New Orleans coffee brand PJ's stakes a claim in Vietnam

If you’re not familiar with the ca phe sua da from PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans, it’s probably because you haven’t been to the PJ’s in Ho Chi Minh City.

The coffee franchise, established in New Orleans nearly 40 years ago, now operates in this Vietnamese metropolis, also referred to as Saigon, and offers ca phe sua da — Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk — among other styles of coffee.

 

The PJ's Coffee Vietnam second location features a spacious, contemporary design

The PJ’s Coffee Vietnam second location features a spacious, contemporary design

The first location, a kiosk in a bustling shopping mall, was launched in September. The second shop — a more standard PJ’s with an urban design and indoor and outdoor seating — opened in December. Plans for additional locations are already in the works for this coffee-loving Asian country, which ranks as the second-largest producer of the beans in the world, after Brazil.

For traditional Ca phe sua da, coffee is brewing using a metal drip filter, poured over ice and stirred with sweetened condensed milk Photo by Suzanne Pfefferle Tafur

For traditional Ca phe sua da, coffee is brewing using a metal drip filter, poured over ice and stirred with sweetened condensed milk
Photo by Suzanne Pfefferle Tafur

Both PJ’s locations in Ho Chi Minh City offer drinks you’d find on a PJ’s menu in the U.S., like cold brew coffee drinks, cappuccinos and lattes and organic tea. Because the city is warm and humid almost year-round, frozen granitas and dulcet Velvet Ice drinks have been a hit.

On the food menu are Louisiana-inspired panini sandwiches and savory pies, along with croissants and even bread pudding. The praline cheesecake is a best-seller.

Although PJ’s Vietnam coffee shops are building a clientele, they face challenges.

“This is a major endeavor, a very bold move, for an organization such as PJ’s to say: ‘Let’s step out in the big world, and replicate what we’ve got here, over there.’ That’s where problems begin,” said Rick Yvanovich, master franchisee of PJ’s Vietnam and CEO of TRG International, an IT firm for business software and consulting to global enterprises.

Ballard Brands LLC., the company that operates PJ’s, appointed TRG International to develop the franchise in Vietnam.

Blending in

New Orleans and Vietnam share a love of coffee. But in terms of taste and sipping style, the two coffee cultures are not completely alike.

A village in the lush coffee-producing region of Vietnam Photo by Suzanne Pfefferle Tafur

A village in the lush coffee-producing region of Vietnam
Photo by Suzanne Pfefferle Tafur

PJ’s Coffee uses select Arabica beans, while most Vietnamese cafes prefer a coffee called Robusta.

“The flavor profile of Robusta is completely different … it’s extremely strong,” said Yvanovich.

PJ’s prepares certain Vietnamese drinks, like the ca phe sua da, by using a traditional drip-filter process, but with Arabica beans. And the franchise is now concocting blends of Robusta and Arabica.

“We’ve been trying to get the perfect coffee,” said Yvanovich, by inventing flavor profiles and seeking feedback from clients.

PJ’s has also adapted its customer service to Vietnam.

“In America, the coffee culture is a take-away culture,” said Yvanovich. “You go in, you grab your drink and you go out. Here, you go up to the counter, select your drink. You pay and sit down. Then we bring you the drink.”

PJ’s has resized drinks and dropped the 20-ounce option, since most customers prefer smaller sizes, and lowered its prices.

The brand has also hopped logistical hurdles to find supplies, equipment and repairs.

Community outreach

Although New Orleanians are familiar with Vietnamese culture and cuisine, New Orleans is not well represented in Saigon.

But customers and prospective employees seem curious about PJ’s and its mysterious caffeinated concoctions, like the pralines and cream latte — a coffee combination unheard of in that part of the world.

Do Ngoc Bao Tram - a PJ's Coffee Vietnam Barista, said training was a challenge but that she soon developed "a new vision about coffee". She enjoys being a barista, she adds: My uniform is very cute, especially my hat"

Do Ngoc Bao Tram – a PJ’s Coffee Vietnam Barista, said training was a challenge but that she soon developed “a new vision about coffee”. She enjoys being a barista, she adds: My uniform is very cute, especially my hat”

Do Ngoc Bao Tram, a PJ’s Vietnam barista, discovered the company through friends. By email, she said the training wasn’t easy at first, but that she soon developed “a new vision about coffee.

“Before that, I only saw one kind of coffee,” she wrote.

She loves preparing milky café lattes, which require her “to use all the barista skills to make one cup perfectly.” She also enjoys creating drinks with the modern coffee equipment, like the three-head manual espresso machine.

Barista fashion isn’t bad either.

“My uniform is very cute, especially my hat,” she wrote.

PJ’s hosts in-store events, such as barista contests, tours, coffee seminars and tastings. Its social media accounts are updated in both Vietnamese and English.

Going global

Establishing the PJ’s franchise in Vietnam was a three-year process, Yvanovich said. Rather than attempting to transform the country’s coffee culture, Yvanovich has invited customers in Saigon to learn more about New Orleans coffee and try something new, such as cold brew — a smooth coffee that’s in contrast to the stronger, full-bodied flavors prevalent in Vietnam.

“You shouldn’t try to change people who will always like coffee a certain way. But there’s a huge market out here that doesn’t like coffee, because it’s too strong and bitter,” he said. “We’re trying to show people the different ways that you can drink coffee. We’re also trying to come up with a ca phe sua da that they say is the best.”

The developers behind PJ’s Vietnam are now looking to grow in five different sites, while keeping an eye out for pitfalls

“Global chains have struggled, because they’ve failed to adapt,” Yvanovich said. “You’ve got to adapt. Just because people like your brand in New Orleans, it doesn’t mean they’re going to like it here.”

BY SUZANNE PFEFFERLE TAFUR | Special to The Advocate

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