Sahra Nguyen of Nguyen Coffee Supply
The Vietnamese-American-owner, importer, supplier and roaster of coffee beans from Vietnam, Sahra is on a mission to make sure that Vietnamese coffee culture gets the respect it deserves.
Before Sahra Nguyen got into the coffee business she found success as a poet, activist, restaurateur and an award winning documentarian. The UCLA graduate has worked with and has been featured in NBC News, Wall Street Journal, Vice, Forbes, Verizon, NYU and TedX as well as been a member of Google Next Gen Leaders Program. A daughter of Vietnamese refugees, she was born and raised in Boston and has called Brooklyn home for her adult life. Interview by Hyun Kim. Photos by Erics Kun
TRENDVUE: Do you consider Nguyen Coffee Supply an Asian American brand or Vietnamese American brand?
SAHRA NGUYEN: I’ve never thought of it that way. I consider the company a premium Vietnamese coffee company and coffee is for everyone. One of the goals of building this company is to bring more diversity to the coffee experience and to the coffee conversation. So our approach is about breaking that up a bit and building a true culture around coffee where it’s people driven and not bean centric. Which is why we talk about the phin filter so much and talk about Vietnamese brew culture and not just the beans.
T: How receptive was the Asian American community when you launched?
S: When we launched we didn’t do any paid media for the first year so it was all organic so naturally our most immediate affinity group of Vietnamese Americans and Asian Americans gravitated to us. And because the brand name uses a very distinct Vietnamese last name it gave us this level of representation and visibility that our affinity groups got really excited about. People would write me DMs and emails like, “I feel seen by this brand” or “I feel represented” and that just speaks to the deep lack of representation where they feel so seen by a bag of coffee. Since then we’ve grown our digital marketing strategy with more paid media and our audience is super diverse which you can see in the reviews on our site and UGC. It’s really across all races and ages at this point.
T: Did you notice anything happening on the cultural landscape that made you think that it was the right time to launch a Vietnamese coffee brand?
S: I had a Vietnamese restaurant here in Brooklyn and I noticed that Vietnamese food was really having a moment in the American culinary scene about five years ago. That for me was a big signal that our culture was really entering the mainstream through the culinary sector. I would notice that Vietnamese coffee was showing up on cafe menus all across the city. But 10 out of 10 times when I ordered it, they were not using Vietnamese coffee beans. And that to me was just pure miseducation to consumers. The biggest issue for me was that there were and are people who want to profit off the culture cachet, calling something Vietnamese iced coffee but then Vietnamese producers were not benefiting or profiting from this transaction. So a combination of those things made me realize there was interest and a demand for Vietnamese coffee.
So many first generation Vietnamese Americans are growing up into that space where they can become entrepreneurs, then create their own spaces, then create culture and eventually shift culture.
T: What do you attribute to Vietnamese cuisine entering the mainstream?
S: It’s a moment in time, it’s an intersection of so many things. So many first generation Vietnamese Americans are growing up into that space where they can become entrepreneurs, then create their own spaces, then create culture and eventually shift culture. And I would say the culinary scene, like all industries, needed a new frontier of excitement. I think it was time for a new Asian cuisine to blow up for people to “discover.”
T: That’s a good point. I don’t know what the cycle is maybe three, four or five years but there’s always a new wave where a traditional Asian cuisine in America that’s been presented the same way gets elevated. Feel like Korean and Thai cuisines had their moments a few years back so maybe it’s Vietnamese cuisine’s turn. Do you feel like you’re a part of this moment or a movement of Vietnamese American culture becoming more visible?
S: I haven’t thought of it in terms of a distinct moment but I definitely feel like it’s a movement for more cultural representation and exposure. And I like to think of it more in terms of the framework of having the gift of being first generation. We often talk about the burdens and the pressures being first generation and those things are very real but I actually just love, relishing in the gift of being first generation. We have such a unique perspective. We’re so close to our culture and family and our parents’ homelands but we’re also modernized and we have the know-how of American education.
I’m also aware that brands may put out products rooted in Asian culture but not necessarily see Asian Americans as their target audience. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t create a better product with more integrity. Their target can be people who have no connection to Asian American culture but they can still give them a truer or more accurate representation of the culture.
T: What are brands getting wrong about the Asian American consumer?
S: If it’s a non-Asian led brand that wants to create products rooted in Asian culture, I think the number one thing they need to do is bring in people of that culture to be a part of the process. And I’m also aware that brands may put out products rooted in Asian culture but not necessarily see Asian Americans as their target audience. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t create a better product with more integrity. Their target can be people who have no connection to Asian American culture but they can still give them a truer or more accurate representation of the culture. So that whole “well our target audience isn’t Asian American” argument doesn’t work for me.
T: What should brands be paying attention to?
S: America is becoming more and more diverse. There are more people like us who are growing up to be adults and we are having or going to have kids. So you should actually spend time to create products that speak to a more diverse audience if you want to grow up with this audience in five or 10 or 15 years because that’s going to be the real reflection of the American population. And also because of the Internet I feel like more and more people of all races are becoming more politicized and more socially aware and more educated where whether you’re white or you’re POC you’re going to expect more from brands to have more integrity especially when they’re leveraging cultural products. With Asian Americans if anyone is trying to represent culture, they’ve got to do it in a more multifaceted way because we’re all multidimensional.
Originally published at https://asianamericantrendvue.substack.com.