In 2017, Thu Pham was approached by the founders of 12PLUS, the nonprofit organization for which she was working as a Fellow in Kensington. (12PLUS matches recent college graduates such as Thu with under-served Philadelphia high school students to provide mentoring and advocacy). They handed her a flyer advertising the application deadline for the upcoming Kensington Avenue Storefront Challenge – a competition inviting small businesses to propose ideas to revitalize troubled Kensington Avenue. For the winning proposals, up to ten applicants would receive free rent for a year in the Maken Studios, and funding and mentoring from Shift Capital and its partners. Located in North Philadelphia, Maken Studios is a launchpad for makers that occupies the large, industrial building that used to be home to Jomar Fabrics.
“If you were to enter this competition, what business would you enter?” they asked. She thought for a moment and replied, “a café”. She had long been dissatisfied with her experience of cafes in Philadelphia. In theory, they seemed like a pleasant place to hang out with a friend or to use as a remote work space. Instead, they tended to be over-crowded and she often felt rushed and unwelcome. The right cafe had the potential to become the beating heart of a re-imagined neighborhood.
Thu was born in Vietnam and when she was four, she immigrated to Orange County, California, and eventually, to Northeast Philadelphia. Both places had large Vietnamese refugee communities. Thu had always been fascinated by the customs surrounding the drinking of coffee in her homeland. She remembered seeing men and women (but mostly men) sitting outside at Vietnamese restaurants on short stools, spending hours drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and chatting. She remembered the unhurried sense of warmth and community that she felt. What if she could recreate that feeling in Kensington?
Another powerful memory from her childhood was that of her sister lifting her up to sit on their kitchen counter while she brewed Vietnamese coffee. Her sister would pour hot water into the phin and together, they would watch it slowly run over the coffee and through the phin’s filter and into a cup. (It takes 4 to 5 minutes to brew a cup of Vietnamese coffee). Her sister would add condensed milk and shaved ice and then offer Thu a sweet spoonful. In American restaurants, Vietnamese coffee is usually made from inexpensive Café du Monde coffee beans, a nondescript blend roasted in Louisiana that achieves its smoky flavor through the addition of chicory. Coffee beans grown in Vietnam are naturally smoky. Volcanic soil, hot temps, humidity and high elevations give Vietnamese coffee beans their unique, nutty, bold flavor.
For the competition, she proposed the opening of a Vietnamese coffee roastery and eventually a cafe that would donate a portion of its profits back into the community to support 12PLUS. Within two months of entering, Thu found out that she and her partners (the founders of 12PLUS) had won and Caphe Roasters was born – the first and only Vietnamese roastery in Philadelphia.
There was one small problem – Thu had absolutely NO knowledge of roasting and/or brewing. She spent the next six months researching brewing and roasting techniques. In her parent’s poorly ventilated row home kitchen in Olney, she would experiment, trying to discover the perfect ratio of water and temperature. She used Rival Brothers beans (When Thu was studying Marketing Research and Psychology at Drexel University, class of 2015, she liked drinking Rival Brothers coffee from their truck located on campus), but, eventually, she switched to South Asian beans she sourced from a supplier. Over her family’s gas stove, she created her roasting profile by using a $20 Whirley-Pop popcorn popper that she had purchased at Williams Sonoma. She has come a long way from those days in a very short amount of time – she now operates a professional roaster that she considers her baby – a San Franciscan, manufactured out of Carson City, Nevada.
Thu sells her coffee beans to local Vietnamese restaurants, and at farmer’s markets and coffee shops. In the not-too-distant-future, she plans to open her café in Kensington. Last summer, she partnered with Weckerly’s Ice Cream in Fishtown to create a popular seasonal Vietnamese coffee ice cream. Part of the profits from sales of this flavor went to support 12PLUS. Partnerships with businesses such as Weckerly’s that are working to transform the communities where they do business is in perfect alignment with her values.
Thu was raised a devout Catholic and taught, by her parent’s example, the value of leading a life of service. She believes strongly in the work of 12PLUS – how it empowers young people to continue their education and to become entrepreneurs like herself. No matter how delicious or potent it may be (Vietnamese coffee delivers a caffeine punch 3x greater than a cup of espresso), for Thu, it’s not about the coffee, it’s about community.
Join Thu and four other female Philadelphia food innovators for a panel discussion on November 14th at 12:30pm at Drexel University’s Food Innovation Startup Fest. To learn more and to register, click here.