Editor’s note: New in KC is an ongoing profile series that highlights newly relocated members of the Kansas City startup community, their reasons for a change of scenery, and what they’ve found so far in KC. Click here to read more New in KC profiles.
Lifting the curtain on the region’s first Vietnamese coffee traveling cafe, Jackie Nguyen is casting herself in a new role. The actress-turned-entrepreneur left a decade-long career in ensemble casts this spring, moving to Kansas City to take center stage as a tastemaker changing the metro’s flavor profile.
“I’ll be the only coffee shop in Missouri — not just Kansas City, but Missouri — that’s serving beans from Vietnam,” said Nguyen, referencing the imminent launch of Cafe Cà Phê. “I’m bringing authentic Vietnamese coffee here. It’s brewed differently, the ingredients are different and the flavors I’m bringing are very different.”
From ube to sesame to matcha, exotic flavors traditional coffee shops sometimes dabble in will be permanent fixtures of the Cafe Cà Phê menu, alongside its main star: cà phê đá.
“Traditional Vietnamese iced coffee, that’s going to be my bread and butter. It’s the most delicious thing to me,” she said. “It’s such a quintessential staple in Vietnam — it’s just not available to people at a coffee shop [in the states.]
The caffeinated treat — made with dark roast coffee and condensed milk — will share the spotlight with Nguyen’s take on traditional Vietnamese lemonade made with salt and fermented lemons, modernized with her own twist of lychee fruit.
“I’m making a millennial version of a super old school drink and any Vietnamese person that comes up, they’ll see it and they’ll know what that is — but a new audience or customer base, will be like, ‘What is that,’ and I hope they taste it and they’re like, ‘Oh, this lemonade is bomb’”
Click here to track the whereabouts of the roving roasterie — a tiny house on wheels — via Instagram.
Warm first impression of a cold KC
The City of Fountains was far from frozen this week as Nguyen sat on a sun-soaked rooftop in the Crossroads Arts District, recalling how a much-icier Kansas City — and the renowned illumination of its Plaza Lights — warmed her heart last Christmas.
“It was just so cute,” she said, recalling her first trip to the metro after nearly two years living out of hotel rooms, traveling the country as part of the Broadway revival of “Miss Saigon” — an act that was coming to a close and had the actress actively looking for her next big part.
“I was toying with different things. I was finished with New York and I’m from California — but it was way too expensive. I’ve traveled so much and I feel a sense of community here and a sense of everyone willing to help you out. And that is something that I’ve really admired.”
When COVID-19 shut the production down indefinitely, Nguyen made her way to KC, jumping into the dual roles of director and star at Cafe Cà Phê.
“[On the road] I started doing this project where I would interview different coffee shop owners. I was really interested in opening up my own coffee shop but I knew nothing about it,” she said, noting that a collective of coffee shop owners nationwide helped her navigate everything from funding options to inventory to processes.
“The more I interviewed people, the more energized and stoked I got about the idea. Then I took a trip to Vietnam last summer and that really kind of sparked everything with the theme and the branding and everything that I want to provide in my shop,” she said, calling proud attention to her heritage as a first generation Vietnamese-Ameican.
Now in Kansas City, Nguyen noted fellow roasters have been quick to lend their expertise and resources to help her build the new brand and hopefully a mainstream following, she said atop Messenger’s Coffee, one of the partners she’s met along the way.
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Today our trailer gets a new coat and her brown skin will be lookin real fly. 🔥 Buying this trailer was ✨literally✨ a one day decision. Thanks to Green House Coffee ♻️ for passing down this tiny home to us. Your generosity will never be forgotten. As a new chapter begins soon, we just had to take *one* more moment to soak in her raw beauty, to appreciate the start, and thank her for beginning with US. Can you take a guess what her name is? Yes, we name everything here at Cà Phê. THAT’S OUR BUSINESS 💁🏻♀️ ⚡️HINT She is named after the THE ONE and THE ONLY human form we pray to. 🙏🏻 Comment below your guesses 👇🏽 . . . 📸 @ilanalieberman
Tasting culture behind the beans
A fresh take on traditional menu items isn’t the only flavor Nguyen hopes to bring to Kansas City. Cafe Cà Phê could stand as a catalyst for cultural change, she said.
“Not just here in Kansas City, but the coffee scene in general is very, very much run by millennial, white men or hetero, CIS men. And that’s cool, I support it, I dig it. … But I felt like Kansas City needed more Asian culture,” she said.
“As I started traveling to all those different shops [across the country] and started seeing the different cultures and flavors of what other people were doing — unafraid to break that mold — I was starting to gravitate towards those coffee shops.”
Nguyen is hopeful Cafe Cà Phê can inspire pockets of Asian culture to spread across Kansas City, noting local inspiration from Café Corazón and what its done to elevate Latinx culture in the coffee industry.
“I really hope that coffee shops start to embrace the culture behind them because, if I’m being really frank and really honest, where are the beans being grown? Who are the farmers? People of color. You don’t see any Caucasian farmers picking up beans,” she said, calling attention to the diverse origins of the americanized coffee industry.
“For hundreds of years we’ve been drinking coffee from these farmers of different cultures — from Africa, from Latin America and now from Vietnam. How do we celebrate those cultures that are literally the ones having to do the physical work behind the coffee?”
Such a task starts with a shot of exposure, Nguyen said.
“We need to bring more visibility to it, because people are now interested in the information behind their coffee. So why not diversify it? Why not try and educate people who might be like, ‘I’ve never had Vietnamese coffee. I don’t know much about Vietnam,’ Well, let me show you a little bit more.”
Just humans drinking coffee
Another component to churning cultural conversations: establishing Cafe Cà Phê as a hub for community, Nguyen said, noting the heavy influence of her mother — affectionately known as “Mama Nguyen.”
“If you were to come over to my house, my mom would be like, ‘Call me mom or call me auntie, don’t address me by Ms. Nguyen. You’re my son now. What do you want to eat? Are you thirsty?”
Removing barriers to human-focused hospitality standards could prove just as transformative for Kansas City as Nguyen’s focus on culture, she said.
“There’s this type of guard that we as customers have with waiters and I want to break that down because we are humans,” Nguyen said.
“I want that to be more of a personal interaction, then I’m just serving you coffee. The way I approach my customers and the people I really want to connect with is as if they are going to be part of my family — that’s how they treat people in Vietnam.”
When the world emerges from the pandemic and its emphasis on isolation, human connectedness could be more valuable than anything else Cafe Cà Phê has to offer, Nguyen said.
“This pandemic, if anything, it’s taught us we’re all on the same level. Many of us are unemployed, a lot of us have to stay home. We all have to figure this out at the same time, we don’t have an answer,” she said.
“I’m hoping when we do go back to normal we can start putting our guard down emotionally and make ourselves more vulnerable to each other.”