Questions and answers
Thu Pham is a Philadelphia native, coffee queen and co-owner of the city’s only Vietnamese specialty coffee roaster. She has strong feelings about neon green pandan and community as a buzzword.
behind the line is Foobooz’s series of interviews with the people who make up Philadelphia’s vibrant bar and restaurant scene. For the full archive, go here.
When I started writing about food in Philadelphia in 2018, Càphê Roasters was a small business I heard a lot about. People who had tried Thu Pham’s coffee drinks and beans raved about it – she sourced (and continues to source) green coffee beans from farms in Vietnam and then roasted them using techniques of Vietnamese coffee brewing. The combination was and still is quite rare in the United States, resulting in uniquely chocolatey, aromatic beans and coffees. At that time, however, Thu’s cafe was only available at a few occasional pop-ups around town.
Fast forward to 2022 and we all benefit from Thu’s caffeine ambitions. This little pop-up, which could easily have been mistaken for a casual side-hustle, was part of Thu’s larger idea for a Vietnamese cafe with a hearty menu and a social justice angle. And that’s exactly what happened: at Càphê Roasters in Kensington, a portion of all profits go 12Morethe educational association where Thu worked when she created the cafe’s business plan.
Unlike other mission-focused restaurants, some of which have struggled in Philadelphia, Càphê Roasters has found success based on the quality of its menu and the experience it curated in the shop. People come because it’s great. (I guess most people who buy their coffee and eat their food don’t even know there’s a charity arm in the business.) The food program, led by executive chef Jacob Trinh, is one most interesting of all time. -change lunch options in the city. The day I met Thu at the cafe, I devoured a fried chicken bánh mì, an order of xôi (a dish of sweet and salty sticky rice with scallions and coconut that she says has was created by one of their line cooks), pandan soft serve a parfait and a refreshing peach and jasmine iced tea – and I barely scratched the surface.
As Càphê Roasters approaches its one year anniversary, Thu and I talked about seeing her business come to life and the importance of collaboration when developing a menu.
I grew up in… Olney. My parents still live there.
Càphê Roasters started as … an idea for the Kensington Avenue Storefront Challenge, a competition launched by Shift Capital, which is a real estate developer with social impact. Their goal was basically to offer this $10,000 grant to community members and social entrepreneurs to help revitalize the Kensington Corridor.
At the time I was… Work for this non-profit organization called 12Plus, which basically offers academic and professional advice. I was always having conversations with the CEO about creative ways to inject money into 12Plus to make it more sustainable, and then we found out about the competition and it felt natural to us because 12Plus was already operating in Kensington; and we thought of a Vietnamese cafe because there is a huge Vietnamese community here. I wanted to build this more welcoming, convivial and communal space.
When we won the competition with Shift Capital, I… started watching a lot of coffee roasting youtube videos and bought some Whirly Pop popcorn.
The community is… a buzzword. People always want to create a community space. But what does this mean for us? How can we make people feel what community means to us? For us, that means good coffee, good food, good music and something like home – just what you see on the family wall in the café. The pictures on the wall aren’t just my family – it’s, like, everyone on the team. They can choose what they want to put on the wall.
We bought our first green coffee beans from… a coffee farmer in Vietnam who was a friend of a former student’s parents. There are Vietnamese brewing methods, and then there is Vietnamese-grown coffee, and we wanted to make sure we were doing both so it was like real Vietnamese coffee. We have an espresso machine, but we also make a lot of coffee in a phin, which is a traditional method.
The first place I sold coffee was… in a three-month pop-up art gallery in a Spring Garden space.
Our first business partner was… Riverwards products. Vincent from Riverwards agreed to sell our coffee before we even had bags or a real roaster.
We focused on the food in the cafe because… We want people to stay. We want people to sit down, eat and hang out. Food was always a big part of the plan.
I would describe Jacob and my relationship as… collaborative.
For me, collaboration means… none of the menus are mine — they are ours. It’s owned by everyone who works here, so our approach is that if there’s something you want to do, go for it. When I approached Jacob with the opportunity to be executive chef here, I was, like ‘I have a vision for the menu, but I want you to present you.” And for the people in the kitchen, they interview him, but there’s always a conversation afterwards with the three of us, where I say: “It’s Chef Jacob’s ideas and creations on the menu, but there are always opportunities for you to have an impact on the menu and create a dish.
Our newest special that I’m excited about is… the perfect pandan chè, which looks a bit like a dessert-slash-drink because when it melts you can drink it with a straw. It is soft pandan ice cream, sago dipped in coconut milk, grass jelly and it is a kind of chè game which is a Vietnamese dessert made from coconut with a lot of jellies and a lot of components. I’m so proud of it because the team up front and back always said, ‘Let’s do something pandan, let’s do something pandan. And I’m like, you can’t make something pandan if it’s green because a lot of places that make pandan desserts use extracts that have this fake neon green color that I hate. You can get pandan only from the leaves, that’s what we do.
I am most proud of… the fact that it’s a hopeful place, because I believe it’s a hopeful neighborhood. I love that we are still connected to 12Plus and we even employ some of my former students. People always tell me, you should be really proud of what you do, but I really couldn’t have done it without everyone here.