‘Coffee Intertwined with Conversation’ – The Vietnamese Way

Jackie Nguyen outside her new Vietnamese coffee shop, Cafe Cà Phê, opening this spring in Columbus Park. (photo by Jim Barcus)

Actress Jackie Nguyen to open the Midwest’s first Vietnamese coffee shop in Columbus Park

Actress, activist, former barista, and soon to be the proprietor of the first Vietnamese coffee shop in the Midwest, Jackie Nguyen landed in Kansas City after she lost her starring role in “Miss Saigon” when the production’s Broadway tour was cancelled due to COVID-19.

Nguyen found herself in a challenging spot, unable to return to her subleased apartment in New York and unable to join her immuno-compromised mother in San Diego. Then, her partner and fellow actor Noah Gouldsmith, an Independence native, came up with a solution: Move to Kansas City for a while. The two had appeared together in “Miss Saigon” when it stopped in Kansas City in 2019, and Nguyen (pronounced “win”) was favorably impressed. The Plaza lights, the downtown vibe, the pockets of community, and the overall affordability were appealing. Nguyen saw a gap in Asian influences but also an openness and cooperativeness for new ventures.

She and Gouldsmith moved to Kansas City in July, and her coffee dream began percolating.

Prior to landing its new bricks and mortar home in Columbus Park, Cafe Cà Phê operated out of a food truck. (Travis Young Photography)

A few years earlier, when Nguyen, a first-generation Vietnamese American, had visited Vietnam and been struck by the “incredible” coffee culture there, she began thinking that that might be her post-performance career. In Kansas City, she decided to make her move. Nguyen invested every penny she had, roughly $10,000, and, along with funding from a Kickstarter campaign, began serving Vietnamese coffee from a small table outside a nail shop. The venture, named Cafe Cà Phê, became mobile when she moved it to a food truck in 2020. But Nguyen dreamed of a permanent location and set out to make that dream a reality.

It’s all being done “bootstrapped,” in Nguyen’s description. As a woman of color, she found traditional funding exceedingly hard to come by, especially during the pandemic. She also didn’t want to start the brick and mortar saddled with debt. Instead of loans, she sought the necessary money through fundraisers, a $75,000 GoFundMe campaign, grants and scholarships. Her goal was to raise $98,000.

Now that goal is in sight, and Cafe Cà Phê will open a permanent space at 916 E. 5th Street in Columbus Park
this May/June.

At Cafe Cà Phê, it’s “coffee intertwined with conversation,” the Vietnamese way. (Travis Young Photography)

Entrepreneurship as Activism

Cafe Cà Phê is one of only 10 Vietnamese coffee shops nationwide. It stands at the forefront of what Nguyen terms the “coffee revolution.”

Her goals extend beyond coffee: She wants to “amplify the Asian-American narrative in the Midwest.” She wants to give opportunities to all marginalized entrepreneurs — women, Asian, Black, Latino, queer/non-binary. Her events up to now, which have included 80 pop-ups, have featured markets of local artists and small business producers. She wants Cafe Cà Phê to feel like a “second home,” as coffee shops do in Vietnam, to exude a family feeling of comfort and connectedness. “Coffee intertwined with conversation,” the Vietnamese way.

Nearly everyone connected with Cafe Cà Phê has some kind of immigrant status — first-generation Vietnamese, Japanese American, Mexican American. This was all the more fitting as Nguyen increasingly developed a social activist platform over the last two years, particularly amidst COVID-related anti-Asian sentiment. A “Stop Asian Hate Vigil” she organized was attended by 500 people.

From musical theater to business owner and social provocateur, Nguyen still finds time and place for the arts. From the beginning, she has worked with queer-led Love Letter Creative to develop Cafe Cà Phê’s look, colors and logo. Kansas City Art Institute graduate Anna Marten is designing the menu. Window murals by Kansas City artist Andrea Bosnak and an outdoor mural by Kansas City artist Daniel Bartle will welcome patrons. Every weekend, space will be provided for disenfranchised local artists and entrepreneurs to showcase their products. Nguyen plans to hold annual Lunar New Year, Autumn Moon and Pride festivals.

And the coffee is an art in itself.

Starting with special, double-the-caffeine Robusta beans imported from a farm in Vietnam by first-generation Nguyen Coffee Supply in Brooklyn, the drink is brewed using a three-layer phin filter. The process is slow (ensuring time for maximum socializing); the flavor is deep. Condensed milk, made a component when fresh milk was unavailable in Vietnam, is then added, creating a thick and balanced confection. The shop offers several flavor options, including sesame, cardamom and lychee flavors. Choose the ube, purple yam variety named the “hella good latte,” and you will have before you a real art object.

It’s been a little over two years since Nguyen threw herself into this, and it has been, she says, “wild.” She’s been covered in “Forbes Magazine,” she was given a city decree by Mayor Lucas, she became a member of the KC Parks and Rec board. She’s spoken on various national podcasts; she’s been featured in most local TV and print media. She’s proven her dragon qualities, which she lists as “tenacious, authentic and real as #$!”

Nguyen allies herself with all who find it difficult to make their way in society. As she states, we “want to be loud and want to make room.” She mentions the possibility of, eventually, an Asian-inspired museum, events and classes. And not just in Kansas City, but replicated in other Midwest cities. Nguyen has a movement in mind.

Columbus Park will be the immediate beneficiary, but the whole city has already embraced Nguyen and Cafe Cà Phê. It’s her “passion project,” and one she hopes will inspire others to “change the game” in how women and people of color start businesses. When they are able to “create generational wealth,” society will be stronger.

What Jackie Nguyen is serving is not just Vietnamese coffee, but a new cultural landscape.

For more about Jackie Nguyen and Cafe Cà Phê, visit www.cafecaphe.com.

Rebecca Smith

Rebecca Smith is an impassioned supporter of local performances of all types, who welcomes the  opportunity to promote them to KC Studio readers.

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