Café Cà Phê is the first and only Vietnamese coffee shop in Kansas City. What grew from an idea into a passion project sprung to life last year when owner Jackie Nguyen began serving up traditional flavors from her coffee truck all over the metro. Now, she’s taking the leap to open a permanent shop in Columbus Park.
Nguyen, the daughter of a Vietnamese refugee, was born and raised in southern California, and that’s where her coffee career began. After graduating college, she moved to New York to pursue musical theater, and lived there for 10 years, working on touring shows.
“I’ve done a lot of them, and the last show that I did was the Broadway revival of Miss Saigon, and I was on that show starting August 2018, and it was supposed to end July 2020,” Nguyen said.
Throughout high school, college and into the early years of her career, Nguyen worked as a barista to support herself, and appreciated how flexible it was.
“I really loved the people, I found that being busy with my hands and being within the coffee community, it was really gratifying and I just loved the job,” Nguyen said.
She worked for eight years as a barista at various Starbucks locations, even between international tours, and knew coffee would always be a part of her plan.
“We had toured through Kansas City during Christmas time in 2019,” Nguyen said. “We were here for like two weeks, and my boyfriend, who was also an actor and dancer, is originally from Kansas City.”
Her boyfriend and his family showed her around Kansas City, and although she didn’t know what to expect, she really loved it.
“I had no prior knowledge of the city at all, and then when we got here, it was so cool,” Nguyen said. “I found that there were so many artists and really cool, hip neighborhoods that were up and coming. It was kind of tucked in the back of my mind. I was like, ‘Oh, I’d like to maybe explore this place, eventually,’ but I didn’t know when.”
Little did she know, that time was coming soon. While they finished the rest of their tour, the idea of Café Cà Phê began to percolate.
“I knew eventually I wanted to move out of New York and I wanted to do something that was a bit different, but it was more like just a passion project, it wasn’t by any means a real plan. I thought it was a really cool idea, so I started interviewing different coffee shops on the road and just started doing research, reading books and stuff like that.”
And then the pandemic hit. Their tour was in Florida when the show got shut down. Producers let them know that it wouldn’t resume even if Broadway did reopen that season.
“All of us were out of a job, and that kind of pushed me to then be like, ‘Okay, well maybe my passion project is actually a plan now,’” Nguyen said. “New York was shut down, and California. It was at that time where you didn’t really know what you could do.”
She stayed in Florida with family while her boyfriend headed back to his in Independence, Mo. As the pandemic wore on, he suggested she join him and start her coffee shop here. Left with no career options and remembering how much she liked Kansas City, she started making plans.
“I was like, ‘Oh well, there’s no Vietnamese coffee shops here. I could definitely do that and I feel like that could be something that I do to kill time while the pandemic is crazy,’” Nguyen said. “So I ended up moving here in June of last year. Had I not toured through here previously, or had any affiliation with it, I don’t know if I would be here but I’m so glad that my tour took me here and that my boyfriend took me around town. It was just this weird series of events that just trickled down to me moving here.”
Unlike many of her peers, Broadway wasn’t necessarily her dream, but rather something she was good at and loved doing, so she had set it as her goal.
“As that one ended, this wasn’t necessarily my dream either,” Nguyen said, adding that she never could have predicted this path. “It’s been kind of surreal this whole time because this was so unexpected, the timing of it all. I was forced because of the pandemic, because of my lack of a job. It pushed me to open Café Cà Phê sooner, or just in general. Cà phê means coffee in Vietnamese, so that’s why we were like, ‘Cool alliteration, Café Cà Phê.’”
Nguyen created a 35-page business plan. She applied for the building that her café will soon call home a year ago, but the landlord didn’t want to see her fail by trying to start a coffee shop at the height of COVID as other businesses shuttered around the city.
“I had not even sold a cup of coffee yet,” Nguyen said. “It was just an idea, I just had my logos, I had my menu, but I had not even sold one coffee cup of coffee. It was really hard because restaurants and bars were shutting down, and I was not sure if it was the right move because I didn’t know how long the pandemic was going to last, I didn’t know if restaurants were going to be shut down indefinitely. It was just such a mysterious time.”
Despite the setback, she still wanted to find a way to sell her coffee and see what the reception was like.
“I contacted different businesses in town, and a nail shop in Westport basically agreed to let me have a little stand outside of their shop,” Nguyen said. “I would set up a table on the weekends where I’d sell cups of coffee. I’d bring ice, I’d bring all that stuff and I would just sell cups to their customers. Slowly, people were like, ‘Oh my gosh, I like this.’”
Since then, she’s gained regular customers, made friends, and found support all over Kansas City at pop-up craft shows, community events and outside businesses.
“I can’t imagine my life without my customers,” Nguyen said. “It’s weird because I don’t even consider them my customers, they’re my friends. They help me by giving me money, I help them by giving them coffee, like that’s how I feel. I don’t feel like I’m running a business… It’s been awesome and I feel very lucky to be surrounded by such loving and supportive people here. It’s just so weird to imagine my life without it.”
Nguyen found a food truck off of Facebook Marketplace and bought it, and asked people she had gotten to know around town to help her find a food truck builder. Once the process got rolling, she became fully mobile. Now, sitting in the empty space where her future coffee shop will be, she’s imagining all the possibilities.
“Everything is kind of curated with the influence from Southeast Asia or direct flavor profiles from Vietnamese cuisine, and we plan to introduce a few more new items to the menu once we’re here because we’ll finally have space to make and store stuff,” Nguyen said. “But I’m hoping to bring in like one or two more traditional Vietnamese style coffees here.”
No matter what coffee customers order, it’ll be Vietnamese because their beans are grown in Vietnam. They’re then roasted in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“That is what makes it the most authentic is that your beans that the espresso – even if you’re drinking a latte or cappuccino – the coffee is still Vietnamese, which we’re the only shop in all of Kansas City that serves beans from Vietnam so that’s a very unique twist on our shop.”
The most traditional drink on her menu is the Saigon. Nguyen’s mom was born in Saigon, Vietnam, and the tradition is a taste of home.
“It is your classic Vietnamese iced coffee,” Nguyen said. “It’s made in a Vietnamese style, like a slow drip style, and made with condensed milk. Anywhere in Vietnam you can find that and it’s served over ice – you can have it hot, as well – Vietnam Café serves it, it’s just very traditional and popular.”
Other drinks on the menu are less traditional style, but they’re still flavored with traditionally Southeast Asian staples – lychee, green tea, cardamom and ube, inspired by a recent trip to Vietnam.
Vietnamese coffee culture exists, it just doesn’t have a spotlight on it, Nguyen said. If people have tried it or sought it out, it can definitely be found here.
“I really hope to bring that sense of Asian culture into the mainstream of the coffee community,” Nguyen said. “I feel like the coffee culture in Vietnam, and the type of coffee – the way we brew it, the flavors – deserve to feel equal to all the other shops because it’s just such good quality coffee and it has substance to it.”
She wants to show people that there could be a type of cuisine that can be just as delicious, but because they don’t know about it or it seems too different, it doesn’t get as much recognition as it should.
“If Starbucks were to come out with a Vietnamese iced coffee, people would go bananas, right? Like they’d be like, ‘Oh my god, this is the best thing ever!’ But that’s because they have a mainstream platform,” Nguyen said. “It’s not like Vietnamese coffee never existed, it’s always been there, but it doesn’t have a proper platform to put it out to a different audience.”
That’s what she hopes to achieve with Café Cà Phê. Nguyen wants to be in the space as soon as possible, hopefully by the end of the year, but it’s a more complicated process than anticipated. She started a GoFundMe for equipment and necessary upgrades to the building.
All the donations will go toward getting the space in shape, from rewiring electricity to adding two bathrooms, building a coffee bar, paint, HVAC, seating, muralists, a new espresso machine, an ice machine and fridges. Some funds will be set aside to help her baristas if it gets too cold to operate the truck before the shop opens.
“The fact that there’s a roof, and that there’s going to be a space we can always come to is just incredible,” Nguyen said. “I picture the bar in the middle and people sitting in here having a good time with their coffee and just enjoying conversations. It just feels surreal to me because clearly there’s nothing here right now.”
She wants to continue supporting pop-ups and local artists, and bring life into the empty space.
“It’s a new era, the coffee shop chapter of my life, I guess, so I’m trying to make it the same but also make it specific to this experience where I don’t want to copy everything I’ve done with my cart because that’s been its own version and now this is a different version,” Nguyen said. “I still think it’s going to be just as fun, just as safe, just as outspoken, just with more of a protective guard over it because the cart’s so small and weather really messes up if we can serve. This is going to be a little bit more reliable.”
Café Cà Phê has used its platform to speak up for not only the Asian American community, but anyone experiencing discrimination. Last year, they participated in Stop Asian Hate rallies in Kansas City at the height of COVID.
“Because we are one of the few Asian businesses in town, and we’re very outspoken on our social media about what we support, one of the main goals of Café Cà Phê is to amplify the Asian narrative in the Midwest,” Nguyen said. “Because so many Asians and Asian Americans were being attacked because of all the drama with COVID and certain political figures blaming the Asian culture for it, we felt like it was our responsibility to say something and to do something to honor the lives that were lost, and we really hope we continue to do that we want to make sure that like we can support Asian-owned businesses in this space.”
Nguyen knows there’s not a lot of spaces that specifically seek out Asian small businesses, so she wants Café Cà Phê to help with that.
“There are Asian people here in Kansas City, there’s just no outlet or medium for people to explore that or feel like they have somewhere that they feel like they fit in,” Nguyen said.
Since she first came to Kansas City, Columbus Park has been one of her favorite parts of town because of Vietnam Café and Happy Gillis, and because it reminds her of her neighborhood in New York. When she recognized that the community was lacking a coffee shop, she wanted to provide.
“I’m very aware that some communities need certain things and some communities don’t want certain things and I know that gentrification and having big-time companies come in was not something that this neighborhood was very keen about,” Nguyen said. “I was really hoping that I could find a space here because I feel like this neighborhood is all pretty much made up of a refugee population, mainly Italians and Vietnamese.”
Because it has one of the larger Vietnamese populations in town, she thought it would be perfect, and also provide a level of safety for her as an Asian American woman.
“I actually feel safe knowing that there are other Vietnamese people around and that they support and understand me,” Nguyen said. “There’s a sense of home, and so that’s why I chose Columbus Park. I’m very grateful. I’ve kept my eyes on Columbus Park for a year now and I was seriously not going to give up. That is where my shop is going to be. I don’t want it to be anywhere else.”
She hopes more businesses join them in Columbus Park, but that they are supportive of the community and know that, first and foremost, the community’s needs come before business. Nguyen hopes to move to the neighborhood soon and wants to start getting to know more of her neighbors.
“This is my plan now,” Nguyen said. “This is what I’ve always wanted. So yeah, I plan to be here for a long time, unless something crazy happens or whatever. You know, you can’t predict that, but what I can say is I want to be here for a long time. I would love to be here as long as I can be.”