How Vince Nguyen is bringing Vietnamese coffee culture to an American audience.

How Vince Nguyen is bringing Vietnamese coffee culture to an American audience.

Thank you Startup CPG for letting our founder Vince Nguyen sharing his journey on Founder Feature. Please read below for full article.

The founder of Nam Coffee, Vince Nguyen, was born in the Highlands in Vietnam and grew up surrounded by Vietnamese coffee culture. “In high school, I worked with my mom in a little coffee cart in the alley in District One in Saigon,” he says. But when he moved to the U.S., he discovered that “Vietnamese coffee [in the U.S.]  was totally different, and there was no coffee that fit my preferences.” He missed Vietnamese coffee so much that he started asking his sister to send boxes of coffee beans from Vietnam to California.

When the pandemic began, Nguyen’s Vietnamese coffee supply began to run dry, and he began to consider, “Is it possible to bring my coffee culture to the States? Is it possible to create something for myself and the community? I wanted to offer people a chance to try the traditional Vietnamese coffee that I grew up with, so I decided to start my own company.”

Nguyen reached out to his family and told them his vision to create a Vietnamese coffee brand in the States. When they were able, they began shipping samples of beans to Ngyuen from different farms in Vietnam. After trying a few samples, Nguyen went back to Vietnam to meet with the farmers and secure suppliers for Nam Coffee. This trip was only the beginning of the long process of founding his brand, Nguyen explains. “I did everything on my own with my savings and loans from my family. And as an immigrant and new founder in the United States, I’ve faced so many challenges…but it has also been amazing.”

Launching Nam Coffee

Once Nguyen located the farm in Vietnam that would supply Nam Coffee’s beans, he had to find a roaster in the States, a process that was much harder than he anticipated. “I made 100 phone calls, Googled everything, and looked everywhere from Seattle to Michigan, to Sacramento.” Oftentimes, roasters did not want to work with him because he was still too small. They’d say, “You don’t have the volume, and I don’t want to put your beans on my roster.” Other times they would look at him with blank eyes, “What is Vietnamese coffee? And who are you?”

One day, when Nguyen was trying to call a roaster, he accidentally called one of the companies that worked with the roaster instead. Luckily for Nguyen, this mistake proved to be just the breakthrough he needed. The person he accidentally called connected him with a roaster who was interested in Vietnamese coffee. Nguyen gave him a call and they set up a meeting. Nguyen’s meeting was canceled six times, but he kept going back. After the sixth cancellation, Nguyen was (luckily) still sitting in the parking lot when the roaster called him back. “He said, “I have ten minutes to meet with you. Come to my office.’ So I had ten minutes to show him my plans for Nam Coffee and he said, ‘I usually only accept big contracts, but I see your passion and I see you’re trying so hard, so I’m going to help you.”

Finally, after working for almost two years to perfect everything from the packaging design to the exact right temperature to roast his beans, Nguyen launched Nam Coffee in February 2022.

What is Vietnamese coffee?

Nguyen has found there are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to Vietnamese coffee in the States. “A lot of people will dark roast beans and claim they’ve made Vietnamese coffee, but they’re not using beans from Vietnam,” he explains. Vietnam is the second largest producer of coffee in the world and the top producer of Robusta beans. Arabica beans are what many American consumers are used to, but Robusta beans are what give Vietnamese coffee its unique flavor.

Nguyen explains, “Vietnamese coffee is stronger, and it contains more caffeine. When you drink it, you can taste the chocolate and the nuttiness because it's made from Robusta beans. So my mission for Nam Coffee is to change the knowledge of Vietnamese coffee in America. It’s not about dark roast with condensed milk and making it sweet. Our beans are from Vietnam and then you can make [your coffee] however you like it.”

To help American consumers get to know Vietnamese coffee, Nguyen prioritized in-person events throughout his first year in business. “I tried to do public events wherever possible — pop-ups, farmers markets, music festivals —  to sell coffee and offer free samples…People would ask me, ‘What is Vietnamese coffee? What’s the difference?” With a free sample in hand, Nguyen had the chance to immediately illustrate what sets his coffee apart. “I want to change how we would think about Vietnamese coffee in the United States,” Nguyen says.

Over his first year in business, Nguyen has noticed Vietnamese coffee starting to catch on more and more. “Large brands like Starbucks are starting to pay attention to Vietnamese coffee and I think there will be more brands that emerge.” However, Nguyen does not feel a sense of competition with fellow brands but rather welcomes their arrival: “I am so happy to see more Vietnamese coffee brands. There are other competitors, but we uplift everyone together.”

The challenges of retail and growing Nam Coffee 

Now that he is in his second year of business, Nguyen is hoping to expand Nam Coffee into more retailers. Nam Coffee is currently in about 15 retail accounts, primarily small mom-and-pop shops, but Nguyen is actively seeking out larger retail locations. This process comes with a learning curve for Nguyen, and he has relied on fellow founders and CPG groups who have helped him learn the ropes.

Talking to buyers can be “very challenging,” Nguyen says, especially for someone for whom English is not their first language. “When you have a chance to meet a buyer, they often don't have time for you. You only have around 30 seconds to one minute to pitch your product to them. In one of my founder groups, we say, ‘They are the ocean and we are the fish.’ There are so many fish out there, so you have to give them the right points and have something that stands out.” Ngyuen, however, feels confident that Nam Coffee’s “storytelling, branding, and my emotional connection as someone who grew up in the central highlands of Vietnam,” will allow the brand to break through to buyers.

Nguyen is also hoping to learn more about fundraising in the year to come as external capital will allow him to hire sales and production teams to take Nam Coffee to the next level.  “I believe Nam Coffee will be very successful if I can grow my team and get into more retailers, and from that build more product lines, or even open a brick-and-mortar location.”

“I want to be a Vietnamese culture ambassador. I love my culture, and I want to promote my culture with food and drinks. So my hope and dream is to do more products to promote Vietnamese culture, and I have a lot of ideas, but I need my time and money to make everything happen.”

Finding strength in community

As a first-time solo founder, Nguyen has found support and guidance from his network of fellow CPG founders and his California community.

“Whenever I do a public event, I feel so lucky to have so much support from the community. This year, I tried to focus on California because that’s where I’m based, and whenever I go to Los Angeles [for an event], people know it’s me. They say, ‘Oh, you’re Vince, the Vietnamese coffee guy.”

It is these small moments of connection that, Nguyen says, carry him through the tough times that any founder faces. “People have seen me carrying a lot of stuff on the street to get into the building to do an event, and they recognize me and say, ‘I can help you carry things inside.’ Whenever I feel something dark, I think about those moments. They make me so happy, and I feel like my hard work pays off.”

Above all, the biggest lesson Nguyen has learned from the support he has received in his first year is that “Everything is possible.” It may not look exactly like what you thought it would and you may have a crucial meeting rescheduled six times, but, Nguyen says, “You just have to try.”

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