BUILDING A SPECIALTY COFFEE CULTURE IN VIETNAM
WILL FRITH, FOUNDER AND DIRECTOR OF BUILDING COFFEE
Will Frith has been researching and working in the growing specialty coffee industry in Vietnam since 2012 with the mission to change the way the world sees Vietnamese coffee. Frith has roots in the American Pacific Northwest, working for companies including Batdorf & Bronson, Olympia Coffee Roasting Company, and Modbar. Today he is based in Ho Chi Minh City, where his work includes training and education for the city’s booming coffee scene, the development of his own concept cafe project (launching 2021) and a wide-reaching green coffee initiative built around introduction arabica varieties to a region traditionally known for robusta.
Today, Will continues to spearhead his mission through his project building coffee, a space where budding coffee entrepreneurs, baristas and roasters can grow their own coffee business in Saigon. Building has all that a coffee entrepreneur needs to source, roast, package, run quality control and train baristas.
WHO/WHAT WAS YOUR INSPIRATION FOR GETTING INTO THIS INDUSTRY AND WHY?
• Specialty Coffee in general - the team at Batdorf & Bronson, specifically Heather Ringwood and Oliver Stormshak.
• Vietnam’s Specialty Coffee - my own curiosity and vision, as there weren’t many folks that I could easily find in the beginning. Quang Tran (La Viet) has been a very important collaborator from the beginning until now. We’re still good friends and depend on one another a lot for various things.
CAN YOU NAME 3 UP-AND-COMING INDUSTRY FIGURES TO LOOK OUT FOR IN VIETNAM?
• Tran Le Minh Truc (aka Bi Hat De) - he’s got a new coffee roasting company called Every Half, and he’ll continue to be a big influence
• Le Dac Thanh - based in Danang, his company 43 Factory Coffee Roaster is doing some very good work, innovating at every opportunity.
WHAT’S SOME ADVICE YOU WOULD GIVE TO THOSE LOOKING TO ENTER THE INDUSTRY?
Business skills and acumen trump technical skills and know-how. At the end of the day, we’re trying to do business selling products into a market. Without any business skills (or someone on the team who can contribute those skills), the best artisan can’t scale to a level that makes it profitable to support staff in the long term. If one is in the wholesale business, then they must be able to maintain their customers’ confidence in their own ability to help them succeed.
In the specialty coffee sector, there are too many skilled baristas who think their focus on just making the best coffee is enough to bring customers through the door. But, if their average customer doesn’t feel taken care of then the business they’ve created won’t be sustainable due to a lack of repeat business. One must focus on the customer, first and foremost, bringing them along for a journey rather than alienating them the first time they say or request the wrong thing.
LAST BUT NOT LEAST, WHAT’S YOUR HOPE AND VISION FOR VIETNAM’S F&B INDUSTRY?
Diversification and a sense of identity. Right now, I see a lot of outside influences coming in and creating really great stuff, but most of it is just outside concepts being stuffed into a different setting. If the right mix of influences can come together with a local “twist,” that will initiate the “start” of a strong, modern scene. I’m sure there are individuals who are already doing great work towards what we’re talking about, but it takes a movement, which is more than a few individual players operating in a bubble.
Right now, this new movement is at a nascent stage, with lots of exciting “takes” on Vietnamese culture, but it’s all necessarily derivative. “Authentic” traditional Vietnamese food and beverage is experiencing a real boost, and the outside influence is pushing it in a good direction, but if there’s nothing new or truly modern to take it to another level, this will plateau and lose its shine. It requires multiple diverse things happening at once. This is the most exciting time to enter any up-and-coming scene. I hope for it to snap together to create something truly original and special, on par with Hong Kong, Melbourne, or Bangkok, to become a destination in itself.
Operating hours: Mon-fri: 9am-5pm; Sat: 10am-4pm; Closed on Sundays