To celebrate San Jose’s crowning achievement of being named second on a list of the country’s top ten coffee cities (suck on that bean, Seattle!) I wander about town and drink a lot of coffee.
To that end, I caught up with Frank Nguyen, entrepreneur behind Academic Coffee, who last sat down with Metro in 2019.
Ten minutes before our interview, Nguyen paced up and down the sidewalk outside of the cozy coffee shop on the (formerly a laundromat) corner of South Second and William, engrossed with a call on his iPhone. Several groups of customers relaxed at outdoor umbrella tables on the sidewalk, enjoying a rare midweek sunny afternoon break from recent rainstorms.
I slipped in the side door and ordered a matcha latte. Without missing a beat, the friendly young woman at the counter recognized me as Nguyen’s next appointment, recommended the honey syrup and comped my drink, making sure it was just the way I liked it.
That’s Academic Coffee—quiet, studied, determined attentiveness.
I took in my surroundings, which are clean, with inviting murals and artwork on the walls. Music plays in the background. It’s quiet, without being silent or slow.
I watched Nguyen walk, talk, pivot, pace; walk, talk, pivot, pace.
It’s as good a metaphor as any for Nguyen’s career; and by extension, this coffee shop. Nguyen walks his talk—having done every single type of job that exists in the store. He has pivoted—losing some regular work-from-home daily customers post-pandemic and finding new streams of income, like coffee subscriptions for home-roasted beans and blends, corporate clients and restaurants that serve its coffee and cater events.
Nguyen has kept pace with coffee world trends and innovations. He is a firm believer that we are and should be always learning—in fact, this quality led him to name the shop Academic Coffee—well, that and a trip on a Russian research ship to Antarctica—on vacation—called Akademik Ioffe. And that phone call was him “doing a lot of listening, making sure everyone on my team feels heard.”
Before he opened the cafe, Nguyen worked marketing jobs in radio broadcasting, music licensing R & D and even as head of online marketing for Hello Kitty herself (otherwise known as the Sanrio Corporation). Following his passion into the coffee business wasn’t a huge leap.
“I’ve always been a coffee enthusiast,” said Nguyen, whose parents gave him Vietnamese coffee as a dessert drink at age five. His Vietnamese-born parents met in San Francisco and raised Frank there, where he honed his coffee palate even more. In and after college at UC Berkeley, he immersed himself into specialty coffees and “had all the coffee stuff at home, like my own espresso machine and all those things, and one day I was like, ‘I should open up a coffee shop.’”
His favorite coffee drink, nowadays, is Academic’s plain espresso roast, which says, the base roasted coffee is good (why did I order a matcha again? Oh, because it was good, too.) They roast their own beans and are San Jose’s first zero emissions coffee roaster.
As Nguyen explained his passion for simple quality, I noticed that everything he was wearing reflected that aesthetic: his eyeglasses, his shoes and a very stylish jacket that I kinda want, that perfectly matched the umbrellas at the outside table. The jacket was picked out by his wife (great job, you can tell this man is loved) from a company he likes called SnowPeak—I have never heard of it but looked it up when I got home, and it’s a line of very chic outdoor gear by a small Japanese company.
Nguyen re-directed me from his jacket quality and back to coffee quality: “We make all our own syrups and flavors that are used in our drinks. We also use whole ingredients for everything so there are no extracts or artificial flavorings.” All the pastries and baked goods in the store are from San Francisco’s Neighbor Bakehouse.
The ideas of quality and sustainability—not only reducing, composting and re-using, but also sustaining the emotional resources of a staff that genuinely looked happy to be there—are cornerstone values at the small, beloved coffee shop.