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Khang Nguyen was 13 when he entered Kensington Health Sciences High School in 2016. A recent immigrant from Vietnam, he spoke very little English and on the day of his orientation he was unsure how he would navigate the halls.
A visit led Nguyen to a center operated by 12 PLUS, a non-profit organization 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 his own dream of running the first Vietnamese specialty coffee roast in Philadelphia.
As Pham grew his 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 – his alumnus followed social media closely and turned away. assured that he kept in touch. And when Pham hosted the inauguration of CÃ phÃª Roasters at Harrowgate earlier this fall, Nguyen stood up front as head barista.
Coffee co-owners Thu Pham and Raymond John, also founder of 12 PLUS, want CÃ phÃª Roasters to be a center of stories like this, a place where patrons 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 roast gained national attention for its focus on Vietnamese coffee production and brewing, and for its place in a wave of like-minded stores across the United States focusing on the Vietnamese coffee tradition.
With a storefront purposefully set up in Harrowgate, a site of the opioid crisis in Philadelphia, Pham and John strive to create the antithesis of chain cafes.
âWe want people to spend time here,â Pham said. “We want them to talk to us and get to know our stories.” The cafe’s aesthetic is inviting, created by neutral tones, abundant lighting, and potted trees – a stark contrast to the shadows cast by the El tracks along Kensington Avenue just outside. Modern furnishings feature bamboo elements, and tables are gathered near credenza decorated with family photographs and contemporary non-fiction books.
Brewing Vietnamese coffee is an art form, and following customs requires baristas to take their time. Customers should be open to visiting the cafe with the intention of relaxing, not just having a to-go cup during the morning hustle and bustle. The concept of relaxation is not new to Harrowgate: at the end of the 18th century, a discovery of springs in the area led it to become a wellness destination for wealthy Philadelphians in search of the restorative powers of the waters. mineral.
âIt takes a lot of effort to have a cup of coffee like this,â said Nguyen, the barista and former student, pointing to a cup of âca phe sua,â a traditional Vietnamese coffee made according to a ritual shared by generations of families. .
Pham’s earliest memories of coffee are watching his older sister brew “ca phe sua da” after her family emigrated from Vietnam.
âShe would pick me up and put me on the counter,â she recalls with a smile. The little girl watched the elder pick up the grounds from a yellow box into a Vietnamese filter and place it on a glass cup with thick condensed milk. Pouring hot water on the floor, her sister let the syrupy brew drip into the glass as she shaved ice for the finished drink. âNot many cafes are willing to spend the time brewing a cup of coffee,â Pham said. âAnd we are ready to do it. “
Growing up in Philadelphia, Pham noticed that some cafes advertised âVietnamese coffee,â but simply defined it as adding condensed milk to anything brewed. And most of the stores weren’t brewing grains from Southeast Asia or East Asia.
Vietnam is the world‘s second-largest exporter of coffee beans after Brazil, but customers of high-end coffee retailers in the United States might not recognize the taste of the variety of beans. Known as robusta, it has a somewhat bitter earthy flavor and at least twice the caffeine of arabica, a sweeter tasting bean produced by countries in South America and Africa. Starbucks uses Arabica beans, as do La Colombe and most local roasters. Robusta bean is often used in Italian espresso and instant coffee, where its intense flavor and caffeine shine.
CÃ phÃª Roasters sources its beans from Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia and East Asia, then roasts and packages them, brews them and serves them on the spot. Directly connecting Vietnamese culture to Philadelphia craftsmanship, the company honors the history not only of Harrowgate, but also of the Vietnamese community within it.
If there’s one person at the cafe who âlives and breathes this community,â Pham said, it’s his former student and current employee.
Now 19, Nguyen is a community college student interested in finance. For his senior project at Kensington Health Sciences, he researched topics of Vietnamese economics and learned more than he ever knew about the importance of coffee to history, economics and society. culture of the country. This knowledge allowed him to better understand the importance of coffee in promoting the heritage of his native country.
Said Nguyen of CÃ phÃª Roasters: âIt’s the pride of Vietnam.