Kimberly Dam, the owner of Portland Cà Phê, wants to offer all of the popular coffee drinks one could normally find in any standard coffee shop, but with a twist: using coffee beans harvested and imported from Vietnam.
“What I wanted for Portland Cà Phê was to showcase that it could be enjoyed in any way that you like your coffee; a plain espresso, a drip coffee, a latte, and you’re getting it with Vietnamese beans,” says Dam.
On the corner of Southeast 28th Ave. and Holgate Blvd, customers are treated to the sounds and smells of freshly brewed coffee and toasted bánh mì, Vietnamese sandwiches filled with roast pork or chicken and fresh herbs.
“I like waking up in the morning and having a routine, knowing your regulars, just having a good time,” says Dam. “To me, it’s a low-stress job, it’s just something that I really enjoy doing, creating relationships with people in your community and just making friends.”
Her shop’s namesake comes from “cà phê,” the Vietnamese words for “coffee.” Dam, who is Vietnamese American, partially drew upon her own experiences visiting Vietnam and watching the local coffee scene.
“That’s all they would do,” she laughs. “They sit outside and drink coffee or tea and catch up with their loved ones. And they would drink coffee all day long.”
Dam dreamt of bringing that same communal atmosphere to Portland.
Truly authentic Vietnamese coffee, she said, comes down to using specific regionally-grown beans. Most coffee shops in the U.S. will use arabica beans, which are sweeter. Coffee beans grown in Vietnam are generally robusta beans, which are more bitter and are harvested in the central highlands.
Vietnamese iced coffee, known as cà phê sữa đá [cah-FEH soo-ah DAH], is an espresso-strength coffee made from those robusta beans, mixed with sweetened condensed milk and served iced.
“A lot of times when people talk about cà phê sữa đá, they talk about how strong and caffeine it is ... Usually it’s made really bitter, dark, and you’re mixing it with condensed milk, so you’re just getting this really sweet, strong drink,” explains Dam.
Dam hopes that her coffee shop will help change the narrative about Vietnam’s contribution to the coffee industry.
“I just hope to see more Vietnamese coffee beans being available at other cafes, other businesses, and for the narrative to change that Vietnamese coffee is not only cà phê sữa đá,” she said.
Dam had always wanted to own her own coffee shop, but life had other plans.
“In 2016, my father suddenly passed away. So I had to switch gears to ensure that my mom was taken care of because he was her sole provider at that time,” she said.
She took a job working at Kaiser Permanente in their social services department as a way to ensure that her mother was taken care of financially.
While at her family’s Vietnamese sandwich shop in Northeast Portland, House of Bánh Mì, Dam noticed that her mother was making cà phê sữa đá, with Café Du Monde, a chicory-mixed coffee brand from New Orleans, La.
Café Du Monde is a staple within Vietnamese communities in the United States. Many refugees in the 1970′s adopted Cafe Du Monde as their coffee of choice because of how closely the brand resembled the rich, strong flavor of the robusta beans back in Vietnam.
As the years passed, what started as a simple coffee replacement became part of Vietnamese culture in the U.S.
Dam wondered why Vietnamese coffee beans weren’t being used to make truly authentic cà phê sữa đá.
“Vietnam is the second-largest coffee producer in the world, and the number one for Robusta beans,” she explains. “And the fact that people weren’t using the beans to actually make these drinks that were inspired by Vietnamese coffee, it was just mind blowing to me.”
Soon, Dam realized she could import and roast coffee beans from Vietnam herself.
“If I had the opportunity to introduce this to the market, and even if it just meant our small customer base at The House of Bánh Mì, that would be worthwhile to me,” she says.
Dam discovered Bon Mua Oregon, a local coffee business that could help her with her idea.
“There’s a lady here in Salem, her name is Lan. Her family owns a coffee farm in Dalat, Vietnam, and she imports coffee from them. So I started with her and the majority of my beans do come from her farm,” she says.
Next, Dam studied how to roast the coffee beans. But learning the tricks of the trade wasn’t easy. Industrial coffee roasting machines are huge gas-based drums, which meant that she needed to be trained on how to properly use them.
Luckily, she found a friend in the industry, Mark Wilcox of Mutt’s Coffee in Portland, who offered to help.
“After I was able to get him to agree to teach me how to roast, I kind of had to namedrop him and be like, ‘Hey, my friend, Mark roasts at your facility, and I was wondering if I’m able to come by with him so he could teach me how to roast’. And that’s when they finally said yes,” recalls Dam.
Then it was time to start selling beans and opening up a brick-and-mortar storefront.
Thuy Pham, family friend and the owner of Mama Dút Foods, was inspired by Dam’s work ethic. So she decided to see Portland Cà Phê's authentic coffee beans in her vegan Vietnamese food shop.
“So many people make Vietnamese coffee here in Portland, but how many of them are making it with beans that are grown in Vietnam by predominantly Vietnamese women and then roasted by another Vietnamese woman? There’s a beauty in that,” says Pham.
Dam credits Pham for not only giving her a space to sell her beans, but also giving her the confidence to launch her business.
“She actually gave me that push that I needed in the beginning to really be like, ‘You have a product that is interesting. Go for it. Don’t be afraid, don’t be shy, just do it.’” says Dam. “And her giving me space at her shop to get my name out there and get my beans out there was extremely helpful in launching this business.”
Pham said she couldn’t be more proud of the next generation of Vietnamese Americans making a name for themselves. And as she says, the more BIPOC business owners there are in Portland, the more opportunity to collaborate and lift up each other.
“When you collaborate and you are in community with others and help lift each other up, there’s nowhere for the both of you to go up,” explains Pham. “I feel like competition is such a scarcity mindset and this world is not scarce.”
After only a few short months, Portland Cà Phê has quickly become one of the most popular spots in town for coffee. The shop’s Instagram page has already gained more than 5,000 followers.
Even the grand opening took Dam by surprise.
“I had the block wrapped around, people waiting in line to try my products. It was surreal and overwhelming in a good way. And I just hope that people continue to enjoy my products and that we keep on improving and growing from there,” she said.
“I don’t think I would be able to do any of this during a pandemic without the support of my family… They’re always there when I need them. They’re extremely happy for me,” she said.
With Portland Cà Phê's success, Dam hopes that her story and business will inspire others in her community to take risks and not be afraid to go after their goals.
“Women of color in general, I wanted to let people know that there’s room for us and to not give up,” she said. “And if this is what you want to do, don’t let anyone tell you that your coffee isn’t good. Just do what you want to do.”