Lately, besides Pizza 4P’s and District Eight, another brand with the same international ambitions has caught our eye—Vietnam Coffee Republic (VCR)—led by its founder Phong Lam. Inspired by the need to develop a brand-conscious Vietnamese coffee, Phong has built Vietnam Coffee Republic into an uncompromising name that already has an overseas presence.
We met with Phong at Vietnam Coffee Republic’s showroom on Thai Van Lung in Ho Chi Minh City to learn more about his coffee-making journey and what it means to build a quintessentially Vietnamese brand from the ground up.
As a coffee brand owner, what cup of coffee do you drink every morning?
I’m very random. At times, I’ll make a cup of espresso for myself. At other times, I’ll just ask my staff to brew whatever they feel like making for me that day.
So you spent some time abroad. Did you come back to Vietnam for business? And how did Vietnam Coffee Republic start?
I grew up in Vietnam and I’ve always felt a connection to this country. After observing the market and studying a few successful local brands, I chose the coffee business because coffee is probably one of the most accessible agricultural products in Vietnam. Honestly, I don’t really enjoy the typical cup of Vietnamese coffee. I often find it either too bitter or too strong. That being said, I still recognized its potential. With some adjustments and proper branding, I knew there was a chance to become a leader in the industry, and for our locally-produced coffee beans to reach world-class standards.
I began learning about coffee step by step—first by living on farms in Indonesia and also in the Philippines for six months. I learned about coffee beans and their production process. I also went to Portland, Oregon, to research how to properly roast coffee, before finally making my way back to Vietnam.
What does coffee culture in Vietnam mean to you?
We have a coffee culture, but it is perhaps better defined as a behavioral tendency. A lot of our social activities revolve around having a cup of coffee. It is not just part of our morning routine, but it’s also a great excuse for people to get together. However, there doesn’t seem to be a huge interest in the origins and characteristics of the coffee itself. The typical Vietnamese coffee as we know it is not necessarily the best coffee that Vietnam has to offer.
At Vietnam Coffee Republic, we don’t want to serve the same cup that you’ll find anywhere else in Vietnam. We want to serve a product that is world-class and capable of satisfying the most discerning of palates while being 100% locally produced. Luckily enough—and with a bit of research—one can find exceptionally high-quality coffee beans in Vietnam.
What kind of person takes their afternoon break at Vietnam Coffee Republic?
I’m actually not too concerned with defining my customer base or target market. I don’t want to use marketing tricks or promotions to bring in any particular group of people. Four years ago when I opened my first coffee shop, I really didn’t know exactly who my audience was. I just wanted to focus on the product and on creating a welcoming place where people can enjoy it.
I was concerned about whether the product could survive by itself. I knew if it was strong enough it would thrive and people would enjoy it. At least that’s what I kept telling myself.
What does Vietnam Coffee Republic do differently than its competitors?
We’re not doing anything particularly new or different. We just want to focus on doing things the proper ethical way. At VCR, we strictly follow a process that has already been developed and refined for centuries—from harvesting to packing, roasting, and brewing.
Who else is on your team? Are you currently looking to expand?
I have a team consisting of quality controllers, content creators, an operations manager, and myself—the project leader. We’re currently looking for new members to help with logistics and operations.
We also want to expand our wholesale distribution channels, and we’re doubling down on that focus. One of our key distributors is in Copenhagen, Denmark, and we’re always looking for more collaborators.
Are there other coffee shops in Ho Chi Minh City serving your product?
Our coffee is sold at various coffee shops, hotels, and retailers in HCMC. You can find many of them on the streets of Nguyen Hue or Le Loi. Most of our distributors began as regular customers. They would come into the shop for a cup of coffee, and later express an interest in carrying the product after falling in love with it. That’s usually how the conversation starts. It’s hard to convince someone to endorse a product they haven’t tried, so we don’t really aim to change people’s mind or sell them on our products. We only ask that they try our coffee.
What’s next for VCR?
Our website is currently one of our primary initiatives. We’ve dedicated more than a year now to its development. We want to make our brand more internationally accessible and showcase our product to a wider audience. Aside from producing coffee beans and coffee products, we also have a story to tell, and a desire to introduce the “Vietnam experience” to the world through our coffee.
In terms of products, Ready to Drink is a new line that we’re super excited about. The first product in this line will be cold brew coffee in a bottle. We call it “Ca Phe Da”. I think cold brew coffee served in a bottle is a concept that will gain popularity. It’s different from the variety of bottled coffee drinks currently being offered at supermarkets. It’s not merely just a coffee flavored drink, but a carefully crafted product that offers both convenience, as well as actual, unadulterated, great-quality coffee. Think of it as something similar to the making of beer and wine—the raw materials go straight into the bottle.
A few years ago, the typical cold brew product could only stay fresh for seven to ten days. But at Vietnam Coffee Republic, we employ a modern bottling process that allows us to keep it fresh for up to six months, which hopefully means that more people will be able to enjoy it.
What are the best sellers at Vietnam Coffee Republic?
The best seller is our 70/30 blend, which contains 70% arabica. It’s a less caffeinated but more aromatic variety of coffee bean. It’s the blend that we use for our “Cong Hoa Sua Da”.
Who should we speak with next?
You should speak to Tuann Kyle who writes for his own website, Upward Class. Now he lives here in Ho Chi Minh City, but he’s originally from Hanoi.