Celebrating the coffees and cultures of Vietnam, a new shop from 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 to life Nguyen’s vision for a vivacious showcase for the flavors and spirit of Vietnam.
“Because I am an artist, art was one of the biggest priorities for my shop,” Nguyen, a first-generation Vietnamese American, told Daily Coffee News. “Every inch of wall space has been utilized. I wanted there to be touches of culture everywhere you look. Even our fridge is wrapped with a custom design by a Vietnamese designer named Quynh Uong who made sure it aligned with our shop.”
In 2012, Nguyen starred in a Los Angeles production of Miss Saigon, playing the lead character of Kim. Nguyen went on to serve as a language consultant and cast member for a Broadway revival production of the stage musical up until the pandemic shut down theaters and canceled tours.
“I gave performing a very long, hard, 15-year stint. It was lovely, it was my life, and deeply shaped who I am as a person,” siad Nguyen. “However, the pandemic really changed the landscape of Broadway and performing arts. It’s a lot more difficult to find meaningful work, that is produced by well intended people, and that is consistent. There are still incredible artistic opportunities that I’ve created from scratch from my shop, which has been my outlet.”
Pivoting into coffee was a natural move for Nguyen, who’s worked occasionally as a barista since high school through college and her 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 stuck with me.”
With phin brewers, tradition-steeped recipes, Vietnam-grown coffees and nonstop enthusiasm, Nguyen launched Cafe Cà Phê in late 2020 — first on a pop-up basis, then with a dragon-faced mobile coffee trailer, and as of last month a brilliant brick and mortar shop in Kansas City’s Columbus Park neighborhood.
Coffees roasted by New York-based Nguyen Coffee Supply have consistently laid the basis for the Cafe Cà Phê drinks menu, including the 100% robusta blend True Grit for house espresso. Coffees are combined with a number of popular Vietnamese flavors, such as ube, lychee, cinnamon, cayenne and condensed milk.
In addition to serving delicious drinks, Nguyen hopes the shop will help serve some cultural enlightenment, as well, particularly regarding Asian and Asian-American entrepreneurship in the midwest and in 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 particularly, but especially in the coffee scene,” said Nguyen. “There’s not much diversity in the ownership side of coffee, which I aim to change. I hope to exemplify that coffee shop owners can look 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 that it is essential to our culture.”
Nguyen originally hoped the shop would be open by Halloween 2021. Delayed inspections, financial hurdles and supply chain woes pushed back that date, but Nguyen was pleased to see new coffee shops focused on Vietnam popping up from coast to coast in the meantime.
“From Nguyen Coffee Supply in New York City, to Fatmiilk in Chicago, to Portland Ca Phe and Caphe Roasters in Philly, there’s a movement happening,” said Nguyen. “I believe that it’s not a trend, but that we are creating a newfound space for ourselves to have a seat at the table with everyone else. Most of these are first-generation businesses, and I believe what we all have found is that if not us, then who? Our parents sacrificed their lives for us to live and dream in America. Our parents’ generation’s motives were survival; our job now is to thrive.”