The Story Behind Heirloom Brewshop
- By Gray C. Sandford
Making a good cup of coffee is like working the defrost in your car. Sometimes you get lucky, but let’s not kid ourselves...none of us have a clue. I’ve always tried to laugh off my coffee inadequacies, but as much as I’m not a coffee person, I am a caffeine person. So even though I always get it wrong, I keep going back because I, like Raleigh these days, love going fast.
As I was trying to kill some time before my 1:00 meeting, I could see what appeared to be a coffee shop in the newly renovated Dillon Supply building just across the street – Heirloom Brewshop.
As soon as I opened the door, something was different. As I stood just inside the door affixed to the seemingly odd scene I was witnessing, a soft voice gently pulled my attention back to the matter at hand. “Welcome to Heirloom,” she said with a smile. “What can I get you?”
Sam, my barista and all-knowing coffee sherpa, guided me through the Heirloom beverage menu where we landed on a cup of vacuum pot coffee. She then politely informed me through gentle and non-verbal clues that my vacuum pot coffee had to be made, not poured. I cozied up to the bar which felt noticeably shorter than a normal bar, but surprisingly nice. Eager to witness what I imagined as some sort of 1950’s style science experiment from the looks of the equipment, I caught eyes with a young asian lady behind the bar.
“Hi, I’m Anna. Thanks for coming in. Is this your first time?”
It was Anna Phommavong, co-owner of Heirloom Brewshop with her husband, Chuan Tsay.
“First-timer indeed. Sam over there just helped me order my first vacuum pot coffee, and I gotta say, I’m pretty pumped about it.”
That wasn’t the only thing I was pumped about. Over the next 45 minutes of unplanned education/fascination, Anna, Chuan, and Sam gave me much more than ordering help and a strangely brewed cup of coffee. From insights into the differing coffee cultures of Asia and the US, to a hiring process based around ‘how a person makes you feel,’ I was about to learn a ton about two things I knew nothing about – coffee and slowing down.
Why Specialty Coffee?
Asian-Americans born in the US, Anna and Chuan fell in love with specialty coffee about 10 years ago.
“First, we started roasting our own coffee at home. Then we started doing it for friends at small and intimate gatherings over music and conversation. You often hear people romanticize the beverage experience, but it’s real – a true catalyst for conversation and human connection,” said Chuan.
But it wasn’t until a recent trip home to visit their families in Laos and Taiwan that specialty coffee became their mission.
“In Asia, beverage is ingrained into everyday life and drinking is an occasion. Our trip reminded us just how enjoyable the beverage experience can be, and we decided that’s what we wanted to share with the states,” said Anna.
“That tradition and ritual, it’s so very special to them and we wanted to pass that on, share it with everyone here, like they had with us.”
That tradition and ritual I honestly didn’t know much about. Wanting to fully understand, I untethered my curiosity and let the questions fly.
Q: What exactly are we enjoying and appreciating when we drink specialty coffee?
A: “The story behind every single cup. It’s filled with tradition, history and culture. The occasion, respecting the ritual, knowing where it came from. The farmers and their hard work. The slow precision and intentionality that defines the craft and elevates the product,” said Chuan.
With what’s known as ‘single origin’ and ‘estate’ coffees, details such as the exact family and farm, elevation in which it was grown, roast level, and even the specific specimen of coffee are known – making the full story much more accessible and ultimately, more valuable for farmers.
Q: If we agree that the fast-paced coffee culture of the US – simply a vehicle for quick caffeine – is the complete opposite of the ‘slow down and enjoy’ philosophy of Asian beverage, why in the world did you guys think it would work here in the states? And more specifically, downtown Raleigh?
A: “We didn’t know, still don’t know really. We know it’s going to be hard, but we made a personal decision to be here, to be fully present in the business.”
“We hope that when we take the time – to really ask a guest how they’re doing, how work is going, or do they live in the neighborhood – they realize we’re completely invested in their well-being,” said Anna.
“The second they walk in, we want guest to feel that – it’s ok to hang out, to chat for a bit. If we can create that, the 5 minutes they have to wait for a properly prepared beverage will seem quick,” said Chuan, with an aspirational yet omniscient smile.
Q: Are there other things that you’re doing to help introduce the ‘slow down philosophy’?
A: “We’ve actually done many seemingly small things to help facilitate that idea of ‘slowing down.’ If we’re creating an experience together, guest and staff, first and foremost we need to communicate openly.”
The Intentionally 'Slow Bar'
“We want guest to actually watch their beverage being made, to see the behind bar rituals, and ask questions if they’re curious or need help. To allow all of this, we had the slow bar custom built to be lower than standard bar height,” said Anna. “And we moved all the equipment to the back bar for the same reason.”
“We’re respecting the process by investing the time and effort required for the best possible outcome. So yeah, we’re not going to hide it,” said Chuan.
I knew it! My internal gloating over my bar height acuity was soon interrupted by the realization of a potential and common cog in Chuay’s vision – the totally ‘over it’ coffee barista.
People That Make You Feel
Q: You guys can’t possibly talk to every guest who walks in, so how can you be sure that your employees will also invite and welcome that open conversation?
A: “Once word got out that we were doing a vacuum pot coffee, we literally got hundreds of resumes. But we didn’t hire on experience or knowledge. We hired on how the person made us feel,” said Chuan.
Every shop does it differently, but we want our guest to feel warm, valued, like family. If applicants could do that, we can train out all the rest.”
Asian culture isn’t the only reason Chuan and Anna want Heirloom to be a place of inclusion with a family vibe. As minorities growing up in the south, both Chuan and Anna were raised inside the many Asian restaurants owned by their parents. What they and their families experienced was beyond tough – it’s downright disgusting.
“When I was growing up, our restaurants were never a part of the community. There was the community, and then there was us. There was a hard separation, and no one really dared to blur that line,” said Anna.
“My parents had their storefronts busted out, their cars set on fire. They’ve been shot at. Completely undermined in every way possible because of the color of their skin,” said Chuan, painfully remembering.
It’s also the reason Chuan and Anna refer to Heirloom as a fabric. Excluding no one, Chuan and Anna hope to weave a welcoming world where the underrepresented are not only supported, they’re championed.
“As an Asian-American woman, to be able to express my feelings exactly as I feel them and voice my own opinion no matter how loud, that means so much to me,” said Anna with pride. “My parents didn’t have that, and they’re still confined by those gender roles and rules. Chuan and I have worked very hard to distance ourselves from that. We’re even on everything.”
A Slow Realization
As I was enjoying the last few gulps of my first ever vacuum pot cup of coffee and thanking Chuan, Anna, and Sam for sharing their time and expansive coffee knowledge with me, I noticed Anna’s attention wander to something behind me that she seemed to be joyfully soaking in.
“Look!” Anna exclaimed with a subtle point.
As I turned around, I noticed what had been a steady and annoying rain was now coming down in buckets.
“We’ve been waiting for this moment,” Anna said like a proud parent at high school graduation.
Still unsure of what I was supposed to be looking at, my eyes moved to small group of customers congregating near the entrance. They were talking and laughing, watching the rain while comparing the ease at which one ladies umbrella opened. They were old friends, I thought to myself. But they weren’t at all.
Until Heirloom, they were strangers.
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