Phinista Café’s resilience carries them through the pandemic


Phinista Café is run by a couple that aims to fight the hardships that come with running a small business during COVID-19, such as paying workers – like Marnie Walsh, pictured above – a reasonable salary. Photo credits to Cathy Ching.

Cathy Ching, news staff

When Phi Pham graduated from Plymouth State University in Plymouth, New Hampshire, with a degree in biochemistry, he had three goals on his bucket list: open up a cafe, a wedding venue and an orphanage. He started with the cafe.

Although Pham never followed through with his initial plan — going to pharmacy school — he found that working for projects he was passionate about was better than settling for a career he did not enjoy. Pham certainly had support along the way. After him and his wife, Yeanie Bach, got engaged in June 2019, they wanted to start a small business together. In January 2020, they launched a delivery service, selling Vietnamese coffee.

In August 2020, Pham and Bach opened Phinista Café in Fenway, selling a variety of Vietnamese-French tea and pastries, but their main priority was sticking with their authentic Vietnamese coffee. In the early days of the pandemic, they supplied coffee to local healthcare workers in support of their contributions to society. Almost three years into the pandemic, the couple had to adjust operations. When they recognized the hardships that came their way — lack of staff members, supply prices doubling and increased, reasonable salaries for their workers — they decided to raise their prices. 

“It brings up the conversation that with all of these changes, can you really handle being able to market, bring people in as a small business and still maintain all of that without your stress going crazy?” Pham said.

In return to the increased prices on the menu, customers have left reviews online, stating they were unhappy with the increased prices. To help customers understand their decision in raising prices, Pham and Bach decided to explain their reasoning on their website to maintain transparency between them and their customers.

“It’s a little bit frustrating,” Bach said. “For small businesses, people [rely] on [reviews] to come to them.”

Pham said he finds it necessary to take a step back when running the cafe becomes too stressful, especially when he works almost 100 hours a week at times.

“[It] affected [my] mental health a lot,” Pham said. “I had last week off so I could revitalize and get myself into a good mindset.”

Although starting a cafe was always a dream of Pham’s, he did not envision it to take place during a global pandemic. There were many challenges that Pham and Bach had to overcome when COVID-19 affected their business. 

“There are so many mandates,” Pham said. “I learned that [the COVID-19 vaccine policy] was dropped from Instagram. We don’t really get clear communication from the government, so we do our best to stay on top of things.”

Aside from communication between the owners and the government, Pham and Bach also had to learn how to communicate as business partners. To make things easier, Pham runs Phinista Café and Bach runs Bánh Mì Ơi, their Vietnamese restaurant in West Roxbury. The couple often disagrees on how their businesses should be run, but regardless, the couple makes the final decision for each of their respective restaurants.

“In the end, we respect each other and what we want to do [for our restaurants],” Bach said.

Despite the hardships that Pham and Bach had to face throughout the pandemic, there are still customers who are committed to drinking Phinista Café’s staple Vietnamese coffee regularly. One of these customers is Neil Tran, a laboratory manager at Harvard Medical School.

“My family owned a coffee farm just 30 miles away from Saigon,” Tran said. “I don’t remember much of it because they sold the farm when I turned 10 or 11 but I remember helping out, learning all the stuff about preparing the coffee beans and how it worked.”

Traditional Vietnamese coffee is brewed differently than American coffee and uses different coffee beans. Tran is not sure if the coffee beans he prepared in Vietnam are the same as the ones that are used in Phinista Café. However, he is sure that the preparation of Vietnamese coffee, as well as the cafe’s environment, remind him of his childhood in his home country.

“It feels very homey,” Tran said. “This is one of the high-grade authentic coffee shops.”

When he isn’t working, Tran said he likes to enjoy a cup of Vietnamese coffee with his friend Andrew Del Bene, a paralegal at a law firm in Boston.

“We enjoy sitting [by] the store window,” Del Bene said. “It’s always very lively — a lot of young people around.” 

The comfortable environment of the cafe is largely attributed to Pham and Bach’s consideration of incorporating the coziness they felt from Neighborhood’s Café, a French coffee shop and crepe place that was previously in the same building the cafe is in now. In fact, the current white and blue floral wallpaper was inspired by the Neighborhood’s Café’s floral wallpaper. Pham and Bach wanted to respect the legacy the owner of Neighborhood’s Café has left behind, Bach said.

Even though Tran and Del Bene are fans of the cafe, Pham was faced with skeptics long before the pandemic began: his parents.

“I think that a lot of people — immigrant families [and] kids that grew up in immigrant families —  have a lot of pressure to fulfill these shoes that have been [made] for them already,” Pham said.

Pham rerouted his life plan of becoming a pharmacist, but he has accomplished much more in the long run: opened up a cafe, learned to face business-related hardships and provided a place for many Vietnamese residents in Boston that reminds them of home.

“It’s really up to [you] to believe in yourself and believe in, ‘You will fail, but can you stand up from that failure?’” Pham said.