Will Frith
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» As it cools

Specialty coffee in Vietnam: Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) coffee shops, roasters, and baristas, and Dalat green coffee farmers, processors, and evangelists.

We Are building.coffee

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On the 22nd of July I’ll open my first business.

It’s not entirely mine, since I have partners (Dung, Truong & Anh from The Workshop, and Kel from 17 years of marriage). It feels in some ways like a long time coming and in other ways like a terrifying mistake I’m hurtling towards with no hope of stopping.

I digress…

We are building.

I mean, that’s what we’re calling ourselves. Just building. It’s a name that’s not a name for a brand that’s not a brand, or something. It’s a place to roast coffee and also a sort of tongue-in-cheek gesture to my philosophy on coffee, business, and stuff in general:

  • empower those you can (including yourself)

  • make space, and

  • don’t take any of it too seriously

I started working on this project in earnest a few months before I moved back to Vietnam, and it’s been 8 months (or has it been 8 years? or 8 minutes?) in the making. Our friend Anja found an incredible spot after we’d spent three months looking in vain for something this special and perfect. Kel walked in and basically said, “take my money” after 30 seconds.

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We signed a lease and started tearing things apart. The process has been humbling, which is something I feel like all first-time business owners say, along with “I didn’t think it would cost this much,” “I wish I’d known how tired I’d feel” etc etc etc

The truth is, while it’s been tough and scary and it’s taken too much time and money and Kel has to pester me to do shit I don’t think is important until it ends up being really important, I know I’m doing the right thing at the right time for this city and the community I’ve grown to love.

Here’s some proof: we’ve had two demo machines placed here, one by Quang Tan Hoa, distributor for Astoria (a Storm FRC) and one by F&B Concepts, distributor for Slayer (a Steam EP), both of which came out of nearly nowhere but actually from a network I’ve been building for years now. To me this generosity signals that the scene, whatever that is, isn’t just ready for the thing I’m building, it’s also ready to blow my mind with collaborative opportunities. To say I feel grateful is an understatement. I feel wowed. Awed. Humbled.

Okay okay okay Frithie but what is building even?

Good question, thank you for asking. I’m getting better at this part, I swear.

building is the space to start and grow your own coffee business

Look: I didn’t make this thing up. I owe everything I know to Buckman Coffee Factory, Pulley Collective, Bay Area CoRoasters, and others like them. They dreamed up a sort of co-roasting paradigm that cleared a new path leading straight to the center of an industry in which it takes a lot of capital, privilege, and resources just to start up, much less become successful. I got to see these places while traveling for Modbar, and I could sense that this collectivist approach to business might find a good home in a nascent, rocket-speed-growth market like Saigon’s, where it’s a race to beat Starbucks on one end of the spectrum, and a soul-searching journey to nurture local quality on the other.

At Buckman in particular, in my most recent American home of Portland, I got to see half of the city’s coffee scene come through on any given day. Many of the coolest small roasting companies use the space, and there were always chance meetings, introductions, and shared connections during every visit. Buckman is where coffee happens in PDX. I could only think one thing: I want a space like this in Saigon.

So I did it. Nailed it!

Just kidding, we open in two days and it could all go spectacularly wrong. But let me tell you, for the sake of posterity, what’s already gone spectacularly right: my business partners Truong & Anh have crossed over into business-ownership territory right along with me. We are a roasting company. We are already toll-roasting for some customers. We are a team, and I trust them completely. I’ve worked with both of them since the start of their coffee careers as a trainer and mentor; we move and work together in near silence, because we can sort of read each others’ minds. Also my Vietnamese is still really shitty.

A couple weeks ago I invited my bud Quang (La Viet) to tour building. He said, “this is it. This is exactly it.” As someone who I’ve been working with since the beginning of my Vietnam specialty coffee journey, I knew exactly what he meant. We’d had countless conversations - often spanning days or months and sometimes a dozen time zones - about what it would take to grow Vietnam’s specialty coffee market. We schemed about how to start a movement, how to spark a coffee revolution in an already coffee-habituated culture. If our early 2013 selves could stand on the mezzanine of building to see a beautiful, open space with three coffee roasters, four espresso machines, proper green coffee storage, a training lab, two cupping labs, and a production space, we wouldn’t be able to believe it could happen in Saigon, or to us, or by one of us.

We’ve come a long way, buddy

We’ve come a long way, buddy

Here’s what I hope building can do, way more than impress people with name-brand toys and impressive instagram fodder: I really do want homegrown brands to be born here, to grow here, and to go out into this gigantic city and get bigger and be cooler than anything I could ever do. Ever since I moved to Vietnam people have been asking me when I’m going to start a cafe here. I’ll never say never, but this is as close as I want to get for now; an outboard motor that propels brilliant people further; a factory that creates cafe creators; a hub that brings a community together. No big deal right?

(more pics and talk about building coming soon)