If you’ve never tasted the glory that is Vietnamese coffee, we encourage you to locate your nearest bánh mì place and order one immediately. The delectable combo of Vietnamese-grown coffee and sweetened condensed milk may seem simple, but trust us: It’s genius, just like maker Debbie Wei Mullin’s new-to-UG Vietnamese Coffee Portable Pour Overs, which allow you to indulge in the drink’s sweet, creamy, caffeinated goodness wherever you go, so long as “wherever” has hot water.
We first saw Debbie’s pour overs in the kitchen here at our Brooklyn office, and with one sip of her tasty, tasty coffee (and an extra indulgent lick of any sweetened condensed milk that didn’t make it all the way into the mug), we knew we had to get the inside scoop on her product—what it is, where it comes from, and how she decided to make it. Read on for more on the birth of Debbie’s business, complete with an account of her recent visit to Saigon and a brief summary of what it’s like to grow up in a Vietnamese-Chinese-Jewish-American household… food-wise, anyway.
You didn’t always work in food. What made you decide to take the leap into a new industry?
My family communicates through food—it’s what brings us all together. My mother moved to the US from Saigon in 1975, and food has always been the way she keeps herself and us connected to her hometown. My whole life I’ve been inspired by watching my American friends be amazed by Vietnamese food’s unique and balanced flavors. When I decided to leave my old career in international management at the World Bank for something more creative, I knew it would have to be related to introducing Vietnamese flavors to American homes.
What was the most exciting thing about starting your own business?
Seeing people respond to your product. The most fun thing about creating something totally new is having a customer say or write to you that you blew their mind! There is no better feeling than when you see that you’ve solved a problem for someone or introduced them to something new that they love.
You grew up eating a unique fusion of cuisines—Vietnamese, Chinese, and Jewish-American. How does your background influence what you make today?
Being in a fusion household made every night a test kitchen. My mom was always having to replace Vietnamese ingredients she couldn’t find at our local American grocery store. It taught me how to adapt to what you have to make something still taste the way you want in your mind. It’s been so fun creating an easy and attractive Vietnamese coffee experience elevated by the best ingredients available. Now my aunties in Vietnam ask me to send them my pour overs.
You traveled all the way to Saigon to source coffee for your portable pour over products (which, by the way, are very tasty). What was that like?
It was one of the best trips of my life. I timed it with a reunion of my mother and her 11 brothers and sisters to learn all about Vietnamese coffee and food through their eyes and mouths. They even got to come with me on my very first coffee fields visit. We were all so impressed by the innovation happening in the Vietnam coffee industry. We found farmers dedicated to ethical and sustainable farming, yielding the most flavorful, delicious, rich beans we had ever tasted out of Vietnam.
What does your typical day at work look like, if such a thing exists? Is there any special trinket or talisman you like to keep with you?
No two days are ever the same! At this stage I still do everything from designing new packaging to handing out samples at our biggest accounts to seeing how people are responding to the product. As for a special trinket—I love keeping the first packaging prototype of the coffee at my desk. It’s a good reminder of both how far we’ve come and also the memory of the first time I got to hold the complete coffee product in my hand. It took a long time to get the product together but I couldn’t have been happier with the result.
Finally, what quote or mantra keeps you motivated?
“The man who moves a mountain starts by carrying away small stones.” —Confucius