First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Sahra Nguyen: We’re doing everything we can to stay safe and healthy and support others around us.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Nguyen Coffee Supply.
Sahra Nguyen: I’m a first-generation Vietnamese American woman and daughter of refugees, born and raised in Boston, MA. I double-majored in Asian American Studies and World Arts & Cultures at UCLA. I became involved with activism and community organizing in my sophomore year of high school, where I was organizing workshops, conferences, and rallies to raise awareness on issues related to racism, deportation, and inequity in our communities. My activism continued throughout my undergrad years through various roles within student leadership organizing on campus. My commitment to increasing visibility for underrepresented folks and building power in our communities continues to be a priority in my life’s work, most recently through Nguyen Coffee Supply.
As a casual coffee drinker, I fell into the category of someone who drinks coffee every day but didn’t own a scale or know anything about extraction science. As a consumer, I felt that the coffee industry promoted an elitist culture rooted in mastery, and it didn’t resonate with me. At Nguyen Coffee Supply, we promote an inclusive coffee culture rooted in personalization, where everyone’s coffee experience is valid. You like bodega coffee, great! You like using scales to measure coffee, great! There’s no right or wrong, or better or worse — simply, good coffee.
More specifically, I noticed that no one was offering a fresh roasted premium Vietnamese coffee bean. As someone who has enjoyed Vietnamese coffee in Vietnam throughout my entire life (during visits to see family abroad), I knew how delicious and amazing Vietnamese coffee was. I couldn’t find a Vietnamese coffee bean among the 30-40 brands in any supermarket here in New York City, so that’s when I decided to start importing and roasting myself.
On a mission to transform the coffee industry through diversity, inclusion, and transparency, Nguyen Coffee Supply is the first specialty Vietnamese coffee importer and roaster in the country to celebrate and offer robusta coffee — a bold and delicious bean with unique benefits, including 2x more caffeine, 2x more antioxidants, 60% less sugars, and 60% less fats than arabica coffee. We had to face and challenge a lot of stigmas in the industry around robusta coffee. Since starting Nguyen Coffee Supply, we’re finding that 75% of our customers prefer robusta and robusta blends over 100% arabica. This isn’t to say that one is better than the other because coffee beans don’t live in a hierarchy, and we don’t promote hierarchical cultures in coffee. Rather it points to the fact that we all deserve more diversity — diversity in offerings, in products, in narratives, in leadership, in community building, and ideas.
How does Nguyen Coffee Supply innovate?
Sahra Nguyen: We innovate by choosing to do something literally no other craft roaster in the country wanted to do — we’re roasting Vietnamese robusta beans. While the entire industry focuses on one direction: being arabica beans from Africa and South America, we go in a different direction, being robusta beans (and arabica beans!) from Vietnam. Vietnam is the second-largest producer of coffee in the world, which naturally means that Vietnam contributes to coffee experiences all around the world. Often people just don’t know they’re consuming coffee grown in Vietnam. Why? Lack of transparency, visibility, and representation.
We are proud champions of the robusta bean, and we believe robusta is the future of specialty coffee.
We are also working to increase economic opportunities for Vietnamese farmers by working with them to improve their production and convert land from commercial farming to premium farming. Not only will farmers earn more equitable wages through our direct trade relationship and premium coffee production, but they’ll also sustain the land they’re growing on for years to come and ensure sustainable business and growth.
Why did you start Nguyen Coffee Supply?
Sahra Nguyen: I noticed that the specialty coffee community was dedicated to transparency, but this value wasn’t being applied to Vietnamese coffee farmers. I would see cafes promote a “Vietnamese Iced Coffee” on their menu, but they weren’t using Vietnamese coffee beans at all. They were often using an African or South American bean, adding condensed milk, then calling it “Vietnamese Iced Coffee.” I found this to be really unfair to the actual producers of the coffee beans, as they were pretty much being ignored in this promotion. I also found it unfair that businesses wanted to leverage the cultural cachet of the trendy “Vietnamese Iced Coffee,” but we’re not using real Vietnamese coffee beans, which means that the producers of Vietnamese coffee and Vietnamese coffee culture were not benefiting from this transaction. In addition, it was an inaccurate representation of the taste. Vietnamese coffee is notorious for its robusta beans. Some places would argue that they’re using “sweetened condensed milk,” making their drink inspired by Vietnam. But really, Vietnam is not the only country in the world that drinks coffee with sweetened condensed milk. For example, Spain has a popular drink called Café Bombón. All in all, diversity in coffee is great, and if we want to share a new culture, it should be done thoughtfully and respectfully with the producers of that culture in mind. Otherwise, trying to capitalize off a cultural trend by using buzz words and no integrity to the ingredients is unfair to farmers.
Ultimately, I wanted to share Vietnamese coffee and coffee culture with mainstream America and do it in a way that honors the people behind the bean and the brew rituals. Nguyen Coffee Supply promotes a coffee culture of authenticity rooted in personalization, not mastery. A champion of diversity in all forms, we are proud to amplify underrepresented communities through our social channels, pushing the conversation within coffee to be more inclusive and reflective of the world we live in. On the product diversity level, we love to elevate the Phin Filter — a traditional Vietnamese brew tool that is sustainable and easy to use with zero-paper waste.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Sahra Nguyen: Back in March, we lost all of our B2B revenue, which was about 35%. We quickly shifted to focus all of our efforts on e-commerce, and this is how we’re continuing to maintain and grow.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Sahra Nguyen: So many difficult choices and so many lessons learned all the time. They say that as you grow, the problems grow with you. One of the biggest lessons over the last few months is learning how to trust, especially when entering new experiences or new relationships. When a relationship is new, we often feel that trust is earned through time and work. And while it’s true that trust gets deepened through time and evidence, I’m learning that trust can be present before the evaluation period. I’ve learned to trust that I made the right decision in bringing XYZ partner on, and it’s important to foster relationships from a place of trust from the beginning.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, how do you project yourself and Nguyen Coffee Supply in the future?
Sahra Nguyen: I deal with stress and anxiety by setting boundaries, protecting my mental and emotional space, and carving out space for myself to process, meditate, stretch, decompress, energize, and focus. As the company grows, I get busier and busier. I can’t create more hours in the day, so I’ve learned to set boundaries and allocate my time wisely — this often means cutting out a lot of things from my day (i.e., social or non-urgent requests from strangers) and aligning all of my actions and intentions with my goals.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Sahra Nguyen: My competitors are all of the specialty coffee players, including Blue Bottle, La Colombe, and Stumptown. I’m confident they’ll catch the Southeast Asian wave soon and roll out a specialty Vietnamese coffee bean once they see the wave we’re pushing. The way we stay in the game and lead the way for the Vietnamese coffee movement is through authenticity. No amount of R&D money or brand ambassadors can replicate what we’re building here at Nguyen Coffee Supply, which is rooted in true authenticity, social impact, and community.
Your final thoughts?
Sahra Nguyen: We’re building the biggest Vietnamese coffee brand for the world. There are many well-known legacy coffee brands, from Lavazza to Starbucks, yet not one that is representative of the coffee culture from the world’s second-largest coffee producing country, Vietnam. It’s time we change that.