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Bridging Vietnamese Traditions to Modern Coffee Culture
Where do your coffee beans actually come from, though?
If you walk into one of the million cafés in New York City, you’re bound to see the usual sights: hip patrons, fast-moving baristas, and shelves full of premiere coffee beans.
Brazil and Ethiopia are usually strongly represented; their coffee is what we’ve come to expect everywhere. But a new brand is stepping onto the scene, ready to change minds about the one of the world’s largest and most unsung coffee producers: Vietnam.
Begun in New York in November 2018 by restaurateur and storyteller Sahra Nguyen, Nguyen Coffee Supply was born out of a lack of authentic Vietnamese-sourced coffee. The daughter of Vietnamese refugees, Nguyen intimately understands the history behind her product. And as the country’s traditional coffee drink, served with condensed milk, began hitting the scene, she was excited to get her fix. But, despite the popularity of the drink, she couldn’t find actual Vietnamese coffee.
“No matter where I went, I saw cafes using lighter, fruitier coffees—that weren’t even from Vietnam,” Nguyen told Supermaker, noting that these roasts were different from the nutty, chocolatey Vietnamese coffees she knew and loved. “Some Vietnamese restaurants offered a familiar version of Vietnamese iced coffee, but then I realized they were using pre-ground, cheap coffee. ”
Nguyen began hunting for other sources of Vietnamese coffee, searching New York City supermarkets for the flavors she missed. When she couldn’t find what she was looking for, she started researching to find out why.
She learned that while Vietnam is the world’s second largest producer of coffee beans, most Americans are unfamiliar with the product. Vietnamese beans, due to their strong flavor, are usually used for instant ground and supermarket brand coffee. When it shows up on shelves in the US, it’s in a form few people recognize as Vietnamese—which is why most cafés don’t stock it.
Nguyen says the mainstream narrative around coffee is lead by a predominantly white and male specialty-coffee community. In addition, Vietnamese coffee has been “widely regarded as inferior.” But Nguyen's coffee movement is a part of shifting that narrative, proving Vietnam has a part to play in both coffee production and culture.
Given this context, Nguyen Coffee Supply partners with a fourth-generation coffee grower in the Central Highlands of Vietnam to produce its goods. This direct-trade partnership not only ensures authenticity and quality, it also contributes to the country’s Indigenous movement aiming to improve the lives of coffee farmers.
According to Nguyen, U.S. tastes are moving back to darker, nuttier roasts —which is where her coffee comes in. Nguyen takes a hands on approach with her work; not only does she source the beans herself, she roasts and bags them for customers, too. It’s all about understanding every level of her business, she says. Plus, doing so ensures quality and means she is able to understand the labor involved in creating her product. This way, when she eventually hires others to take it on, she’ll be a more empathetic leader—all of which goes back to the ethos of her brand: ethical, excellent coffee.
The New York reception has been overwhelmingly positive, and the brand is also gaining attention in Vietnam as part of the diaspora. And yet, Nguyen notes how important it is to understand the nuances between Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American identities when it comes to coffee and culinary culture. One is not a stand-in for the other. For example, she says, Vietnamese-Americans love drinking their coffee with Café Du Monde—a New Orleans brand that laces its coffee with chicory. The additive, which is not used in Vietnam, is evidence of a long history of Vietnamese migration to Louisiana following the Vietnam War.
“Within Vietnamese-American and Asian-American communities, we have a unique situation as these communities tend to be engaged in a state of constant re-contextualization within Western spaces,” Nguyen said. “We hope that our presence as a Vietnamese-American-owned company—with American sensibilities and Vietnamese beans—can become one common link between the transnational Vietnamese diaspora and Vietnam.”