nam Son had been doing for five years, noting in his report that using transferred food created “imminent health hazards.” The inspector ordered the bakery shut down until the owner paid a fee and got permission to reopen.

“I’m asking, why don’t you tell me five years ago, or why don’t you tell me last year? Why this year? And they don’t answer that,” Sinnison recalled.

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“I tell them the truth, I beg them. I said, ‘Please, help us, don’t do it. Because I’m very in trouble now, I’m helpless.’ But they don’t care,” he said.

Sinnison didn’t know it, but Nam Son was violating rules on the transfer of food prepared at one facility to another “designed to ensure the safety of the food,” Health Department spokesman James Garrow said in an email.

Sinnison previously owned the restaurant next door where the food was being prepared but sold it five years ago when the workload of running both businesses became too much, he said.

After that change in ownership, a new operating plan review was required for Nam Son to serve food, Garrow said.

Sinnison was told he could apply for a new permit, but the process was going to take at least a month and possibly as long as three months. He couldn’t afford to keep paying the rent without any revenue coming in, he said.

Sinnison cleared out the space in early October, leaving behind his cooler, freezer, mixer, and other equipment worth tens of thousands of dollars to help compensate his landlord for lost rent, he said. He gave his recipes to an employee so she can keep making Nam Son-style sandwiches using Sarcone bread at Huong Tram, the restaurant next door.

Sinnison described Nam Son as his “hobby.” The former journalist said he routinely worked 14 hours a day and never earned much after paying rent and utilities, but he’s sad about the closure nonetheless.

“Nam Son shut down not because our food is not good, not because our service is not good, but because of something else,” he said. “Unfortunately, I (had to) let that go. But for all my customers, I’m very thankful for the six, seven years they stayed with us. They loved what I’m doing. Because my customers loved the hoagie, and I loved what I’m doing, that’s why I still stayed there.”

“A cornerstone, displaced”

To Sinnison, the final health inspection felt like the culmination of years of increasing harassment, he said. It began about six years ago after a developer purchased an adjoining property at the corner of Washington Avenue and 16th Street and proposed a mixed-use development. Lawyers representing investors who wanted to buy the shopping plaza began poking around, looking for potential violations to report to the Health Department and Licenses & Inspections, he said.

Last year, an inspector told him he had to throw out the handful of chairs he had for customers because he was in violation of rules on restaurant seating, and that he needed to have a bathroom, Sinnison said. He researched city regulations and confirmed that the inspector was wrong, he said; his business was too small to be subject to the bathroom and seating rules.

Then in May word got out that Streamline, a local development company, had an agreement to build housing on the property. The plaza’s plight was covered in the press and a community organization, VietLead, started a petition to preserve the site’s retail component that garnered more than 12,000 signatures.

But online directories began to label Nam Son as already closed and business dropped by 40 percent, Sinnison said.

Hoa Binh plaza, with its restaurants and Vietnamese grocery, is a “huge cornerstone” and source of fresh food for the Southeast Asian community and nearby residents generally, said Lan Dinh, farm and food sovereignty director at VietLead.

“It’s really heartbreaking that Nam Son is closing and it’s a huge loss to the community. This is terrible, that it could have prevented, and was brought in part because of city processes that didn’t make sense,” Dinh said. “With the continuing business tenants, we want to stay strong and keep working to save the plaza, and keep fighting to make sure no other businesses get closed, feel intimidated, or don’t feel like they have a choice.”

Dinh said business owners at Hoa Binh report that city inspections have become more frequent in the last year. Some of them have been inspected multiple times, while similar businesses elsewhere in Philadelphia are inspected just once a year, she said. Dinh and her colleagues met with representatives of the Health Department and L&I two weeks ago, and L&I confirmed it has been receiving more tips of alleged code violations in the area of Hoa Binh plaza, she said.

Garrow said the city responds to all complaints about restaurants as if each is credible.

“The Health Department and L&I are responsible for following up on complaints they receive through the 311 system, many of which — including complaints against this shopping center — are anonymous,” Garrow said. “If there are no violations found during the inspection, L&I will mark the complaint as unfounded, and the Health Department will post a clean health inspection report.”

Dinh said that at the meeting the Health Department acknowledged that some inspectors, including the one who told Sinnison to throw out his chairs, were not doing inspections according to proper protocol. She said she was told those inspectors no longer work for the city.

At VietLead’s request, the departments will analyze reports of violations from the past few years to see if they correlate with areas of increasing development pressure or other factors, Dinh said.

“This is really serious. If there is a correlation that can be made, that in areas where there is gentrification happening there are increases in reporting, then city departments are being weaponized for gentrification,” she said.

Streamline needs a zoning variance to build its proposed 44-unit residential project in the Washington Avenue industrial corridor. In July the Zoning Board of Adjustment granted the company a continuance so it can update its plan for the site and negotiate with community groups. Dinh said she’s waiting to hear from Streamline to set up a community meeting.

Meanwhile, the 60-year-old Sinnison, who lives in Malvern and has a house in Fishtown, said he may move to North Carolina to help his wife with a bustling nail salon business she has there. He’s just waiting for his son to finish high school so he can move. He’s also focusing on his charitable work helping the families of Amerasians like himself, who are the children of American soldiers and Vietnamese women, and, who often struggle with poverty in Vietnam.

But he’d also still like to hear the Health Department and L&I explain what they’re doing to avoid driving other Vietnamese food establishments out of business.

“I don’t want the restaurant being bothered again, or the supermarket being bullied again,” he said.

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