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Khang Nguyen was 13 years old when he entered Kensington Health Sciences High School in 2016. A recent immigrant from Vietnam, he spoke very little English, and on his orientation day, he wasn’t sure how he would navigate the hallways.
A tour led Nguyen to a center operated by 12 PLUS, a nonprofit that supports underserved populations with college and career planning, and its site director, a Drexel graduate named Thu Pham. The center would be a safe place for him, Pham told Nguyen, where he could spend time during lunch and before and after school. The words comforted the new boy — mainly because he heard them spoken in Vietnamese.
Two years later, Pham left 12 PLUS to pursue her own dream: running Philadelphia’s first Vietnamese specialty coffee roastery.
As Pham developed her brand through pop-up shops and wholesale partners- a celebrated effort that led to a Federal Donuts contract and a Kensington Avenue Storefront Challenge grant — her former student watched closely on social media, and made sure he stayed in touch. And when Pham held the grand opening of Càphê Roasters in Harrowgate earlier this fall, Nguyen stood at the front as a head barista.
Cafe co-owners Thu Pham and Raymond John, also a founder of 12 PLUS, want Càphê Roasters to be a hub of stories like this one, a place where customers can learn about Vietnamese culture through coffee, food and conversation. Just before the public space opened in the MaKen Studio North building on J Street and Kensington Avenue, the roastery got national attention for its emphasis on Vietnamese coffee production and preparation, and for its place in a surge of likeminded shops throughout the U.S. focusing on Vietnamese coffee tradition.
With a storefront purposely set In Harrowgate, a locus of Philadelphia’s opioid crisis, Pham and John are working to create the antithesis of chain coffeehouses.
“We want people to spend time here,” Pham said. “We want them to talk to us and get to know our stories.” The cafe’s aesthetic is inviting, created through neutral tones, abundant lighting, and potted trees — a sharp contrast to the shadows cast by the El tracks along Kensington Avenue just outside. Modern furniture features bamboo elements, and tables are gathered near credenzas decorated with family photographs and contemporary nonfiction books.
Vietnamese coffee preparation is an art form, and adherence to custom requires baristas to take their time. Patrons have to be open about visiting the cafe with an intention to relax, not just grab a to-go cup during the morning hustle. The relaxation concept is not new to Harrowgate: In the late 18th century, a discovery of springs in the area led it to become a wellness destination for wealthy Philadelphians seeking the restorative powers of mineral waters.
“It takes a lot of effort to have a cup of coffee like this,” said Nguyen, the barista and former student, pointing to a cup of “ca phe sua,” a traditional Vietnamese coffee prepared through a ritual shared by generations of families.
Pham’s first memories of coffee involve watching her older sister make “ca phe sua da” after her family emigrated from Vietnam.
“She would pick me up and put me on the counter,” she recalled with a smile. The little girl would watch as the older one scooped grounds from a yellow can into a Vietnamese filter, and placed it over a glass cup holding thick, condensed milk. Pouring hot water over the grounds, her sister would let the syrupy brew drip into the glass as she shaved ice for the finished drink. “Not a lot of cafes are willing to spend time preparing one cup of coffee,” Pham said. “And we are willing to do that.”
Growing up in Philadelphia, Pham noticed some cafes advertised “Vietnamese coffee,” but defined it simply as adding condensed milk to anything brewed. And most shops did not brew beans from Southeast or East Asia.
Vietnam is the world’s second exporter of coffee beans after Brazil, but customers of high-end coffee retailers in the U.S. might not recognize the taste of the bean variety. Known as robusta, it has an earthy, somewhat bitter flavor and at least twice the caffeine of arabica, a sweeter tasting bean produced by South American and African countries. Starbucks uses arabica beans, as do La Colombe and most local roasters. The robusta bean is often used in Italian espresso, and for instant coffee, where its intense flavor and caffeine jolt shine.
Càphê Roasters sources its beans from Vietnam and other Southeast Asian and East Asian regions, then roasts and packages, brews and serves them onsite. In addition to “ca phe sua,” the drinks menu lists Vietnamese lattes, teas, and egg coffee, an iced drink made with egg custard, condensed milk, cocoa powder and Vietnamese espresso. Food items include pumpkin-soup inspired porridge, “com tam thit nuong,” a rice dish with pork chop and fried egg, and banh mi sandwiches.
Directly linking Vietnamese cultivation to Philadelphia craft, the business honors the history of not only Harrowgate but also the Vietnamese community within it. If there is one person at the cafe who “lives and breathes this community,” said Pham, it is her former student and current employee.
Now 19, Nguyen is a community college student with an interest in finance. For his senior project at Kensington Health Sciences, he researched topics of Vietnamese economics and learned more than he had ever known about the importance of coffee to the nation’s history, economy and culture. This knowledge has given him a deeper understanding of the cafe’s importance in promoting his native country’s heritage.
Said Nguyen of Càphê Roasters: “It is the pride of Vietnam.”