I’m not one to drink coffee, so I can’t relate to coffee enthusiasts. Personally, I find that coffee has a bitter aftertaste that I just can’t like. Radius Khor, co-founder of Kee Nguyen, would probably convince me otherwise if given the opportunity.
Founded in 2019, Kee Nguyen was created by two friends, Henry and Radius, who often craved authentic Vietnamese coffee, but couldn’t find one that was as good as what they experienced in Vietnam.
Prior to starting the startup, Radius admitted that they had no expectations to become popular or to even gain any profit from the business.
“We were selling Vietnamese coffee for more than a year, and no one even knew about our existence. One day, we went viral on Twitter and that was when we realised Malaysians really do love Vietnamese coffee,” expressed Radius.
From Vietnam to Malaysia
At one point, Henry reached a point in his career where he wanted something more simple and less stressful.
It was a lightbulb moment when he realised that he could share his passion for enjoying coffee with other people.
On the other hand, Radius was looking for something new that he could venture into upon returning home after working in Korea for a year.
Hence, the two joined hands and co-founded Kee Nguyen. Although they both left their corporate jobs in 2019 and 2021 respectively, Henry and Radius are still qualified graphic and UI/UX designers.
Interestingly, the brand name takes inspiration from other names: Kee represents Henry’s last name, and Nguyen apparently is the most common surname in Vietnam.
The startup started off from one of the duo’s car boots. They had two reasons for doing it this way. In Vietnam, some coffee vendors would sell coffee from the back of their motorcycles.
Since they didn’t have sufficient capital to rent out a physical space yet, selling coffee from their car boot was a better start than nothing too.
“Our first physical outlet at Seksyen 14, PJ, was quite a gamble for us as we had to fork out our hard-earned money to start the business,” shared Radius.
That would mark the start of about 39 more outlets to come in just three years though, so you could say the grind was worth it.
Vietnamese vs Malaysian and Western coffee
Henry and Radius claim that Vietnamese coffee in general has a strong distinctive taste, or as Malaysians like to call it, “kaw.”
“You’ll know the difference between local coffee and Vietnamese coffee when you taste it. Most local vendors use kopi kampung beans and claim it as Vietnamese coffee instead,” said Radius.
Naturally, the co-founders learnt the art of making Vietnamese coffee during their time in Vietnam. The duo also claims to use pure Vietnamese coffee beans that are imported directly from Vietnam and brewed here in Malaysia.
Kee Nguyen’s menu originates directly from Vietnam and the duo does not take credit for the curation of their menu.
Quality aside, the co-founders also wanted to ensure accessibility, hence why they priced their menu on the more affordable end.
For example, their Signature coffee costs RM5, which is slightly on the higher end compared to kopitiam prices, but much lower than what you’d find in Western-themed cafes.
Their customers are their ads
“We’ve never had to intentionally promote or advertise our brand. Our customers help us in those areas by spreading the word about our brand on their social media and by word-of-mouth,” Kee and Radius claimed.
Though opening more outlets wasn’t part of their plans from the beginning, their increasing traction among customers made it a natural growth decision.
According to the duo, they were constantly getting demands from their customers to make Kee Nguyen available in their neighbourhoods as customers couldn’t travel far due to the constant MCOs over the past few years.
Complying with their demands, Kee Nguyen has made itself accessible throughout the Klang Valley. Currently, one-fourth of the outlets are owned by Kee Nguyen, while the other three-fourths are licenced.
The brand currently has a few different concepts with its outlets, ranging from kiosks, half-shops, cafes, to being part of shopping malls.
As long as they’re carrying the brand name, the duo does not restrict licencees and their creativity to run the business as they deem fit.
“Most of our licencees today who are owners of their own Kee Nguyen outlets all started off as our customers,” shared Radius.
Not stopping at outlet number 40, the duo has additional plans of ensuring that Kee Nguyen is made available in every state in Malaysia. Their next stop? Borneo, starting with Sarawak.
Featured Image Credit: Kee Nguyen