Yeanie Bach, 29, came to the United States from Vietnam nine years ago to go to college. For a while, she worked in IT for the Census Bureau — but when she met her fiancé, Phi Pham, the duo decided to find a project to work on together, because both wanted to introduce Vietnamese coffee culture to Boston. Now they run two businesses: Phinista Café in the Fenway and Bánh Mì Oi in West Roxbury, serving baguettes stuffed with cold cuts, crispy fish, pate, and veggies. (Bach’s mom ran a bánh mì shop in Saigon.) The couple is busy — but they make sure to eat dinner together each night, even if it’s not until 10 p.m.
How has business been over the past year?
In the West Roxbury location, we’re still doing very well. There’s a lot of support from the community, a lot of loyalty. People are coming back. For the Phinista Café, in the beginning, we had been doing very well. People love the Vietnamese coffee. But the location, because it’s in the middle of the city, a lot of people are going home, and students aren’t there anymore during Thanksgiving and Christmas. We were very slow at that time, but right now we feel like they’re coming back. This is the first year we’ve been open, so around Thanksgiving and Christmas, we were a little bit nervous because nobody was coming in and nobody was walking outside. But people are slowly starting to come back. We think we should be OK.
For people who are unfamiliar with Vietnamese cuisine: Could you describe it?
We import Vietnamese coffee beans; it goes to our vendor in New York; they roast it there, and they send it to us. It takes around 25 days to reach us, so it’s very fresh. Vietnamese coffee is made from robusta coffee beans; the coffee doesn’t have a lot of acid. That’s the difference. In West Roxbury, we have bánh mì, a Vietnamese baguette. That’s what our shop is known for. We have noodle bowls, we have rice bowls, the Vietnamese noodle soup pho, and some fruit drinks from Phinista.
You can think about it as very fresh: a lot of veggies; not sweet like Thai food. We don’t use a lot of oil. Not a lot of seasoning. We cannot prep and leave it there for long. Every day we make fresh food to push out for the customer.
What made you want to get involved with restaurants?
My background is IT. I worked for the Census Bureau for a couple of years, and then I met my fiancé, Phi. My fiancé is a photographer, and we were trying to do something together. My mom used to have a bánh mì shop in Vietnam. I love to cook, too, and that’s why. But we don’t want a restaurant. It is too much work. I know it’s too much work. So we decided to have a café together.
What do you love about working in the food industry in Boston?
I love cooking. It’s my passion. Even though I worked in front of a computer from 8-5, I didn’t enjoy it. Right now, I work every day of the week. I haven’t had a day off since opening, but I enjoy my work every day when I talk to customers. They love my food. That’s my motivation to work every day. My mission is to bring authentic Vietnamese foods and to introduce to Americans to our coffee. I want it to be different from what we have in Vietnam; I want to adapt to American culture, so we have a little bit of crispy shrimp, crispy fish bánh mì, which is not very common in Vietnam. But it has turned out very well; a lot of people like it.
Thinking of the violence recently in Georgia: How could people support you? What do you need from this community?
As an Asian, I know that there’s been a lot going on right now; however, my customers are very nice and friendly. They love to talk, they come in and ask about my background, they love the story that I tell them. I think the West Roxbury community is very strong. A lot of groups on Facebook — I know about two or three of them — they talk about my food, how friendly we are. Honestly, I haven’t spent any money on marketing since opening because I want to focus on the quality first and get my team used to the work. It has turned out very well. Word of mouth is worth more than whatever you spend on marketing.
What’s your secret?
I don’t know. I didn’t spend a lot of money on marketing, but whatever I can do for our community, I do it — for example, with West Roxbury Main Streets. On Christmas, there are a lot of small events for the community. I join every event. I don’t spend money, but I spend time and effort to support the community, and I hope the community supports us back.
What will happen after the pandemic, a year from now?
Honestly, I don’t know. Right now, in the middle of the pandemic, people are going out for takeout a lot, and my restaurant is a takeout concept. We’re doing OK. I’m not sure about after the pandemic, when everywhere is open. Maybe people want to try for dine-in, and we cannot do it. I cannot say, but hopefully, they love my food and they still come back to me. That is my hope, but I do hope everything is opened up and that other businesses can work things out, too. It’s very blurry about the future.
How have you been spending time outside of work?
We keep Sunday morning together to go to Mass. We go to St. Ambrose in Dorchester. That’s the only time that we’re not working. Around 10, we get dinner together — we eat so late! Everyone in the house sits together, eats together, talks about the day. We keep that tradition every night, after work, and those are the two times we’re not working and spending time together.
What other Boston restaurants do you like?
I was born in Vietnam, so I don’t like a lot of American food. My favorite is Asian. I love some of the ramen shops. There’s a new Vietnamese coffee shop called Cicada, in Cambridge, which is really good, and the owner is amazing, too.
How can our readers support restaurants right now?
I know that spending money on food is expensive, too, so if you want to support restaurants right now — not mine, every restaurant in Boston — you just need to give them a review on Yelp or Google. You need to share your favorite restaurants on your Instagram and on your social media and just send them a message to keep them motivated. Right now, it’s really hard for them. Someone sent me a message, ‘Oh, I love your bánh mì!’ and it gave me a lot of strength to wake up and continue my dream.