Coffee entrepreneur Jackie Nguyen, owner of Kansas City’s Cafe Cà Phê

Picture of Jackie Nguyen in front of coffee cart

Jackie in front of her mobile coffee cart. | Photo by @cafecaphe

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Jackie Nguyen is a former actress + the founder of Cafe Cà Phê, which she describes as the only Vietnamese-owned coffee business in Kansas City. She is about to open her first brick-and-mortar shop in the Columbus Park neighborhood, having won first place + $20,000 in the Alt-Cap business pitch competition. She also recently joined KC’s Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners. We talked to her about her rapid success since moving to KC in 2020.

Picture of Jackie in front of Cafe Ca Phe bar

Jackie works with local businesses, like RE: and Sequence Climb, to host pop-up coffee shops. | Photo by KCtoday

You created a community around your brand. What inspired you?

When I first moved to Kansas City [...] my mom said, “If there is no community, you need to make one. Don’t you think Kansas City would want that community as well?” And that really resonated with me. Instead of complaining [...] why not make a community or ask the community to join hands with me [...] No matter where I live, I have to make the community for myself, and I want to continue doing that because the minute I started to make this community, I saw that people needed it.

What are some words you would use to describe KC?

Loyal. Because we have had people drive 45 minutes just to have our coffee, or randomly Venmo us money to make sure we have lunch, or pay for five drinks randomly to the next guests. The loyalty goes beyond any city, and I’ve traveled a lot. I’ve traveled everywhere across the world, and I’ve never seen this kind of community ever [...] Everyone literally goes out of their way to support local.

Describe KC as one of your coffee drinks.

I would say The Saigon because it’s rich, it has a lot of sweetness to it — which reminds me of the love and support that I get from each and every person — it’s very strong, such a strong coffee, but everyone enjoys it [...] it’s just a classic, and I think that Kansas City is pretty classic, too.

What does Cafe Cà Phê mean?

The first word is cafe. And the second word is “coffee” in Vietnamese. So it’s like, not just a play on words, but it’s the coffee cafe.

How did KC come into the picture, and what was that deciding factor?

My partner is a former actor and is a dancer and acrobat, and he was also performing in Miss Saigon [with me] as one of the main acrobats [...] He’s originally from Kansas City. We came here for Christmas. We toured here for two weeks. That was my first introduction to Kansas City was Christmas time [...] and so I got to see the Plaza lights, and it was very snowy and beautiful and just very picturesque [...] I took a trip to Vietnam with him, and we visited different places and there were just a lot of coffee shops that really inspired me, and I kept thinking I really should have a plan B for when I don’t want to act anymore because acting is really hard. I spent 10 years on the road. Like I lived out of my suitcases [...] I thought, maybe I can give New York a few more years, and then I can figure out that plan B later. But then the pandemic happened [...] and then our producers decided that our show was going to close indefinitely and never come back. And we were, like, crushed [...] we were basically homeless, and so my partner came back to Kansas City [...] and then while that was happening, he was like, “Would you consider coming to Kansas City?” And so I moved here, and I had all this research I had done on the road, like I would interview coffee shops as I would travel to different cities, and then I just decided this is a sign for me to jump in because I don’t know when the arts will come back [...] My decision to move here was like my decision to start my shop.

You said earlier KC needs this community? What do you mean?

Like a safe, reliable meeting place for Asian Americans, Asians — you see someone Vietnamese taking her graduation pictures here (there was a graduate getting photos taken). It’s because she takes a lot of pride in that we’re Vietnamese and we represent Kansas City [...] there is no community center here for Asian Americans. When we started opening, we saw a lot of youthful Vietnamese, Asians come in and thank us for creating this coffee shop in general, but then making a coffee shop very available and mainstream, kind of. My intention is to make it just as big as Messenger. Just as big as Roasterie. But being able to put culture at the forefront and representation at the forefront.

How do you build community? Were you pursuing people?

I actively seek it. When opening my shop, I would go to every single small business in town I knew, first of all asked them for help because I desperately needed to learn and so I would ask them for help and then in turn be like how can I help you? Can I offer you free coffee for a conversation? Can I create an event where we can feel like both of us can make money at the same event but work with each other? But I think how I continue to do that is in my honesty in asking for help. How can we be better advocates for Asian Americans? And then who do you want to see represented? And also naturally, with the values that I hold and the things I want to amplify and support — women-owned businesses, Black-owned businesses — I would reach out to these businesses.

It seems like a lot of it has been reaching out across similar identities and making people feel seen?

It’s truly the businesses and the people who feel less than [...] A lot of Asians here are families of refugees or immigrants, and most immigrant families are not focused on thriving. They’re just focused on surviving. I am a first generation here, born. Obviously, my mom can focus on surviving. My job is to thrive.

What drove you to the Parks + Rec board?

We held a vigil to memorialize the lives that were lost in the Atlanta shooting, and we had Emmanuel Cleaver (II) come out, and the mayor was very involved, and the city was very involved [...] and then that led to making the mayor recognize May as the official AAPI (Asian American + Pacific Islander) Heritage Month, which KC had not done before [...] and so when there was a position available on the Parks and Rec, they contacted me and said, “Some people are throwing your name in the hat.” Me being naive, I was like, OK whatever. I thought nothing of it. I didn’t even watch “Parks and Rec.” The mayor’s office called me again and was like, “It looks like this may be happening. Is this something you really want to do?” [...] I kept thinking, I’m so intimidated by this, but I think I’m going to do this because it’s a seat at the table [...] this is another step towards what I want to build as a community [...] I don’t know the first thing about non-profits. I don’t know the first thing about community centers. I barely know how to function a coffee shop, so putting myself on this board can give me education.

A lot of people have dreams. A lot of people want change. But there’s a fear of failure. How do you overcome that?

I still work on it, but I think because I have a lot of layers in my life and I’ve gone through a lot of loss — I’ve gone through a lot of trauma. I’ve been divorced. I’ve lost all my hair due to alopecia. I’ve lived life. At that point, I truly felt like, if I can endure that — I endured embarrassment, I endured the loss of my identity, I endured so many things. To me, failure doesn’t even exist. Failure to me is like if you die, then it’s like OK, you’re dead. You’re gone. But if I’m still alive, I have opportunities to make up for things. I’m just not afraid of being embarrassed anymore. I think a lot of people fear failure because they don’t want to be embarrassed, and I just like don’t really care about that because I know that everyone is imperfect and all of us don’t really know what we’re doing, and that is the key to my success is knowing that everyone doesn’t know what they’re doing so it’s OK to be trying and trying and trying and trying [...] Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but ultimately we keep trying [...] You just got to do it.

How has your business model shifted from when you opened in the beginning of the pandemic to now?

I think my business model has stayed the same [...] My business model itself has always been for the community and by the community. I think that, if we want to create a space that is for people, they have to be a part of that as well [...] I think that coffee shops have such a power that they don’t use as much as they should. Coffee houses have such an amazing gathering place for so many people [...] why can’t you make money and focus on the community part too? [...] I actually have a tattoo that says “Why not and,” because why can’t I do both profit and community?

Picture of Jackie, Editor Travis, and the Cafe Ca Phe logo

Jackie with City Editor Travis (left) + the Cafe Cà Phê logo. | Photo by KCtoday

That dragon is very traditional to the Vietnamese culture, where every new year, we have a dragon-slash-lion. So this animal is technically a dragon lion unicorn, and they call it the lion dance [...] I am born the year of the dragon — we follow the Chinese calendar — and growing up, my most favorite past time of my culture is during New Year’s is do go see the lion dance [...] You can see the eyes are actually coffee beans, and then the top where the unicorn horn is a coffee tree, and the amount of little coffee cherries is an even amount because in the Vietnamese culture [...] having an even amount [...] is very lucky. I asked my mom how many cherries there should be. And then the colors, I chose red and yellow because it’s Vietnamese flag colors, that’s representative of our culture, and then the blue bringing in the French representation because the French is the reason we brew our coffee the way we do — it was because the French imperialized, so I wanted to bring in a little homage to the French influence because “café” as well, but also Royals colors and Chiefs colors. So whatever I do, my branding will match with the Chiefs or the Royals! It’s even in my business plan, I was like, “It represents Kansas City!”

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