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Càphê, Philadelphia’s first Vietnamese coffee roaster, opens a cafe in Kensington

Coffee enthusiast Thu Phan, with help from partners and a chef, have created a social mission-based cafe in a struggling neighborhood.

Càphê Roasters, at J Street and Kensington Avenue, has cozy seating. Its roaster is at rear, behind glass in a separate room.
Càphê Roasters, at J Street and Kensington Avenue, has cozy seating. Its roaster is at rear, behind glass in a separate room.Read moreMICHAEL KLEIN / Staff

Thu Pham’s dream was opening a coffee shop — not so much for operating a social hub or cafe but for a craftier reason. “For me, it was because I wanted to brew my own coffee and not have to pay for it,” she said, bursting into giggles on a recent morning.

The Market-Frankford El roared overhead, just steps from the door of Càphê Roasters, the cafe she is soft-opening at J Street and Kensington Avenue in the Harrowgate section of Kensington.

Càphê — the name sounds the same in English and Vietnamese — is the second step of her first business, Philadelphia’s first Vietnamese roastery, which she and two partners started in a nearby building nearly three years ago.

Càphê uses beans imported from Vietnam, Myanmar, and other Southeastern Asian countries; its bags are shipped to consumers and restaurants nationwide, including a rising number of American Vietnamese coffee shops. We know we wanted to focus specifically on Vietnamese coffee, but we knew that there was a lack of attention to other Asian coffees that are just as delicious,” she said.

Càphê is becoming a craft alternative to the ubiquitous cans of Cafe Du Monde, whose coffee laced with chicory has a flavor profile that Vietnamese coffee drinks are accustomed to.

Pham, emphasizing that she does not use chicory at Càphê, said, ”I think we opened our business at the right time. I think we’re now a part of growing Vietnamese coffee movement.”

Though Vietnamese coffee is usually robusta, Càphê also uses some Arabica. The espresso blend, for example is a three-part roasting process. First, the Vietnamese robusta goes in at a high temperature and then roasts at a medium temperature. Thai-grown Arabica beans are then roasted at medium and the beans are blended. “This creates a greater depth of flavor,” Pham said.

Càphê's cafe, an airy, ground-floor space with a mix of comfortable den-type furniture and work desks, brings Pham back to her childhood in Philadelphia’s Olney neighborhood, where she and her siblings sipped creamy cà phê sữa from coffee filtered in a metal basket called a plin and sweetened with condensed milk.

She also serves drip coffee, lattes, and iced avocado coffee, as well as condensed-milk ice cream.

Chef Jacob Trinh, the former Vernick Fish cook who’s made a name for himself locally with his own XO sauce and a residency at Kampar Kitchen, is on board with Vietnamese-inspired food designed to tap into the culture without encroaching on the menu offerings at traditional Vietnamese restaurants. (However, his banh mi with house-made ham on a roll from Ba Le Bakery is spot-on.) He does an eight-spice, twice-fried chicken with a crispy crust; charred corn fritters; two salads; a fried rice bowl with Trinh’s kimchi; and pillow jawns, which are fried mochi sticks with apple butter. There’s also a rich avocado smoothie mixed with soft-serve ice cream and topped with Pham’s mother’s peanut brittle and coconut flakes.

Pham, 28, was born in the Philippines amid an unexpected detour to the United States. Her mother, a now-retired tailor, was flying from Vietnam to the United States with her four older siblings to seek asylum, and went into labor on the plane, she said. A month later, the family moved to Orange County. Her father had to wait a year. The whole family then relocated to Philadelphia.

Pham got into coffee while studying consumer behavior — a course load combining psychology and marketing — at Drexel University, where there was a Rival Bros. coffee truck on campus. “Instead of going to Starbucks, I would go to Rival Bros.,” Pham said, praising the local brand. But when buying cups of coffee became too expensive, she bought her own V60 pour-over coffee maker (and then a Chemex and later an AeroPress) and made her own.

Using the Vietnamese robusta beans she grew up with, she realized, would be a money-saver. “The amount of caffeine that you can get from a cup of Vietnamese coffee is outrageous, compared to Arabica beans,” she said. Fewer cups, same buzz.

Shortly after graduation, she got a fellowship at 12Plus, an education nonprofit that provides college and career access to students in underserved neighborhoods. In 2018, founders Ray John and Abe Kwon were batting around business ideas in a bid to win a Kensington Avenue Storefront Challenge sponsored by Shift Capital, the real estate developer behind the MaKen buildings in the Harrowgate enclave of Kensington, which house artists and entrepreneurs.

Pham told John and Kwon that she had always wanted to open a coffee shop, “but I think that’s what a lot of people want for themselves. But for me, specifically, it was because I wanted to brew my own coffee and not have to pay for it. I told them it would be my dream to create a coffee shop that had values and had a social mission attached to it.”

That meant a commitment to donating a portion of profits back to 12Plus and also creating a workforce-development program to train and employ students and alumni of 12Plus.

As one of nine winners of the challenge, Càphê earned a small grant and logistical and technical support. But instead of opening the cafe initially, they started a small roastery in the nearby MaKen North building, from which they began the wholesale business, turning out six pounds at a time.

As they moved into the cafe, they’ve traded in their roaster for a new one that can handle more than four times the volume.

Càphê now also roasts for the Chicago-based Fat Miilk Coffee, a woman-run importer whose retail coffees are packaged in milk cartons. Awhile back, Pham and Fat Miilk founder Lan Ho started talking about a collaboration. “I was like, let’s use your robusta beans and our Vietnam Arabica beans and see what we can get out of it,” Pham said. “After two months, we came up with the Humility blend, which reflects what 2021 was like for everyone.”

Hours are 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday to Monday (closed Tuesday and Wednesday).