Celebrating the cafes and cultures of Vietnam, a new store by former Broadway actor Jackie Nguyen called Cafe Cà Phê has taken center stage in Kansas City, Missouri.
Warm colors and cultural symbols depicted in a combination of vintage and modern style come from all directions inside the 1,200 square foot cafe. Inside and out, artwork by North Carolina-based muralists Love Letter Creative brings Nguyen’s vision of a living showcase of the flavors and spirit of Vietnam to life.
“Because I’m an artist, art was one of my shop’s biggest priorities,” Nguyen, a first-generation Vietnamese American, told the Daily Coffee News. “Every inch of wall space has been used. I wanted there to be touches of culture everywhere you look. Even our fridge is wrapped in a custom design by a Vietnamese designer named Quynh Uong who made sure it was aligned with our shop.
In 2012, Nguyen starred in a Los Angeles production of Miss Saigon, playing the title character of Kim. Nguyen then served as language consultant and cast member for a Broadway revival production of the musical until the pandemic closed theaters and canceled tours.
“I gave a very long and difficult passage of 15 years. It was lovely, it was my life and it deeply shaped who I am as a person,” said Siad Nguyen. “However, the pandemic has really changed the landscape of Broadway and the performing arts. It’s much harder to find work that makes sense, is produced by well-meaning people, and is consistent. There are still incredible artistic opportunities that I have created from scratch from my shop, which has been my outlet.
Turning to coffee was a natural move for Nguyen, who worked as an occasional barista from high school through college and his time in New York.
“I worked as a barista when I wasn’t auditioning or doing theater,” Nguyen said. “It was my first job and it marked me.”
With phin brewers, recipes steeped in tradition, Vietnam-grown coffees and relentless enthusiasm, Nguyen launched Cafe Cà Phê in late 2020 – first on a pop-up basis, then with a mobile coffee trailer at dragonface, and since last month a shiny brick-and-mortar shop in the Columbus Park neighborhood of Kansas City.
Coffees roasted by New York-based Nguyen Coffee Supply have always served as the foundation of Café Cà Phê’s beverage menu, including the 100% Robusta blend True Grit for the house espresso. The coffees are combined with a number of popular Vietnamese flavors, such as ube, lychee, cinnamon, cayenne pepper and condensed milk.
In addition to serving delicious beverages, Nguyen hopes the shop will also help illuminate the culture, particularly as it relates to Asian and Asian-American entrepreneurship in the Midwest and specialty coffee as a whole.
“My entire team is made up of marginalized communities: AAPI, immigrant, Queer, Hispanic and artists. We all have a huge lack of representation, not just in the Midwest specifically, but especially in the coffee shop scene,” Nguyen said. “There’s not a lot of diversity in coffee ownership, which I want to change. I hope to illustrate that cafe owners can be like me and can come from a very different background. It’s also important for me to show that coffee is not just part of our cuisine, but essential to our culture.
Nguyen originally hoped the store would be open by Halloween 2021. Delayed inspections, financial hurdles and supply chain issues pushed that date back, but Nguyen was excited to see new Vietnam-focused cafes popping up from coast to coast in the meantime.
“From Nguyen Coffee Supply in New York to Fatmiilk in Chicago, to Portland Ca Phe and Caphe Roasters in Philadelphia, there’s a movement going on,” Nguyen said. “I believe it’s not a trend, but we’re creating a new space for ourselves to have a seat at the table with everyone. Most of them are first-generation companies, and I think what we’ve all discovered is that if it’s not us, then who? Our parents sacrificed their lives for us to live and dream in America. The motivations of our parents’ generation were survival; our job now is to thrive.
Café Cà Phê is located at 916 E 5th St in Kansas City. Tell the DCN editors about your new coffee or roast here.
Howard Bryman is associate editor of Roast Magazine’s Daily Coffee News. He is based in Portland, Oregon.