Café Cà Phê is finally opening, and neighbors say it's breathing new life into Columbus Park
The cafe is Kansas City’s first Vietnamese coffee shop – and the only one the almost 200-year-old neighborhood has ever had.
Jackie Nguyen didn’t mean to end up in Kansas City. The Broadway performer from San Diego, California, came here by way of New York during the pandemic and never looked back.
In October of 2020, Nguyen opened Café Cà Phê, the city’s first Vietnamese coffee shop.
It began as a single table pop-up, and Nguyen began operating out of a truck soon after. Since then, she’s been doing pop-ups all over the city as well as residencies in the West Bottoms and the Westside.
Now her first brick-and-mortar location, and the neighborhood’s first ever coffee shop, is open in Columbus Park.
Since moving to Kansas City, Nguyen has fallen in love with Columbus Park. The historically Italian neighborhood north of Independence Avenue and just east of the River Market is one of the oldest in Kansas City. It also houses the city’s largest Vietnamese community.
“[Columbus Park has] always been somewhere where I wanted to have our coffee shop no matter what,” Nguyen says. “When I first moved to Kansas City in the pandemic, Columbus Park was one of the first places that I went to because of Vietnam Cafe. And I was like, ‘oh, there's a huge Vietnamese community here.’ I just thought the neighborhood was super quaint and a hidden gem – and I'm all about hidden gems.”
Visibility for the Vietnamese community
Nguyen and her coworker Manager Madoka Koguchi ate at Vietnam Cafe every Sunday when Café Cà Phê first opened because it reminded her of her own family. Eventually, she became close friends with the restaurant’s owners.
“I got to speak Vietnamese when I went and I got to communicate with the owner and all the workers,” Nguyen says. “It just made me feel very comfortable and made me feel like I could have a sense of home.”
That relationship turned into a mentorship as she grew the cafe. Nguyen wants to make Café Cà Phê a second home for others like her.
“I'm part of the first generation, where all of our parents are immigrants and refugees. There's not anywhere for us who are American but also identify as Vietnamese,” Nguyen says. “So I'm trying to open my doors to that version of the Vietnamese community, but also there is a huge Vietnamese population here. For a while this was known as Little Saigon of Kansas City. I don't know for what reason it kind of died out, but I'm hoping I can kind of bring that back.”
Bui, who did not want to use his full name, has lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years. He says he’s excited to see more growth within the Vietnamese community. He and his wife own Lee Alterations, a small shop nearby.
“I think this area is on the grow, it grew up a lot,” Bui says. “So a business right [on 5th street], it should do very well. The people will go to the markets and shop and stop by there.”
He hopes that another business will help grow the community and bring new residents to the area.
For longtime residents, Café Cà Phê brings much needed development, which has stagnated for years. Columbus Park Community Council President Kate Barsotti thinks Nguyen’s business will be a turning point for the neighborhood.
“I am just gobsmacked at this woman,” Barsotti says. “I've watched her be very transparent about her setbacks and her successes. She is extremely intentional about the community she wants to build. I think people are attracted to that because it gives permission for them to do it too. I don't think we can support her enough, honestly.”
Many of the businesses in Columbus Park are concentrated near 5th Street, which connects to the River Market, but the area still suffers from a lack of foot traffic. Because of that Swoon Bakery, next door to Café Cà Phê, is currently open only one day a week. But Owner Sofia Varanka Hudson thinks the new coffee shop will grow the retail opportunities nearby.
“I just love the idea of having the amenities in our neighborhood that can support our neighborhood and stay in our neighborhood,” Hudson says. “It has been difficult, because of the lack of foot traffic, to keep regular retail hours. Right now we are open one day a week, but we're hoping with Café Cà Phê opening that we can really build a vibrant retail community.”
Beyond bringing new people to the neighborhood, residents are excited to have a new gathering space. Jo Marie Guastello has lived in Columbus Park her whole life. Sitting at Happy Gillis, which used to be her father’s corner store, she said the coffee shop will be a positive presence and provide neighbors somewhere to socialize.
“With the coffee shop, you're there to visit and relax and shoot the breeze. Anytime we get a business in the neighborhood where we could plop as neighbors and invite other people in, it's going to be a plus. So once they're introduced to it, I think that will be the same with the coffee shop,” Guastello says.
While Café Cà Phê is a new concept for the neighborhood, Barsotti thinks Nguyen’s shop will also connect people to Columbus Park’s history.
“It's a destination. It's not just any coffee shop. It's great to have someone from the Vietnamese community come back because that community's been very integrated with [the neighborhood]. Some people tell you that around the ‘70s, bringing in Vietnamese immigrants probably saved this neighborhood. They’re an extremely important part of this history,” Barsotti says.
Hudson, who is an immigrant herself, is excited for the cafe to be an entrance for people to discover the multifaceted neighborhood.
“I think it's a great coming together point for the whole community, for Columbus Park as a neighborhood and also for the immigrant community,” Hudson says. “I love the idea of having this place where everyone is welcome and they're highlighting their own community but also welcoming to all.”
Throughout the months-long renovation of the cafe, Nguyen says she and her team did everything with intentionality.
Everything they sell in the shop is made by or supports Asian businesses. Nguyen said she knocked on neighbors’ doors to make sure their thoughts were included in the project as well.
“I was very mindful about not changing the architecture of the building – I wanted to preserve the history of the building,” Nguyen said. “I didn't change the authenticity of that. I just put a coat of paint on the walls.”
The building – with its terrazzo floors, Italian-style roof tiles and a Vietnamese flag painted on the side – is a physical representation of the cultural blend Nguyen wants to promote in the largely Italian and Vietnamese neighborhood.
“Columbus Park is perfect because espresso is very Italian,” Nguyen says. “So what is more perfect than blending the Vietnamese community, Italian community with Vietnamese coffee.”
When people walk into the brightly-painted shop, Nguyen hopes it will feel safe and comfortable. She wants the shop to welcome people – just like Vietnam Cafe a few blocks over did for her when she moved to Kansas City.
“I want them to feel welcomed first and foremost,” Nguyen says. “I want them to feel warm. I want them to feel like they have a space here that is fun – like a piece of home. That's the type of feeling that I want.”