Windsor business owner feeds hundreds of homeless every week

Queen Tran, owner of the Queen Nail Salon in Windsor, is the recipient of the North Bay Spirit award. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Queen Tran's epiphany was accompanied by roaring crowds and blizzards of confetti. The applause was not for her, but maybe it should have been.

Tran, the 44-year-old owner of the Queen Nail Spa in Windsor that clients like to call “Queenie,” had driven with her husband, Michael, to San Francisco on Oct. 31, 2014, to see the parade celebrating the Giants World Series championship.

On this soggy day, the couple sat down for lunch at a Market Street diner called Munch Haven. They got a table by the window. Tran doesn't remember what she ordered.

She does remember that on the other side of the glass was a rain-soaked homeless woman. She'd seen homeless people before, Tran said. But her life was so full and busy that she tended to not give them a second thought.

“I see them with my eyes,” she said, “but my heart did not see them.”

Then came that chilly morning on Market Street. “I sit inside, we have food. She's outside, cold and wet, and I cry. And my heart wakes up.”

This was not some fleeting, minor pinprick of the conscience. Tran says she was transformed that day, and the ripples of her awakening have been felt ever since, in her community and beyond.

From her weekly trips with Michael to a local Goodwill, where they distribute food, clothing, toiletries and sleeping bags - much of it paid for out of their own pockets - to the money she sends to her village in Vietnam, to her acts of kindness for random strangers, Tran has made ministering to the less fortunate a central part of her life.

In so doing, she has inspired others. Knowing that Queen spends all of her tip money on the homeless, her clients dig deeper - in some cases, much deeper - when deciding on a gratuity.

It's easier to drop $40 in the tip jar, said Gina Ward, a longtime client, when you know she's using the money to feed people, or sending them to her village in Vietnam where it's spent on food and medicine.

Queen was born in 1974 in Rach Gia, a village in what was then called South Vietnam. This was less than a year before the capture of Saigon, which ended the Vietnam War.

‘Grow up very hard'

In the years after the war, as the ruling Communist party overhauled the economy and collectivized farms, productivity plunged. Isolated from the world, Vietnam became one of the world's poorest nations.

“When I am little,” recalled Tran, “I grow up very hard. We don't have shoes, we don't have clothes, we don't have food. We go hungry.”

These days, the sight of similar poverty triggers her empathy, followed quickly by action. As she put it, “People hurt, I am hurt.” When she sees a person without shoes, “I remember when I walk barefoot.” In addition to distributing money, food and medicine to the needy in Rach Gia during her two-week mission to Vietnam in 2016, she gave out dozens of pairs of sandals.

Some of Tran's charity is spontaneous. Earlier this year, she took pity on a young man who was living in his car. He'd lost his only key, and had been living outside for three days when she paid a mechanic $350 to make him a new key. In April, she bought a woman a $230 Greyhound ticket to Houston, so the woman could visit her daughter.

“My grandma always say, ‘When you give, you never go hungry,'” Tran said.

Move to U.S

Tran moved to the United States in 1994. After working in a series of nail salons, she decided nine years ago to open her own. The Queen Nail Spa has flourished, in large part because of her gift for making authentic connections with people.

“You go in there and you don't feel like a customer,” Tricia Ratto said. “You feel like a member of the family.”

Supremely focused on her business for those first four years, Tran's world was small. “I never paid attention to people outside,” she remembers. “My life so crazy, I'm working seven days a week.”

Then came that fateful trip to San Francisco.

Now, every Friday night, after a full day of work, she and Michael have a date with a hundred or so folks waiting for them at the Goodwill just north of the intersection of Sebastopol and Stony Point roads.

They make two stops on the way, first at a food pantry called the Windsor Service Alliance.

There, they pick up food and clothing that would otherwise go to waste, said Angelita Llerena, a volunteer at the pantry who describes them as “the most generous people I've ever encountered. They're incredible.”

Friday night ritual

Next stop: the Little Caesars in Stony Point Plaza, where they'll pick up, on their dime, 20 or so large pies. Neither foul weather nor her own fatigue or illness has kept Tran from this Friday night ritual in two years.

“She's rolling up, unafraid, regardless of pouring rain or freezing cold, with food and warmth,” said longtime Queen Nail Spa client Susan Hubbard.

Upon returning from a charitable mission to Vietnam in 2016, Tran learned that her son, Ben, a college student in San Diego, had been diagnosed with blood cancer. Tran had Ben with her first husband, whom she divorced in 1995.

A year after his diagnosis, Ben underwent a successful marrow transplant, and is now cancer free.

His recovery has deepened his mother's conviction that the good acts people perform eventually find their way back to them.

Tran never asks for money. But the power of her example leads others to their own, personal awakenings - to the realization, as Ward said, “that the more you give in the world, the more it comes back to you. That's Queenie in a nutshell.”

For more photos and interactive content, read this story on the Press Democrat website