Key business takeaways
- There’s no single recipe for success—doing things differently in your business model or brick-and-mortar can help you stand out from the competition
- While the food industry is known for its cutthroat workplace culture, as a business owner, you have the power to stop the cycle
- Consider Vanarin’s idea to uplift his team: Instead of pop-ups, offer “pop-ins” that showcase your employees’ other enterprises and passions
Pastry chef Vanarin Kuch grew up surrounded by small businesses that spanned multiple purposes—starting with his grandmother’s washateria in Houston. A southern term used predominantly in Texas, washateria is believed to be the fusion of “wash” and “cafeteria”: a place where you can get a bite in between laundry cycles.
The term was on Vanarin’s mind when he opened his own business, a cross between a cafe and a restaurant, in East Downtown Houston. Combine coffee and cafeteria, and what do you get? Koffeteria, a cafe with fine-dining standards in a space that feels—and looks—like your grandmother’s living room. (The coffee cups are stored in a chest of drawers, and the dry goods in armories Vanarin scored from an estate sale.)
True to its namesake, Koffeteria combines different flavors, textures, and concepts with ease. The menu melds the flavors of Vanarin’s childhood—spent in his family’s seafood and donut shops—and his training as a chef in upscale restaurants in New York City and Chicago.
For example, take the Tom Yum Yum Chicken Roll, a chicken salad flavored by Tom Yum soup; the classic Kouign-Amann, which gets an update with pandan sugar, made from a Southeast Asian plant; and the cafe’s infamous Hot Cheeto Croissant, which Vanarin launched both as a marketing ploy and homage to Houston’s favorite snack. “It’s not our best seller by any means, but we knew that’s how people are going to associate Koffeteria with unique pastries,” he said. “It’s this weird idea that’s also very much Houston.”
Yelp spoke with Vanarin about his journey from a gymnastics coach to a pastry chef, the philosophy behind Koffeteria’s creative and cozy ambiance, and how his business empowers his employees to pursue their own passions.
Growing up, what sparked your interest in food?
Both of my parents are Cambodian immigrants, and they came here as refugees during the war. They were living in concentration camps throughout all of Cambodia. I think my mom was in those camps for eight years, basically working in rice paddy fields.
Being Cambodian, our equivalent of the Vietnamese nail salon was a donut shop. We had a plethora of donut shops—I think we still have one or two donut shops in my family. I always tell people, if you see Sprinkles or Daylight Donuts, it’s 110% owned by a Cambodian person. That’s like our go-to franchise brand for donuts. (Note: According to The Washington Post, more than 90% of Houston’s donut shops are owned and operated by Cambodians.)
It’s the all-American, ‘This is how you’re going to make it,’ which is kind of amazing because it did help a lot of my family now go into things that they wanted to do later on in life. It’s one of the reasons why I stayed away from pastry, to be quite honest, because I was just scared that I was going to become a glorified donut maker. [At the same time,] people were telling me you can’t run away from your name—Kuch is actually a German surname for a pastry cook.
How did you get your start in the restaurant and pastry business?
I was actually coaching gymnastics for 12 years before I made the career change. I had been trying to apply as a prep cook for Lupe Tortilla and Chili’s, and I just couldn’t get my foot in the door. [Culinary school] was my way to get in. I had already been working in kitchens before then, and then during school I was working full-time as well.
It was a really difficult time in my life. I was homeless for about two years. I was just kind of mad at the world—mad at all the circumstances that were happening to me—and I was really surprised that I finished school at all. But I think what sparked my interest was just working in the field and working for better chefs.
[While working as an assistant pastry chef at Hotel ZaZa, I would ask the] pastry chef: “What are you doing? How do you do that? Why are you doing this?” And then she was just like, “Come in here and shut up and watch.” And so I did that—I just jumped in.
What were some of your biggest learnings from that time?
It’s not about the success or failure. It’s about the process. It’s always been about the process for me. That’s why so many of our croissants have a number one, number two, number three rendition of it because I keep on editing myself.
[As pastry chef at Tiny Boxwoods,] I had five to six items on the menu. I would change it, literally, every single day for a year-and-a-half. I hand-laminated about 500 croissants every week in front of a wood-burning oven. I was 25, so I was hungry to learn. I was hungry for experience.
I think that’s one of the driving forces that drove me to move to New York City after doing Top Chef—just seeing that glimmer of the other possibilities of this world and what that can open up. Especially being associated with star chefs and having that connection, it helped me to have a more comfortable step to the next level of where I needed to go for my career, which was New York City.
What motivated you to open Koffeteria when you returned to Houston?
When I first left Houston [12 years ago], I had no idea who I was as a chef, as a person, as a brand. [So opening Koffeteria in Houston,] that was me taking back that moment, reclaiming it, and being like: “Look, I am ready now. I left and I learned all these things from all these amazing people. I’m now ready to do what [my city has] been waiting for me to do for 12 years.”
When we did it, [we received] massive support. We didn’t sell out or anything; it was the most humble of beginnings. We would, literally, do $200 a day at that cafe for months… For the first year-and-a-half we ran Koffeteria, it was just me, [my husband] Andreas, and Simone, [my sous chef]. It was just three employees doing everything—trying to stay creative and keep it alive. It was not easy, but it was a lot of fun. Now we have over 22 employees, which is just ridiculous.
How did you transform Koffeteria from those humble beginnings to a successful business today?
Koffeteria is like my imaginarium. It has changed and evolved from a bake shop and coffee shop into, now, a cafe. We’re an all-day cafe. We serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We’re about to serve wine and beer as well. Yesterday, we worked on a new beer drink for the beer and wine menu while we were having Thai food. We took some of the papaya salad liquid and put it in some beer with some of that chili oil in it. It tastes like a Thai michelada. That’s how our brains work. All of our new items started out with the conversation of just: “What do you think? Do you think this tastes good?” Obviously, the answer is, “Only one way to find out.”
Everything is seasonal, local. [Our pastries are] now in about 22 other coffee shops around Houston. It’s done so well that we’ve branched out into our second business, the Commissary, which supplies all our wholesale clients.
Koffeteria is also known for its homey decor. What goes into creating that atmosphere?
I feel like a lot of times, when you walk into a coffee shop, it’s too sterile or too cookie cutter—or vice versa. It doesn’t take anything to the next level. Everyone tends to find one recipe and thinks that’s the way to success.
I decided to furnish Koffeteria with a bunch of mid-century things that I found from estate sales, resale shops, and charity guilds. One, I just really love the aesthetic. I just really got into mid-century a lot when I lived in New York City.
[But I also love] bringing nostalgia to [the cafe] because I think it adds a whole other layer to your brand. Just the idea of finding other people’s plates that they’ve had stories with, other people’s furniture that they have stories with, or seeing a guest come in like, “Oh my God, my grandma used to have these plates” or “My grandma used to have those glasses.” We get that all the time.
Even when it comes down to just our pastries—at the end of the day, when we don’t sell the pastries, we collect them and donate them to Second Servings. So even our pastries get a second life. It’s that idea that nothing has one purpose in life. Everything has multi-purposes. It just has to fit within that groove, within that moment.
What does Koffeteria mean in the community?
We do small little things on our end to stand out on our own platform. We’ve been very much supporting a few charities like Jane’s Due Process, which helps women in Texas, specifically, find abortion clinics if they need it.
I lived in Texas when I wasn’t allowed to be married. I completely understand feeling like a second-rate citizen and being denied a right that literally everyone else around you can do. It doesn’t make you feel legal. It doesn’t make you feel like you’re at home, even though it’s your hometown. So I’m very adamant about standing up for stuff like that.
We also help our employees. We do this thing called pop-ins. Like pop-ups—where other companies come and take over your space and sell food—a pop-in highlights the employees that make Koffeteria, Koffeteria. My sous chef Simone also bakes cakes on the side; she’s taken over the pastry case a few times, and 100% of all those proceeds go to her. She gets to experiment and figure out whether or not her business model works. It’s cool to be able to give our staff that type of platform to move their brand.
I also started doing this mentorship program with a local community college, where if my cooks want to go back to school, there’s a scholarship set up for them to pay for the school. It’s really cool to provide a workplace where now I can help people [get] degrees. It’s about mentorship because I never got that. I never had anybody looking out for me at all—I went through a cutthroat kitchen stage.
How else do you empower your staff in the workplace?
My superpower is seeing people for their potential. That’s something that I always wanted when I was cooking [in fine-dining restaurants]: to have a chef say, “You’re really good, but I need you to work on these things.” I went through all those horrible, old-school-style kitchens—hot pans thrown at me, crap like that—to know how to treat someone better. You do go through [abuse in the food industry], and if you’re a stronger person, you know you can stop the cycle.
I wanted to open up Koffeteria so it’s a different work environment. You’re being praised. You have steps and programs for achieving things. Izzy started out as a very much level-one pastry cook, never worked in a pastry kitchen before, moved up in three months and six months. Now, she runs this entire Commissary by herself. It adds to another layer of what Koffeteria has to offer, not just for me, but for the community as well.
What’s the future of Koffeteria?
Ultimately, to enrich the space. I don’t know how long we’re going to be in Houston. I don’t see myself staying here the rest of my life. But while I’m here, I definitely want to leave this space and the scene better than it was. And I think that’s ultimately the goal for Koffeteria because Houston needs it. The food scene has just jumped astronomically, even on the national scene. Texas has its own category in the James Beard Awards. It’s just that serious now for the culinary scene. But with the pastry scene, it’s just behind. They just need better perspective.
We’ve been introducing a lot of Cambodian ingredients as well. We actually ended up throwing a Cambodian dinner on [April 16]. My mom and my aunt cooked. April 15 and 16 was Cambodian New Year’s, and so we were kind of ringing it in and relaunching our savory menu. It was nice to see people eat purely authentic food made from my mom or from my aunt.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity; photos of Koffeteria on Yelp and from Yelp Studios.
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