Launched in 2020 by Doris Hồ-Kane, Bạn Bè is the first bakery in New York City dedicated specifically to Vietnamese pastries and desserts like bánh and chè. Despite the fact that Vietnamese desserts are relatively unknown in America compared to staples like pho and banh mi, the bakery has become an instant success. Even before it opened, Bạn Bè had attracted a waitlist for over 100 of its signature cookie tins just through Instagram alone.
But fans of Bạn Bè are also coming for the content: the brand’s fashionable but relaxed aesthetic spotlights vintage photography and old newspaper clippings from Vietnam and the Vietnamese diaspora. The eye-catching aesthetic makes sense: before opening the bakery, Hồ-Kane worked for a decade in fashion. Plus, she’s a noted historian, archivist, and the founder of 17.21 WOMEN — a photo curation project dedicated to Asian women. “It’s a way for me to heal and commune with my ancestors,” explains Hồ-Kane, whose parents were Vietnamese boat people.
Through Bạn Bè, Hồ-Kane says she’s been able to reach fellow Vietnamese Americans who miss the taste of home — a way to pay homage to the community. And the waitlist continues to grow. Vietcetera spoke to Hồ-Kane to learn more about Bạn Bè, 17.21 WOMEN and her mission to bring Vietnamese baked goods to Brooklyn — and beyond.
Can you tell us about your bold decision to spotlight Vietnamese sweets and pastries, which are relatively lesser known compared to staples like pho?
The absence of Vietnamese desserts was — and still is — staggering here in New York City. When I came up with my bakery concept in October 2019, it was a long time coming. To my knowledge (I’m a historian and archivist, so I tend to over-research) no one else had leaped. A tiny seed was planted back in 2001when I moved from Dallas to NYC for art school. Suddenly going from Việt supermarkets with mountains of xôi, cups of chè, and Saran-wrapped bánh bò to only one option of chè ba màu was pretty heartbreaking. I knew that a Vietnamese bakery would make NYC feel like home for me and for other displaced Vietnamese Americans, too.
Would you describe your flavors as traditionally Vietnamese, or adjusted for the “American taste”?
A mix of both! I refer to Bạn Bè as a Vietnamese American bakery because it concisely describes the duality in which I grew up. Navigating what it means to be Vietnamese and American, contextualizing our ingredients and intertwining our stories to invoke accurate representation. It’s like, come eat delicious desserts, and while you’re at it, learn something.
What are the challenges and opportunities of being known as “NYC’s first Vietnamese American bakery”?
Opportunities have been abundant, generous, and bold, but I still aim to stay small while going big on intention and reach. I’ll always want to have my hands on everything! Besides all of the day-to-day bureaucracy, a challenge that I’ve encountered is the continual erasure of my story. A statement of “first” anything welcomes contrarians and people who want that accolade, however minor, for themselves. Unfortunately, erasure and marginalization within our community happen and I acknowledge that. It’s an insidious byproduct of white supremacy.
But this certainly doesn’t fit into the bigger narrative of community and care that I feel so fervently from customers and fellow Vietnamese businesses. When something good happens for one of us, we all win. There is absolutely room for all of us. We take care of our community, and once we start healing, we’re able to let that tenderness and care radiate into other communities that need it most.
What’s your proudest moment as the owner of Bạn Bè?
Signing the lease for the space in 2020! What a huge leap.
How big is your team, and how are you managing with all the demand?
Right now, it’s only me, my husband, and a good friend and pastry chef that make up this little but mighty Bạn Bè team. They are an immensely strong core, and that foundation will help so much once I start thinking about expanding the team. The bakery continues to do extremely well amidst the pandemic. My cookie tin waitlist grows and grows.
What’s next for Bạn Bè?
I’ve been approached by several investors for over a year now, but I’ve decided to pause those conversations for now. Eventually, I would love to have a production studio separate from the bakery and café space in Brooklyn. Bạn Bè in Saigon and Paris would also be a dream.
What dishes do you hope to add to the menu?
Along with desserts like chè, bánh bò, bánh tiêu, bánh cam, bánh bao chỉ, and thạch rau câu, I would love to offer more savory bánh like bánh mì, bánh ít, and patê sô.
How did your parents’ immigrant story impact your choice of career?
My parents inadvertently inspired me to go into food, but restaurant life is so hard and most parents never want to see their kids struggling. My career path has not been linear. I worked in the fashion industry as a designer, stylist, buyer, etcetera for over a decade before I made the switch to food. My family’s story is a familiar one—they are boat people and I’m a proud daughter of refugees.
You also founded 17.12 WOMEN, an extraordinary Instagram archive of Asian women. What was the inspiration behind it?
The women who came before me are the inspiration behind 17.21 WOMEN. Their powerful voices, resilience, and grit are the cornerstone of my work. As with Bạn Bè, it’s a way for me to heal and commune with my ancestors.