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Broadway, biases and brewing: Learning from the story of Cafe Cà Phê’s founders

Cafe Cà Phê founders from left to right: Madoka Koguchi, Jackie Nguyen, and Mary Yeliz. (Lauren Pusateri)

Lost in the mazes of warehouses and gravel roads of the West Bottoms of Kansas City, the last thing you’d expect to see is a Vietnamese dragon painting, rich with bold red, blue and yellow hues alongside the simple declaration “COFFEE.”

If you’ve stumbled across this before, you know you’ve reached Kansas City’s first mobile Vietnamese coffee shop: Cafe Cà Phê.

Jackie Nguyen found Cafe Cà Phê in 2020 with the help of her friends Madoka Koguchi and Mary Yeliz. Earlier this week, both Nguyen and Koguchi met with the student organization Asian Students In America (A.S.I.A.) to share their stories, call attention to the necessity of cultural representation in Kansas City and encourage UMKC students in their professional and personal pursuits.

From the very moment Nguyen and Koguchi hopped on the Zoom call, it was clear their personalities were as vibrant as the Vietnamese dragon on the side of their coffee shop. Bold pink sweaters and pink hair proclaimed the women’s fearlessness and passion for their craft.

Nguyen and Koguchi shared their stories of being actresses together on Broadway and the work it took to learn, struggle and eventually succeed in starting a new business in Kansas City. They also answered students’ questions regarding business ownership, theatre, bias in the arts and the necessity of representation in all industries—from the stage to the shop.

“While we were on the road, I wanted to really pivot my career and do something a bit more fulfilling,” Nguyen explained. “I wanted to do something that had more impact, but also had more financial stability than acting.”

Traveling was an inseparable aspect of her theatre career, and while it came with its own thrills and benefits, it became clear it wouldn’t be a lifelong pursuit.

“I fell in love with Kansas City and I really felt like my business could do well here,” Nguyen said. “So I moved here mid-pandemic and I opened my coffee shop.”

The transitory nature of their acting careers gave Nguyen and Koguchi many opportunities to explore coffee shops around the United States, learn from various business owners and build their own confidence and identities.

“As a native Japanese person, speaking up is never an option,” Koguchi said. “So I learned to speak up more and to see things more. I learned to say something.”

Giving a voice to the voiceless and the silenced is a value clearly at the heartbeat of Nguyen and Koguchi. Having already experienced the struggles of finding Asian-American roles in the theatre world, these ladies now strive to represent Vietnamese and Asian culture in the KC area and encourage others to do the same. 

“Acting and show business really prepared Madoka and I for this business,” Nguyen said. “Being Asians in the theatre world was already a huge challenge, so I feel like it really prepared us to rocket-blast us into this coffee community where there’s also not a lot of Asians.”

Marcus Thieu, a third-year student pursuing a major in Chemistry at UMKC, is one of the founding members of A.S.I.A. and responsible for inviting Nguyen and Koguchi to come and speak on these struggles. Thieu first saw their impact after discovering Cafe Cà Phê for the first time last October. 

“As a young Vietnamese American, it’s extremely rare to find a Vietnamese-inspired business that appealed to young adults and college students,” Thieu said. “We thought it would be a great idea to have Jackie and Madoka speak about their journeys as Asian American women, business owners and baristas, and as Broadway actresses.”

The event ended up being a relaxed virtual space for attendees to ask questions and receive honest responses from Nguyen and Koguchi.

“At the end of the event, you really felt like they were your older sisters giving advice,” Thieu said.

This type of community is what Nguyen and Koguchi aim to facilitate through Cafe Cà Phê, and it’s also what A.S.I.A. has created on campus. With monthly meetings and events, such as a bubble tea outing to Bruú Cafe on March 23rd, A.S.I.A. is an open environment to learn, share and contribute to the diversity of the UMKC and KC population. 

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