Redefining Specialty Coffee with Sahra Nguyen
When we call something "special," what do we actually mean?
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We’re taking a quick break from our Boss Barista takeover this week—folks are busy working on their projects, and will have lots to share with you soon—to revisit an episode from April 2020. Sahra Nguyen is the founder of Nguyen Coffee Supply, a coffee brand based in New York that’s dedicated to promoting specialty Vietnamese coffee.
In this episode, we talk about why Vietnam, which is the world’s second-largest producer of coffee beans, goes largely ignored in the specialty coffee industry. Then we take the question one step further, and ask: What makes a thing special in the first place?
What does specialty coffee mean to you? If you work in coffee, it might signal one thing. If you don’t work in coffee, it might mean another.
The word “specialty” implies something unique, different—dare I say special—that makes it different from just regular coffee, right? Classing something as a specialty item implies the existence of the regular, the mundane—the non-special.
Today, we’re going to break down just what “specialty” is, and what makes a thing special, with Sahra Nguyen, the founder of Nguyen Coffee Supply in Brooklyn, New York. Sahra was a filmmaker and owned a restaurant in New York, and often found herself in coffee shops that had some of the “signals” of specialty coffee—coffees from a single origin, for example.
She’d see coffees from Ethiopia, Honduras, Indonesia, and wonder—“What about Vietnam?” Sahra is Vietnamese-American, and would regularly see restaurants and cafes advertising Vietnamese iced coffee. But often, she found that they didn’t actually use coffee from Vietnam in those drinks.
As she questioned this—why would a coffee drink claiming to be from Vietnam not have coffee grown from Vietnam in it?—she encountered those broader questions about specialty. Vietnam is the second-largest producer of coffee in the world, and the first-largest producer of robusta coffee. So why couldn’t she order a coffee from Vietnam at her local cafe?
Coffees from Vietnam don’t get talked about a lot in the specialty market. You don’t see them winning barista competitions, and you likely can’t order them by name at most cafes. But if you’ve had instant coffee, if you’ve had something from a can, if you’ve had any sort of diner coffee, you’ve had Vietnamese coffee.
So what is it? Why isn’t it talked about in the specialty world? In this episode, we explore what it means for a product to be considered special. And we ask, “Is specialty inherent or is it created?” Here’s Sahra.
Ashley: Where does this story start for you? When did you start getting interested in Vietnamese coffee specifically?
Sahra: I'm Vietnamese-American. My parents are Vietnamese—they're both refugees. They escaped the country after the Vietnam War. So for me, Vietnamese coffee as a culture, it's always been a part of my life.
I experienced it growing up, and also when I would go back to Vietnam throughout my childhood and my teenage years and a lot in my adult years. Drinking Vietnamese coffee or cà phê phin or cà phê sữa đá was always a big part of my cultural experience.
But really entering—in terms of my journey entering into a coffee space as a professional—it's really a new journey. I would say around 2016 was when the idea first started brewing for me. I had a small restaurant here in Brooklyn, so I've always been a part of the food and beverage community and around, 2015, 2016, Vietnamese food and culture was really having its moment in the culinary world, especially in New York City.
We were seeing the emergence of so many amazing first-generation, more modernized Vietnamese-American restaurants and on a similar wavelength, I noticed that Vietnamese coffee was also trending.
I would go into non-Vietnamese cafes and restaurants. And I would just see the words “Vietnamese coffee” on a menu. And I thought, “Oh, this is so exciting. Vietnamese coffee is having a moment right now, outside of the restaurants or the mom-and-pop restaurants in Chinatown.”
But actually what I was noticing was that a lot of places were putting Vietnamese coffee on their menus, but they weren't even using Vietnamese coffee beans, right? And I would ask them because I would drink it, and it would taste totally not like the Vietnamese coffee I knew.
And I'm asking like, “Oh, how do you make this Vietnamese coffee?”
And they would say, they used their cold brew, their house cold brew, or their drip or their house espresso. And they added condensed milk, right?
Oftentimes these beans were not Vietnamese coffee beans. They might've been a bean from South America or Africa and they were treating it, calling it Vietnamese coffee because they added condensed milk to it.
Sahra: So I mean, in Vietnam there is a culture and there is a style where people use condensed milk, but it's not a requirement, but most of all, it's not like the core piece of Vietnamese coffee. The core piece is Vietnamese coffee beans.
I thought that was really interesting that as a culture, people were interested in Vietnamese coffee, but in terms of as a product, it really wasn't accessible or being utilized. And I think the biggest issue for me there, as a Vietnamese-American, I felt a huge level of injustice being done because I felt like Vietnamese people and Vietnamese producers were not benefiting from this transaction.
Ashley: I'm wondering at what point did you see this problem and decide, “Oh, I can fix this,” or not fix it maybe, but like, “How can I be like a change-maker in this process?” Because that's a huge jump.
Sahra: It was a really big jump! The way it happened was I was like, “Okay, well, why aren't you seeing Vietnamese coffees?”
And I was like, “Well, you know what, I want to make some Vietnamese coffee right now.” I would go into the grocery store and I'd go to every coffee shop and cafe. I would look for a single-origin Vietnamese coffee bean, and Ashley, I could not find it.
That's when the lightbulb kind of went off, and I was shocked that I couldn't find it because the specialty third-wave movement was all about all these different single origins and being so transparent. I was finding coffee from all around the world, but not one transparently [sourced] Vietnamese coffee. So that's when I was like, “Oh, well maybe I should bring it here.”
Ashley: How did that even start? What was the first step to even begin thinking, “Let me bring this coffee here and start importing it.”
Sahra: That idea first came to me in 2016. I remember in the fall of 2016, I was going to Vietnam to visit some family relatives. I was actually on the way to Cambodia to film one of my documentaries at the time—before I started the coffee company, I was a full-time journalist and documentary filmmaker. So I just hit up—and most of my relatives, most of my extended family are still in Vietnam.
So I hit them up, and I was like, “Hey, I'm coming to Vietnam.” And I was like, “Curious, question: does anybody know anyone who has a coffee farm or who has access to one?”
And my aunt was like, “Oh, actually I do know someone. Someone I used to work with left the company to take over his family farm.” My aunt lives in Hanoi, which is in the north, and then his farm—Anh Thien, who's my current producing partner, his farm is in Da Lat, which is in the central region. So we arranged a trip where we flew from Hanoi to Da Lat to meet up with him. This was in 2016, and that was pretty much the beginning of our relationship.
Ashley: Just from there, you were like, “This is happening. Let's bring this over here.”
Sahra: I mean, it didn't happen that fast. So in 2016, we went to his farm, and Anh Thien, he gave us a tour and I was just super excited and inspired by his passion for clean coffee, for organic coffee, because in Vietnam, there is a movement all around clean coffee, it's called cà phê sạch or pure coffee, cà phê nguyên chất, because for so long the coffee over there is known to be blended with fillers, such as soybeans or corn or artificial ingredients, like oils and butters.
But now with the new generation, there is a movement for clean and pure coffee, right? And my producer partner was very passionate about that as well. So for the rest of 2017, not much had happened, but I was just constantly thinking and doing a lot of research and a lot of self-learning through the internet and asking friends. And then it wasn't until 2018 when I was like, “Okay, I'm ready to make this happen.” That's when I started actively building the business from the beginning of 2018.
Ashley: That's amazing. I want to ask you a little more about the personality it takes to start a business, but I want to go back a little bit on the historical context that Vietnamese coffee exists in. As you were doing research, what were you finding out about Vietnamese coffee and how did that historical context inform the way that Vietnamese coffee was being viewed at that moment? Like in 2016, 2017?
Sahra: That's such a great question because I was doing a lot of research about the coffee industry and Vietnamese coffee and also exploring this question of like, “Why doesn't Vietnamese coffee exist in the U.S. or why couldn't I find it?”
And Ashley, I was so surprised to learn that Vietnam is the second-largest producer of coffee in the world. When I learned that fact, it was like, my mind was blown. I was like, “Oh my God, Vietnam is the second-largest producer of coffee in the world yet I didn't even know that. And I'm Vietnamese!” A lot of people don't know that. All of these learnings just started to fuel my motivation more, to increase the transparency here. And the more I dug, I also discovered that the United States is the second-largest importer of Vietnamese coffee beans.
And then I was like, “Oh my God, mind blown, right?” So here we have this economic relationship that already exists between Vietnam and the U.S., but there's no transparency around it. Generally, Americans don't associate coffee production with Vietnam.
For me it was just like, this is really interesting what's happening here, because it's not like I'm trying to introduce a new sector, right? Or a new product. It just feels new because on a cultural awareness level, we don't know about it. So that really blew my mind, and just gave me a lot more motivation to right this injustice, to bring more visibility to a major contributor to the global coffee experience, and to increase the representation of Vietnamese folks. Folks in America who probably have already consumed Vietnamese coffee beans and some of their products, whether they're aware of it or not. I just wanted to build out that connection more between what folks may or may not be familiar with where it's coming from.
Ashley: So you were living in New York at the time, and you said that you would try to find coffees from Vietnam, especially in like 2016, 2017. [At that time] we already were pretty aware at most coffee shops that you could get a coffee from a single origin. You could ask for a coffee from Honduras or Ethiopia or Sumatra. So the idea that Vietnamese coffee is there and most people probably drank it, but they just don't know it, is really interesting.
So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the perception of quality in terms of Vietnamese coffee, because I think if you asked specialty coffee folks, they'd probably be like, “Oh, I've heard Vietnamese coffee is bad,” or “I actually have no idea what Vietnamese coffee tastes like.”
Sahra: Yeah, that's a really good question. What I was finding online, on all the blogs and all the sites, it was this general common sentiment of Vietnamese coffee is inferior. Literally, the adjective ‘inferior’ kept popping up. I was like—and again, I’m Vietnamese-American—I was like, “Well, that's not nice!”
Also, my experience with Vietnamese coffee is so different. I've never seen it as inferior. I've seen it as integral and delicious and comforting. That for me is just pure societal and social context and just constructs of ideas. So I already, on a personal level, just didn't agree with it because I was like, “Well, that's not my experience. And I know I'm not the only one.”
Because there are a lot of people in the world who drink Vietnamese coffee. [But] then the blogs and people and everyone I’d talk to are saying, “Yeah, Vietnamese coffee is inferior.” Or, if you want to get more specific, they say, “Oh, robusta beans are inferior and arabica beans are superior.”
That also just feels like such a shocker. And again, that didn't resonate with me because I was like, “Why are we talking about varietals in a hierarchy?” We can talk about how treatment [of the producer] and production can be better or worse for the environment or better or worse for the consumer. But it just wasn't—it didn't feel fair or right at all to throw all these labels of hierarchy on to two different types of varietals. So that was what I was getting.
As I was interacting with some folks in the coffee space I just felt like a lot of people were just regurgitating old ways of thinking or regurgitating what they've heard, what they've been told. But then if I asked them, “Oh, have you ever had a single origin Vietnamese coffee?” and they would all say no.
Or I’d say, “Have you ever roasted a single-origin robusta?” They all say no. “Well, have you ever even tried or brewed 100% robusta beans that were [from a] single origin?” And they would say no. So that was on my mind—that people had such strong opinions around Vietnamese coffee beans and robusta beans, but they actually had never experienced it. And that for me just showed the power of old narratives and ways of thinking.
However, I do want to point out, Ashley, there is some truth to these ideas—of Vietnamese coffee beans being a different level of quality, and that there is some truth to that, because Vietnam's coffee industry for so long has been channeled into mass-market coffee. Or like, large volumes of coffee products. I think when that's happening—when the products are being sold at a lower rate—that system controls the pricing. That also controls the care that we have as producers or as buyers for the production of the coffee.
I think that is a systematic thing and that's a control thing and that's a construct of the value we place on a product, which affects what we're willing to pay for it, which doesn’t create any incentives for producers to change or improve their production, right?
Ashley: Yeah. We were talking about this a little bit before we started recording, but the idea that quality is inherent is kind of a problematic way to think about things, especially now that you've explained a lot of the ways that Vietnamese coffee has been funneled into our culture. It's like we have designated it as this lower-grade thing—we've put it in instant coffee, we've controlled it so that its value is lower.
Then when we suddenly start to prize coffee in a different way, because specialty coffee is still a fairly new way of consuming coffee, to say that Vietnamese coffee doesn't make the cut is really interesting. Because it assumes quality issues when really it's a social construct and it's an issue of, “Well, we funneled this coffee to be in this other space for so long. And then we never gave it a moment to be at the level that we consider specialty coffee to be.”
Sahra: Exactly. Exactly. And you know what, and I will say that in Vietnam in general as a country, as a coffee-producing country, there is a lot of work to be done across the board for it to improve its production, but that's also, like you said, because of the systems that have entrapped it so long into a certain tier of production.
But I know, because I know through my own direct relationships, my own interactions, that there are so many people in Vietnam—from consumers to nonprofit organizations to producers and farmers—who want to be a part of the specialty coffee movement. They're like, “Wait, what? People are paying what for Ethiopian [coffees]?” They want to be a part of it because they want to improve their quality of life, too. But if no one is looking to them to buy [coffee], then they're not gonna spend time to invest in their own production.
Ashley: Yeah. I'm wondering once you started your company, what were those first couple of months like—and how would you communicate what was happening to farmers? Because I imagine we live in this age of social media and the internet. It's not hard now, especially for farmers, to see what people are paying for coffee, or that there's a specialty coffee market that exists. I think it's really interesting that you mentioned that farmers want to be part of this process. I imagine now it's especially super visible and you've given some visibility to that as well.
Sahra: You know, I'll first share in terms of when I first launched—on the consumer end, Ashley, I was met with just so much excitement and enthusiasm, right? I think this is where, within the specialty coffee space, sometimes there's a disconnect between what's happening within the industry and what's happening with consumers, because within our industry folks could say all day, “Vietnamese coffees are inferior, Vietnamese coffee isn't good.”
But on a consumer level, consumers don't know about these old ways of thinking and they sometimes also just don't care. They just care what tastes good to them. And what they like. And so from the consumer end, we were met with so much support and excitement around Vietnamese coffee as a culture. And then also as a taste. So once people engaged with our product, we've continued to get such amazing feedback from people who say our coffee is delicious.
One person wrote, “Your coffee is divine,” the other day. Like this was the best coffee they ever tasted, and consumers don't care that it's robusta—whether they care or not, it doesn't matter to them. All that they care about is it tastes great.
So that has been the reaction on that front, which has been so affirming and so nice. For me, it's been really affirming because of course I felt a little nervous about entering the industry with a product or an idea that was just so hugely opposed, or that just seems so unpopular. But then the day I was like, “Whatever, this is what I like, and this is what I'm going to put out. I'm not here to convince anyone or I’m not here to convert anyone. I'm here to find people who like what I like.”
And then on the producing side of things, right now, I work with one farmer. One producer who has a team and then he has a whole network of cousins and aunts who also have farms.
The last time I met with him—he sells his coffee to Japan and he also sells domestically—and I asked him, “What is your dream? Why do you want to work together?”
And he said, “I think it would be so cool if my coffee beans made it to America.” And I was like, wow. And that's just this global cultural play of the power that America has in the eyes of others. But he said that and I was like, “That's so cool.” And of course, I pay higher rates so that if he was selling to people in Vietnam or Japan.
On top of that, he said something that was really touching. He said in Vietnam, coffee culture is huge because they know they're number two in the world. And they know they’re number one for robusta in the world, and they take a lot of pride in that—on top of coffee culture being a huge part of their life—but they also know that people don't know that about them. They feel a level of sadness and pain.
And one time I was talking to one of my partners and he said, “Cà phê Việt Nam có tiếng, nhưng không có tai tiếng.” And what that means is that Vietnamese coffee has fame, but doesn't have notoriety. So it's this idea of once it leaves the country, it kind of gets stripped of its identity.
Ashley: That's incredible. I have so many feelings about all the things you just said.
I want to talk a little bit about the idea of quality, because something that I would imagine is a big hurdle for you is that you had to redefine quality a little bit. Obviously, you had your customers telling you what they like and they don't like, but existing in this space where Vietnamese coffee has been disregarded as a quality coffee—how did you start to think about redefining what quality meant, and did you have to break out of ideas of what was good or what was bad, even for yourself? Did you think, “How do I present a thing that I am super confident in that maybe the rest of the industry hasn't seen yet?”
Sahra: Yeah. It's such a good question. And to be honest, actually, I've dealt with my share of insecurities around this question too. I'm entering an industry that has certain standards, expectations of quality, of specialty, and our coffee has never been graded. I haven't engaged with certain expectations within the industry because I'm not a veteran of the industry, to be honest. I entered this space three years ago, maybe four. And if I was going with standards and expectations, I would never be importing robusta beans. So our coffee has never been graded because I simply just don't care to meet that level of expectation or standard or validation. I just care so much more about the people within my ecosystem.
I care so much about my relationship with my partner and how that relationship is going. And I care so much about my relationships with my customers and what they think. And at the end of the day, do they like this coffee? That's what matters to me.
Quality of course is a production. When I met my producing partner, I felt like I got really lucky because I met someone who was also just so passionate about the clean coffee movement in Vietnam, and his company has been awarded, like, the top 20 companies in the country for organic practices. And so people ask, “Oh, do you have any certifications?” And we have no certifications to be totally honest, because certifications again are very expensive, they’re inaccessible, and my producing partner would not necessarily know how to navigate the bureaucracy of getting certified and/or have the resources to do that.
I remember I was on a panel recently at Coffee Fest with Roast Magazine—it was me and two other roasters—and someone asked the question, “Oh, do you care about certifications when you're buying green beans?” And I was so nervous about this question because I know that I don’t deal with certifications. And the other two also said, “No, we don't care about certifications.”
And I was like, “Oh my gosh, I'm not the only one.” I felt so validated that they said that. People, I think societally, have standards, expectations about what is quality, what is value, like, “Is this certified? Is it graded?” and all these things. I think to an extent that could be important because there are systems to validate or qualify certain things.
But at least for me, right now, within my journey and working with what I have, I just care more about the relationship rather than getting a certification. And I know that my partner is—I've been to his farm several times. I've seen his process. I know that he's extremely passionate about clean, organic coffee. That is how I think about quality. Of course, when we roast it, [we ask], “How does it taste? Do I like it? Is it something that I'm proud to stand behind—and then, do other people like it?” That's been my metric for putting together a product of quality and value.
Ashley: Which totally makes sense. It seems a little simplistic in a way, but at the same time, we all want things that taste good. Sometimes it can feel like the way that we evaluate coffee is almost convoluted. If a coffee is an 88, that matters to people who are Q graders, that are experts. But if I tell a customer this coffee scored an 88, what does that mean? It doesn’t mean anything.
Sahra: Exactly. Before I started the company, I was that type of consumer that fell so much into that demographic of, “I don't know a lot about coffee. I've never used a scale before. I don't know if the ratios are top of my head. I don't know anything about coffee scoring. I just know what I like.” As a consumer, I just felt such a disconnect from what was happening in specialty coffee. And I just felt like, “I can't be the only one.”
So when I started my company, we’re a people-centered company, which [means] we're always thinking about people every step of the way. And so that just translates into the product we produce and how we put it out. Always thinking about the end consumer in mind, rather than some other standards, expectations that may be valued by other people in the industry.
Ashley: Yeah. I think it's interesting. Because it feels like, in a way, you're very much part of the specialty coffee conversation, but in a way, you almost exist outside of it. Because you're doing the things that we in specialty coffee prize—we talk about wages for farmers. We talk about helping producers get more money for their coffee. But at the same time, when we write off a whole region, when we write off a whole country, is that in line with the values of specialty coffee? I would say no.
Sahra: You know what? Thank you for saying that, Ashley. Because I felt that, too. When I was starting the company, I was like, “Well, here we are at this moment in time where there's so much care in the coffee community around transparency and visibility and connection.” And I just felt like those values were not being applied to people in Vietnam. That disconnect was definitely a huge motivating factor for me to change it.
Ashley: What has it been like opening a coffee shop, being in New York—which is the center of the coffee world I would say right now in the United States—and doing something totally different?
Sahra: First of all, I was going to clarify that we don't have a coffee shop. We don't have a retail space. We had a four-month pop-up that operated five days a week, eight hours a day. So it was a pretty heavy coffee program. But right now we are mostly focusing on importing and roasting and we're DTC [direct-to-consumer]. So we focus mostly on selling online. And then of course we had some wholesale partnerships, which are now at a halt with everything happening with corona. So we're mostly focused on importing and roasting and selling direct to consumers online. [Some crosstalk.] Go ahead Ashley.
Ashley: Oh no, no, no. I was just gonna say, how do you make that sale? Especially in a system that's so entrenched in certain perceptions of what coffee is like—I imagine direct-to-consumer was probably a little bit of an easier sell—but I also imagine wholesale must've been a little bit more challenging.
Sahra: Not really, because there's actually an entire community and population and segment of business that serve coffee that a lot of specialty coffee roasters are not paying attention to.
These businesses I'm talking to are all of the Asian restaurants, bakeries, cafes that also serve coffee, right? Whether they're serving a Vietnamese coffee or they're a boba shop that also has an espresso machine or an Asian bakery that focuses on Asian treats and that also serves coffee. Also with this wave of first-generation entrepreneurs, there are a lot more restaurants, whether it's a restaurant or a Thai restaurant or an Asian restaurant that also serves coffee. So I've actually gotten a lot of inbound [inquiries] since we launched because prior to my company launching, I think a lot of people were using—the most common products people were using for their Vietnamese coffee was Café Du Monde, which is not a Vietnamese coffee brand.
And I don't even know where they get their coffee beans from, because it's not clear anywhere on their packaging or website. It's also not a freshly roasted coffee brand or products from Vietnam, which are imported from Vietnam that state on the packaging that it also includes artificial flavorings and ingredients. Right?
So there actually hasn't been a product like Nguyen Coffee Supply that is direct-trade, imported, and roasted fresh in Brooklyn—Vietnamese coffee beans. But there were all these businesses that were serving the idea of Vietnamese coffee. I've kind of offered a new iteration or an improved product for some that already existed. And none of these coffee roasters, no one was speaking to this demographic. And so in that space, it hasn't been a hard sell to people.
The inbounds—actually people reach out to us all the time. Because there aren't a lot of options. But if I was trying to approach a coffee shop or a hotel that may be serving more of a bigger roaster, then that is definitely a harder sell. Not just because of the beans, because I think with all of our storytelling, we've been able to really—I don't know if you've seen our articles or press articles, but there's a huge culture shift happening. Everything from CNN writing recently, “Why the world is waking up to Vietnamese coffees,” like Matador network recently, “It’s past time to respect the Vietnamese coffee bean.”
So there is a cultural shift happening. And I think the more storytelling that we're able to push, the more people are like, “Whoa, what is this Vietnamese coffee bean? I actually kind of want to have this unique product in my shop now.” I think as that grows, that will become less difficult. The main thing that is difficult for us right now to support, to compete with other roasters, is because we're so small, we can't offer the whole array of services, like tech support or free machines or 24/7 maintenance. That's something that's kind of holding us back the most with the traditional coffee hotel space.
Ashley: I want to go back to something you said about the attention that the media has paid to you folks because you're right—when I was doing research before we started talking, there are dozens of articles about Vietnamese coffee and about you specifically. I wonder—what is that like? What has that been like to see Vietnamese coffee receive so much attention? I wonder how, and you've mentioned this a little bit too, storytelling and just putting the spotlight on Vietnamese coffee has affected the way that your business can operate, and the way that we view Vietnamese coffee in general?
Sahra: Yeah. That's such a great question.
Ashley: Was it surprising? Because I was looking at the articles that have been written about you, and I can't think of a lot of other coffee companies that have been so well-covered.
Sahra: Thanks Ashley. Yeah, it does surprise me and honestly, it is the greatest joy of this job—to have our narrative and our perspective being amplified like this. And honestly, this is the reason why I started a coffee company. It's not because I wanted to get into one of the hardest industries, of learning how to import and roast and sell coffee beans. I mean, that's a small part of it, but really in my heart, it's because I just cared so much about increasing representation for Vietnamese people, producers, culture, and coffee, right? That is my true mission. And I'm using coffee—a very globally shared experience as a platform to get there. So when I see these headlines, honestly, sometimes I just kind of freak out inside because I'm like, “Holy shit, it's happening.”
It's happening and it’s not about my business growing, but it's happening—the shift is fucking happening. The culture shift is happening. These old ways of thinking that put Vietnamese coffee and people and culture down are changing, right? People are starting to appreciate Vietnamese coffee now, people are starting to respect it, Vietnamese people and culture. Producers are starting to get recognition—that is happening.
It just gives me chills to think, to see the shift happening, and it's happening in this moment. I just feel such a deep sense of gratitude for all the writers, all the people who take the time to listen and take the time to write and to amplify and to share.
It's been—I don't even have all the words to describe this feeling, but it's been such an incredible joy to be able to play a role in honoring Vietnamese people, culture, and coffee.
Ashley: That's incredible. I imagine it must be incredible to feel like you're doing a thing and people are noticing it and you're like, “Yes, I'm on the right track. I'm doing something right.” Because I imagine you can have self-confidence always, and you can be like, “I know I'm doing the right thing,” but there is a deep validation to feeling like, “Oh, other people are also noticing it and also give a shit.”
Sahra: The articles about us, they're not just product-focused. It's not like, “Check out this new company that is producing this really cool coffee.” It's not about [that]—it's the fact that these articles and the way that people are understanding us or the way they're writing about us. It's really about a global movement and a global shift, right? That's what I think is so empowering about this process. It's not like, “Oh, here's a new cool company and here’s a new, cool product.” It's—the headlines are so culture-shifting, and it has such a deep, deep impact for the industry, for producers, and also for consumers. I can't even tell you how many amazing messages I get from consumers who are generally Asian-American, or more specifically Vietnamese-American.
So many times, people write to me and they say three words that just blow me away—they say, “I feel seen.” These are Vietnamese-Americans and Asian-Americans. A lot of POC, people of color, we deal with lack of representation in the media all the time—in leadership positions, in government, in business. That lack of representation is so deep that when they see their name reflected on a coffee bag, they're like, “I feel seen.” That level of impact is also just so deeply rewarding for me because if you looked at my work before I started a coffee company, it's always been rooted in representation and community empowerment. So that has been really incredible for me to experience in this journey.
Ashley: So we're in this moment in time, and I think it's kind of hard to ignore, and we talked a little bit about it, but coronavirus has obviously affected pretty much every coffee company across the nation, across the globe. I wonder how that has shifted the way that you've operated your business. Because you're probably set up, I would imagine, a little bit better than most, just because you do a lot of direct-to-consumer sales.
But I'm also looking at your Instagram account and I'm looking at your social media presence and your website and I'm like, “Oh, you folks are ready for this moment.” Not in a positive way. And I don't mean like territorial or predatory in any way, but you seem to understand that the shift in how businesses work will be direct-to-consumers, and will rely more on social media. I wonder how—number one, how coronavirus has affected you, and number two, how you posit yourself now as a business that is having to look to the future because things are going to be different.
Sahra: So when we launched the company, we launched as a DTC business, as a digital-forward company. We did spend a lot of time building out this infrastructure and its ecosystem of social media-meets-content-meets commerce. I am, at heart, I'm a storyteller, I've had a career as a filmmaker. I love telling stories. And so creating content and telling stories through social media and also through our blog—we publish at least two to four new blog posts weekly—we love telling stories. That's always been such a big part of our business.
At the beginning of this year, I was like, “Okay, now I really want to go into the B2B [business-to-business] space and I want to grow out the B2B program and I want to expand our business model in that way.” So we were working on that and by February, B2B sales were 35% of our revenue. But of course, all of that came to a screeching halt when all of our retail partners closed their doors.
As soon as it happened, of course, I, as a human, was just freaking out about the world. I was also just really feeling a lot of pain for all of my partners. And some of my closest friends in New York are restaurant owners—because I used to be restaurant owner, I'm really tight with the F&B [food and beverage] community here. I was just feeling a lot of pain over everything that's happening there.
We did quickly pivot. I mean, it wasn't like we had to rebuild our business model because we were already DTC it was just like, “Okay, now we're putting all the B2B stuff on hold.”
All of our B2B sales have stopped. We're not going to do outbound strategy anymore. We're just going to focus all the energy now back to DTC. But in, within the DTC space, the shift I was making—and I was talking to my team about this—it is so important that we proceed right now with a lot of compassion and empathy. Just thinking about what value we can bring to our digital community, right? Doubling down on our core offering, which is coffee, how can we bring comfort to people? Yes, coffee, that's where we've always done that and we want to continue doing that. But I also just felt understanding the needs of our community—it’s our community, they're coffee drinkers and they’re coffee drinkers across all industries and across all experiences, all cultures.
So we did a lot of thinking around how else can we support our community during this time? That included creating a lot of content around self-care for people who are staying home right now—we created a post around how people could generate some income from home. We're working on creating a list of digital tools for people. We launched a campaign called Make Mornings Better, offering 10 steps to fortify their mornings, everything from stretching to meditating to starting the day with gratitude to doing a power pose.
So for us, we've always been a people-centered company. We've always been about the people first, from our producing partners to our consumers. So yeah, during this time, as we did that quick pivot into DTC, it wasn't just about, “Buy our coffee, you need coffee now.” It was like, “Okay, how can we be really empathetic and compassionate right now? And add and create value, in addition to coffee, to support our community?” And that's where a lot of the content came in—also this Saturday, we're doing our first Zoom community session. We had a monthly event series that we hosted at our roastery, but since people can't come together, we're going to start doing sessions over Zoom together.
Ashley: That's amazing. Just hearing all the different ideas that kind of feel number one, they're big pivots, but at the same time, they also feel really natural and organic to the business that you've already created.
As we close out, I was wondering, is there anything that you'd want people to know about you listening to this?
Sahra: Hmm. Anything that I would want people to know about me? That's a good question, Ashley. No one's ever asked me that. To know about me?
Sahra: Who's listening, first of all?
Ashley: Baristas, I think? Maybe some other coffee professionals, I don't know. Sometimes people message me and they're like, “I love that episode.” And I'm like, “Oh, you listen? That's great!”
Sahra: (Laughs) To know about me? I don't know—I'm kind of drawing a blank, but I want to give you something. What would I want listeners to know about me? I would say, in this moment, I just want to continue to find ways to support people, whether that's my team or my family or the community, with what I have. Right now, one of the things that I have is Nguyen Coffee Supply as a platform. So yeah. I don't know, Ashley, that's a tough question.
Ashley: No, that's fair. I feel like this is the part of the conversation if people don't care about the weird things that I care about, they can shut off right now.
But the things that I'm always really interested in are the personality traits—the things that kind of make, that kind of define a person. And not to say that there are certain defining characteristics to every person or that they're immovable or fixed. But something that I'm really drawn to with you is that you saw this thing happening, and then you kind of just went for it.
Which is incredible and not something to be glossed over. So I wonder, have you always been that type of person to just see a problem or see something that you were like, “Why is it this way? I'm going to go find out.”
Sahra: I have always been the type of person that loves to explore potential. I always want to see how far I can take it. I always want to see what I can do. I know exactly where that feeling comes from.
At a very young age, I just felt the pain of stereotypes. I felt the pain of being boxed in with the model minority myth—if you don't know what that is, Google that— being deemed the model minority myth. So basically, I just felt like society was boxing me into such a one-dimensional person of who I could be as an Asian-American, as a woman. And I just hated that feeling at such a young age. I was like, “I just want to smash this box open and see how far I can take it.”
So that has always been a part of me. I think whether it's been through my film career or through starting Nguyen Coffee Supply, I guess I just love seeing what's possible. I want to keep trying to do as much as I can and see how far I can take it before I pass it off to the next generation. That is something that really excites me.
One thing that I want people to know in this moment is that I really just want to help—in all aspects, I just want to help. I want to help people get through this corona situation, whether it's donating a part of our sales or starting the Undocu Workers' Fund, or I'm supporting my team, or helping to shift the culture because I just want to help. So if anybody out there wants to do some cool things to help the world, I'm super open.
Ashley: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me. This has been such an incredible shared moment, and I'm really appreciative that I got to spend some time with you.
Sahra: Oh my gosh. Of course. Thank you so much for taking the time to reach out and thank you for listening and thank you for helping to tell our story.