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KANSAS CITY

After years on wheels, Cafe Cà Phê is set to open its brick and mortar coffee shop in Columbus Park

If you’re living in Kansas City and haven’t heard of Jackie Nguyen and Cafe Cà Phê, you haven’t been paying attention. The Vietnamese coffee truck has taken the city by storm, and area coffee drinkers have taken note – and you’ll soon be able to find the concept at its first brick-and-mortar location.

Jackie Nguyen, a first-generation Vietnamese American, first conceived the mobile coffee shop in the fall of 2020. Like many, she’d lost her job due to COVID-19, though her pre-pandemic journey was different from most.

For years, Nguyen was a Broadway performer – she was slated to travel for six months for Miss Saigon’s traveling show before COVID shut the world down. Nguyen’s Astoria, Queens, apartment had been sublet, so she chose to wait out the initial shutdown by crashing with her partner’s parents in Kansas City. Weeks turned into months, and it soon became apparent that they were stuck in Kansas City for longer than anticipated.

“I’ll admit that I was not excited at first,” Nguyen says. “I had preconceived notions about the Midwest, but performing arts definitely weren’t coming back for a bit, so I dove into this as a little passion project.”

Nguyen, a San Diego native who had spent the past decade in Los Angeles and New York, including several extended stints as a barista, called upon this experience to put all her knowledge and energy into this traveling café.

“I had no means of making money, and I sort of didn’t feel like I had a community here in Kansas City, nor did I have a physical space to rely on, so I made my own,” she says. “This wasn’t Plan A. This was more like Plan D or Plan E.”

Originally opened in October 2020, the truck ended up taking Nguyen all over Kansas City, and she developed a bit of a cult following within months.

Cafe Cà Phê makes traditional Vietnamese coffee using a phin coffee filter and mixes it with condensed milk. It uses beans from Nguyen Coffee Supply (unrelated), which is the country’s first specialty Vietnamese coffee importer and roaster. The result is a sweet and creamy lineup of beverages that has kept loyal patrons coming back for more than 18 months.

Crowd favorites include The Saigon (a classic Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk) the Hella Good Latte (which contains ube, Vietnamese espresso, oat milk and a condensed milk drizzle) and the Dragon Latte (a matcha and espresso hybrid drizzled with, you guessed it, condensed milk).

Now, with the backing of her adopted community in Kansas City (Nguyen has raised more than $60,000 on GoFundMe), she’s planning on opening a brick-and-mortar in the Columbus Park neighborhood just north of downtown Kansas City in mid-June. Ironically, the space at 916 E. 5th St. was the first location she’d looked at before realizing that a coffee truck was a more reasonable (and affordable) option when launching the business.

“I tried to get this space, but it obviously wasn’t a great time to apply for a business loan,” Nguyen says, recalling the earliest months of the pandemic. “Banks were trying to save businesses, not start new ones, so I put all my money into the truck, and that ended up taking off.”

With the lease signed and construction underway, the new space is nearing completion. Soon, up to 40 patrons will be able to gather on an mix of couches, high-top seating and theater seats – a nod to Nguyen’s background on Broadway – and enjoy their coffee. There is also a dedicated space where local businesses, artists and makers can pop up to sell their work on the weekends.

“We wanted this to be a very creative, welcoming, artistic space,” Nguyen says. “We didn’t want to be another put-together, cookie-cutter coffee shop. Instead, we hope people will find this space to be cozy, colorful, bright and unique.”

To Nguyen, the Columbus Park neighborhood reminded her of her old home in Astoria, Queens. An added bonus: Vietnam Café, one of her favorite Kansas City restaurants (and, worth noting, one of the few Vietnamese restaurants in the region), is right around the corner.

And don’t worry: the truck will still be out and about. Nguyen plans on taking the original mobile café to colleges, corporate events, weddings and other community festivals, even after the new space is open.

While Cafe Cà Phê’s coffee and space are delicious and welcoming enough to warrant the praise of Kansas Citians, it is the team’s outspoken activism and willingness to share Vietnamese culture that have kept people coming back for more. Amid a string of discrimination and hate crimes against Asian American and Pacific Islanders in March 2021, Nguyen and the Cafe Cà Phê hosted a massive rally in Kansas City’s West Bottoms neighborhood, bringing hundreds together for a vigil. More recently, the team hosted Kansas City’s AAPIHM Celebration in Columbus Park, their new home, featuring dozens of Asian performers and vendors celebrating their heritage.

For Nguyen, this was a huge driver for making her own brick-and-mortar café.

“In general, AAPI representation is severely lacking in the media, especially in the Midwest where there is a smaller population,” she says. “We don’t have many community centers or museums here in KC. Still, the people that live here and make up this community – the doctors, artists, students and even baristas – deserve to feel welcome and appreciated.”

With this new space, the Cafe Cà Phê hopes to create a safe space and foster a greater sense of pride for the community.

“People see Asians for our work and our services, but they often don’t see us as active members of our community,” Nguyen says. “Bringing awareness to our perspectives – that we often feel invisible – and bridging the gap between our work and our day-to-day lives is so important. Yes, our culture is very different and unique, but we’re still members of this community.”

With the new café, Nguyen hopes to create a space where community is embraced and celebrated every day.

“By being so proactive and vocal and proud – and really by just existing – I hope that other members of our community and all Kansas Citians feel comfortable and loved.”

There is no set date yet for the coffee shop’s opening.

Café Ca Phê, 916 E. Fifth St., Columbus Park, Kansas City, Missouri, cafecaphe.com (coming soon)

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