Sahra Nguyen

Nguyen Coffee Supply
Lower East Side, NYC
The Busboy coffee order, no matter the season, is a Cold Brew, no milk. We used to have no preference in beans and just assumed that most coffee comes from Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Brazil and Colombia and that was that. How. Wrong. Were. We!! When we met Sahra Nguyen, the HBIC who founded Nguyen Coffee Supply, she properly put us in our places. Did you know that Vietnam is the second largest exporter of coffee beans in the world? One of Nguyen’s goals is to debunk the myth that Vietnamese coffee is just iced mediocre coffee with a healthy helping of condensed milk. Vietnamese beans hold extremely complex and diverse flavors, and should be celebrated. Nguyen likes her beans so much that she also prefers her coffee black like us. Read her interview to learn more.
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Full name, age where are you from?

Sahra Nguyen, 34 years old, born & raised in Boston, MA, currently based in Brooklyn, NY.

What was growing up like for you and did you have family meals growing up?

Growing up as a kid in Boston I struggled with feeling different because there was no Asian American representation in media at that time. Race in America was very dichotomous, especially in the 1990s. There wasn’t this level of nuance for discussing racial politics that exists today with large help from the internet. So I felt like many people didn’t understand Asian Americans, let alone Southeast Asians, let alone Vietnamese Americans and my parents who were recent refugees who escaped Vietnam by boat.

People didn’t understand our struggles which meant they didn’t understand us as people. The “Model Minority Myth” was such a plague during my childhood, and the fact that my parents escaped a war torn country couldn’t have put our experience farther away from that stereotype. So most people would look at us and think quiet, passive, submissive, weak, inferior. But my parents lived through American bombs landing on their homes and risked political persecution by escaping in the middle of the night -- they’re the bravest, most bad ass people I know. 

We always had family meals growing up. My mom cooked every single meal and none of us could start eating until everyone was at the table, especially my dad (who was often working late). She was really strict about us eating together as a family. At dinner, no one really talked. We just ate quietly and watched TV.

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What meal, or beverage, most reminds you of your childhood? 

Rice reminds me most of my childhood, and some of my mom’s staples to go with the rice, like thit kho, canh, ga rang gung, the boiled egg with fish sauce and boiled cabbage.

Tell us a bit about your venture. What is your role and how did you get into this industry?

As a casual coffee drinker, I fell into the category of someone who drinks coffee everyday 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 -- and Nguyen Coffee Supply was born. 

We launched in 2018 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 single origin 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, and since starting Nguyen Coffee Supply, we’re finding that so many people love our robusta coffees, oftentimes in preference over our arabica coffee. This isn’t to say that one is better than the other, because coffee beans don’t live in hierarchy and we don’t promote hierarchical cultures in coffee, but rather it points to the fact that we all deserve more diversity -- diversity in offerings, in products, in narratives, in leadership, in community and in ideas. 

Currently, we’re changing coffee culture 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, that 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; but oftentimes 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. 

In addition, we are 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. 

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How has the pandemic affected you?

Overall, 2020 was a painful year navigating loss, grief and a broken country without a clear plan to fix its problem of systemic racism. 

When everything started shutting down in March 2020, we lost all of our B2B revenue, which was about 35%. It was a scary time, as everyone was trying to navigate whether or not they could work (essential vs non-essential), should work or even wanted to work. We quickly shifted to focus all of our efforts on e-commerce (our primary channel), and this is how we’re continuing to maintain and grow. While we had the opportunity to continue operating, it was important for me to do what I could to support those around me. Through a combination of rev share from Nguyen Coffee Supply’s online sales and my personal fundraising initiatives, we’ve raised and donated over $100K in 2020 to hospitality folks, our partners and undocumented workers in NYC.
 

What do you think working in this industry during this time has taught you?

The pandemic has shown us over and over again that we are truly stronger together. The only silver lining with the pandemic is that it has created a mass effect for the collective consciousness to shift towards more care, mindfulness and empathy. Also, it has truly been a blessing to be living and working through this pandemic in New York City -- the people of this city are unparalleled with their heart, hustle and generosity.

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Once it is completely safe to eat out again and socialize, where is the first place you're going out to eat at and what are you ordering?

I’ve been engaging in outdoor dining at select restaurants this winter -- nothing like a true NYC dinner in the freezing cold to harden the spirit! But as soon as indoor dining is safe again, the first place I’m going to is Saigon Social. Like many people, for years I have been anxiously awaiting her highly anticipated opening. The week before her opening, I stopped in for a friends & family test run. Then the next week, everything shut down. I still get take out from Saigon Social but there’s something uniquely special about being in the chef’s “home.” That’s at the heart of hospitality that so many of us are missing right now. I’ll be ordering one of everything on the menu, and shout out to my fave garlic noodles!

Anything exciting coming up for you?

Yea! We’re developing some new products to enhance the Vietnamese coffee experience at home. Look out for the drop on our social media and email list!

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