As the force behind Nguyen Coffee Supply, the “first ever Vietnamese-American-owned importer, supplier, and roaster of green coffee beans from Vietnam in New York,” entrepreneur and activist Sahra Nguyen is on a mission. After recognizing the discrepancy between Vietnam’s celebrated coffee culture and its thoroughly overlooked coffee bean production, Sahra and her company are working to sustain honest Vietnamese coffee from start to finish. It starts with empowering local coffee farmers and doing justice to Vietnam’s much maligned robusta bean. The result is not only the company’s delightful range of blends, but a new story for Vietnamese coffee that runs deeper than the added stir of condensed milk.
We had the chance to talk to Sahra about the roots of her passion and everything she’s learned through starting Nguyen Coffee Supply. Read about her work and journey below.
Tell us about your first memories with Vietnamese coffee.
I was two years old when my parents first brought me to Vietnam to visit my grandparents and extended family. This was in 1988. So it was real old Vietnam. I remember seeing all the men drink coffee from the little phins and the table filled with ashtrays and cigarettes.
As a kid, the phin really looked like a toy to me and the smell was so pleasant, especially when there was cigarette smoke flying around. But of course, I was never allowed to get close to the phin, so in my mind, Vietnamese coffee was always a coveted experience. As I got older, this desire only grew when I realized I couldn’t find real Vietnamese coffee (beans) anywhere in my city.
The empowerment of marginalized communities threads through all of your work. Can you tell us about when this passion began?
I definitely started developing my passion for social justice during high school—when I joined a youth activist group called the “Coalition for Asian Pacific American Youth (CAPAY).”
Through CAPAY, we organized youth rallies, weekend workshops around racial justice, and state conferences for other youth like me. This involvement has really been the catalyst for all my future work, from majoring in Asian American Studies at UCLA and becoming involved on my campus as a student activist; to making documentary films which center Asian American representation and experiences. My passion for increasing visibility of marginalized folks and promoting community empowerment through the different channels of my work has only grown.
What inspired the Nguyen Coffee Supply project?
I’ve always loved Vietnamese food and drink—that’s what inspired me to open Lucy’s Vietnamese Kitchen, a New York Times-recognized pho and banh mi restaurant in Brooklyn, back in 2015. Over recent years, I noticed that most specialty coffee shops in New York City selling “Vietnamese coffee” or “Vietnamese iced coffee” were not using coffee beans from Vietnam. They would use coffee beans from Africa or South America, add condensed milk, then call it “Vietnamese coffee.” This is simply false advertising, and worst of all, it means that Vietnamese coffee producers abroad were not benefitting from the transaction that utilized Vietnamese culture to sell a product.
As I searched major supermarkets in the city and specialty cafes, I could not find one company offering a single origin, fresh roasted Vietnamese coffee bean. All of these experiences became motivating factors in my journey to create Nguyen Coffee Supply.
Vietnam is the second largest producer of coffee in the world, and the U.S. is the second largest importer of Vietnamese coffee beans—but this is something many Americans are unaware of. This gap in understanding is largely due to lack of transparency, visibility, and representation. As someone who comes from a community-organizing background, I felt passionate about uplifting the narrative about Vietnamese coffee, culture and production by increasing their visibility so their movement abroad can grow as well.
What were some of the challenges and surprises you faced when getting it off the ground?
One of the biggest challenges we anticipated, which also turned out to be a good surprise, involves tackling the industry stigma surrounding the much-maligned robusta bean. The specialty coffee industry exclusively celebrates arabica beans, and we love arabica beans too, but we also know that Vietnamese coffee is delicious and we wanted to create space for the robusta bean to be celebrated as well. Because robusta, which is the primary coffee produced in Vietnam, is utilized in cheaper coffee products and thus often considered to be inferior, we didn’t know how consumers and coffee media would respond to our Loyalty blend, which is a combination of arabica and robusta. To our surprise, people have loved it in blind tastings, coffee beverages, and as a regular drip coffee. It’s now our best seller!
This past weekend, we took another bold move and debuted our new coffee, Grit, a 100% single origin peaberry robusta, at the New York Coffee Festival. We were the only booth that showcased 100% robusta—and it was our most popular coffee all weekend. People came up to us in hordes asking to try. And once they did, most of them loved it. A self-proclaimed “coffee snob” said he was wildly surprised at how pleasant, soft, and delicious Grit was, and admitted to having perpetuated the negative connotations around robusta coffee without ever trying it first. Changing the narrative through education and awareness is going to be a constant challenge for us as we continue to build the brand—it’s pretty much essential in order for the product to thrive. But the great news is that since we’ve started, we’ve received countless emails and direct messages about people telling us how much they love our coffee.
What have been the most rewarding moments in this journey so far?
There have been so many, and I’m extremely thankful to my team who helped get Nguyen Coffee Supply to where it is today. Within two months of launching, we had the honor of being named a Rising Star in the Roaster category by Star Chefs, a hospitality organization here in the US. To be honored alongside some of the best restaurants and most talented chefs in New York City was surreal. We’ve also been so fortunate to have received the support in the press—including a full-page story in the Wall Street Journal all about Vietnamese coffee, in which we were able to shout out some of our peers in this burgeoning market for coffee from Vietnam.
And of course there was Cafe Phin, our four-month Vietnamese coffee pop-up that operated out of the longtime Vietnamese restaurant An Choi. Here, we hosted community cuppings, educated folks about the phin brewing method, and debuted our first-ever original drinks including the Sea Salt Shakerato and Ube Iced Latte—all made with Nguyen Coffee Supply.
Through all of these moments, I’m most invigorated when I get messages from other Vietnamese Americans and Asian Americans saying, “Thank you. I feel seen,” and “I used to be ashamed of my last name because no one could pronounce it, but now I’ve never felt so proud to see my last name ‘Nguyen’ represented positively.” Finally, I will say it’s an honor every day to bring attention to and shape the narrative surrounding Vietnamese culture in a way that’s sustainable, equitable, and honest to the Vietnamese people and Vietnamese ingredients. The culture-shifting work that Nguyen Coffee Supply is pushing here in the United States is intended to support and uplift the specialty coffee movement in Vietnam working to improve their production, wages, and quality of life.
As an entrepreneur, you have to handle every aspect of the organization. What are some skills you gained along the way that you’re proud of?
There have been so many “firsts” for me; it’s hard to even list them all. Like you said, I wanted to be the kind of founder who touched every aspect of the business: going to Vietnam to meet our farmers and distributors, roasting and packaging our beans, designing and printing our merchandise, marketing and pitching Nguyen Coffee Supply to press, launching and overseeing our brick-and-mortar pop-up, and fundraising and selling our vision.
One of the skills I’m most proud of learning over the last year is roasting. I took a 4-week course to learn how to roast and operate the Probat so that I could have a direct role in creating our coffee profiles and ensure the quality of every batch of Nguyen Coffee Supply. Not only has roasting been a huge learning curve for me, but it’s also been one of the most exciting parts of building Nguyen Coffee Supply—to be a total student again and adopt the “Beginner’s Mind” and commit myself to improving the craft has been such a therapeutic and gratifying process.
Have you had any mentors along the way?
Definitely—as someone who had zero prior experience in the coffee and importing industries, I’m super grateful to the folks who shared their time with me. One of them is my friend Linh, who is originally from Hanoi, but now owns and operates a coffee shop in my neighborhood of Brooklyn. Linh is actually the first person who helped me sample roast my green beans from Da Lat, and was always helpful in answering my questions about general coffee things. I’m also his dog’s godmother!
Another person I deeply admire and respect is industry expert, Will Frith, whom I cold-emailed at the beginning of my launch, just to say hi because I had read all of his work around specialty coffee in Vietnam. He’s been pushing the movement for years before I entered the game. Whenever I have a question and need guidance, I can ask Will and he always supports my learning. He’s definitely a source of inspiration and compass in the pursuit of building equitable and sustainable systems. I mean—his “building” project in Saigon is just amazing!
Beyond the coffee industry, I have a handful of mentors who guide me in the path of being an entrepreneur and just an all around quality human being. My brother-in-law, Andrew Tan, is the founder/CEO of tech start up FeedMob, so he coaches me heavy on business stuff. Restaurateur Wilson Tang has been mentoring me in my growth path since my restaurant days, and he’s really great at helping me navigate relationships. More recently, the Oxtale sisters, Kim and Vanessa Pham, have become huge mentors of mine. They are brilliant and intelligent beyond their years, and they’re doing some incredible, culture-shifting work with Asian cuisine and culture!
What new opportunities for Nguyen Coffee Supply are you most excited about?
Our brand is strong and our message has been clear. Now in our fundraising phase, I’m excited to scale up our vision so we can reach even more consumers and wholesale accounts all over America. I’ve been really happy with the data and progress thus far, and it will be all about making our product more easily available for folks across the country. With increased bandwidth, I’m also really excited about spending time on creating compelling content and educational materials to grow the visibility of Vietnamese coffee and culture. Also, after the success of Cafe Phin I’m looking forward to eventually having a flagship location where we can invite guests, host community cuppings, and educational workshops for people to come try our coffee first-hand.
What do you envision for the company in the next five years? And for yourself?
Within the next five years, I envision a solid national distribution network, a flagship location with roastery and retail space, as well as a few more cafes in select cities. As for myself, I envision a sustainable lifestyle where I am mentally, physically, and spiritually healthy.
If you could have a conversation with a younger pre-Nguyen Coffee Supply Sahra, what would you tell yourself?
Stop worrying about what people think of you. It’s a huge waste of mental space.
Your favorite way to make and drink coffee.
Definitely the phin because it’s the perfect little tool that’s so easy to use (and clean) with no paper waste. Also, very therapeutic to watch it drip at the perfect pace which means the perfect extraction level for my preference. I love it with just a teaspoon of condensed milk and ice.