Like a Moth to a Flame; How an Edmonton Family’s Vegan Cafe is Lighting up Their Community

by Enessa Habib

With its arched doorway and bright pattern and textile clad appearance; Edmonton’s newest vegan eatery The Moth Cafe is turning heads, not unlike a Moth drawn to a flame. Although situated in a high traffic area where nothing typically stands out, The Moth has curious Edmontonians wondering: what exactly is going on in there?

Granted, I could start by boasting about The Moth Cafe’s impressive and extensive menu, but doing so would distract from the very special story of determination and grit that I believe deserves your full attention.

While its name implies creatures seemingly ordinary in appearance, and sometimes referred to as “little furry dusters that fly around the light,” The Moth Cafe catches our attention with its various colors and sizes, from “green to gold and pinks,” said Khu Khuong, one of the owners. After a friend suggested the name, “The Moth, somehow just seemed to stick,” said Khu. It also seemed appropriate, wanting to “showcase how diverse and beautiful moths really are.”

With a master’s of architecture out of Calgary, 34-year old Khu, alongside sister, Jillian Khuong, 28, and mother, Thanh Lu, 55, are brightening a corner in a desolate area that hadn’t been touched for nearly a decade. As Khu puts it, “And, here we are, coming in, lighting up this little corner and seeing what comes our way.” The Moth Cafe is also an expression of their own personal style and the direction their own personal lives are going. “Whatever we know, we try to put out for everyone. This is what I know so far, this is what I can share,” shared Khu.

Jillian, Khu (centre) and their mother
Khu being carried by her father, her mother by their side

Taking chances and being open to change is nothing new to Khu and her family, who bought Cafe Mosaics 10 years ago following the death of a family member . Khu recalls, “It was such a small restaurant, it only sat 10 tables. It wasn’t busy all the time, but there were enough customers and it was enough to sustain us.” In the wake of this tragedy, Khu’s family drew closer together. “Cafe Mosaics will always have a soft spot in our hearts because it really helped bring our family together, make us all work together and at the same time really helped us financially,” said Khu. Building a business for Khu, Jillian and Thanh was “the glue that held the family together.”

Khu’s dad first met her mom in the late ‘70s in Camau, Vietnam. This brave young couple in their early 20s would soon after seek refuge on a small boat carrying 11-15 passengers. Although most would be frightened for their lives, Khu’s parents saw their journey as an opportunity for adventure. The pair landed on an island off the coast of Malaysia, called Palau Midong, where Khu was born. They lived in a refugee camp for 3 years before having the opportunity to come to Canada. “My dad had a bakery going on and my mom did what she could to make a little money. Right from the get go my parents were little entrepreneurs” Khu recalls.

When Khu and her family arrived in Edmonton, they started off doing whatever they could; learning English, working as a janitor and working in restaurants, which led into working in bakeries again. When Khu’s dad worked at a bakery, he would buy the ingredients and take it home to his wife so she could learn how to bake. “They ended up having their own bakery and then they worked in a cheesecake factory. Then, they opened up their own cheesecake factory[…] they didn’t have degrees, they had a lot of grit,” Khu said. For Khu, her parents’ story acts as a reminder to be “grateful for every little thing that happens and that [this] is a privilege.”

The key to success for Khu and her family is doing what they do best. Thanh is the food creator. “This is a natural skill set she has even though she doesn’t really like it,” said Khu. While Khu focuses more on the business strategy and Jillian “is an efficient crazy machine that can think and be so clever and witty all at the same time. She can do the job of 5 people in one. On top of managing the back of the house, she is also studying business at MacEwan. She is dependable, reliable [and] good at keeping the operation going,” brags Khu.

This talented trio brings food to the table (literally), but focuses on their strengths to put their best foot forward! Ultimately, “For a business to do well, […] it really stems from the core team, and from there, if they are happy, customers will be happy, and it just has that rippling effect that is more effective. It needs to come from a deeper place,” explains Khu. While it’s impossible to be good at everything, Khu admits: “I hire staff who are better than me. I don’t have all the knowledge to everything but we do have a team here.” Finally, another secret worth divulging: Thanh “can take 3 ingredients and make something magical. She can also pick something, try it out and then recreate it within 1-3 tries.” How remarkable is that?

Photo Courtesy of Enessa Habib

The Moth Cafe’s menu, just brimming with elixirs, pot pies, miso and vermicelli soups will have you wanting more before you’ve even ordered your first meal. On my visit, I sat down to a hearty and satisfying gluten-free Banana Blossom Shiitake Miso filled with onion, lemongrass, and fermented miso broth with banana blossom, bean sprout, chive, mint, soft tofu, dehydrated shiitake mushroom, enoki mushroom, thai chili, and lime on a bed of vermicelli. It was absolutely delicious.

The menu may inspire you to warm up to a mid-afternoon medicinal tea or tea latte, cool down with your favourite flavoured Kombucha or fresh ice blend or make a toast with your friends or coworkers with a cool gin and tonic, plant-based beer or wine. If your curiosity gets the best of you, you may even feel inclined to explore and discover tea remedies such as burdock, red clover, alfalfa, pau d’arco, cleavers, Oregon grape, astragalus, vitex, ladies mantle, cramp bark, nettle tops, horsetail, oatstraw, nori flakes, mugwort, and the list goes on. A list of elixirs, tonics and superfoods are also available to satisfy your curiosity and nurture your holistic cravings. With each visit offers a new experience and so it was intended!

In anticipation of what’s to come, we approached Khu and asked what to expect in the future. From Khu’s response, we got a little preview of what’s to come: “Last Sunday, we decided to have one of my friends, he is in the music entertainment field and also DJ’s on the side, we had him do a vinyl brunch. Playing tunes from 10-4 and it was such a huge hit. Saturday vinyl brunch, and we will do that once a month. Hopefully, there will be more to come.”

As for advice to aspiring entrepreneurs, Khu offers this bit of advice:

“Only through a little bit of chaos comes growth[…] It’s not reaching the end, it is the process. Failing is a good thing; the more you fail and stand up, the more you know. Keep making mistakes and keep failing, but just keep standing up. Keep walking in that fog and somehow that fog becomes something more tangible and somehow people will understand it. Continue to listen.”

After all, the menu is quite unique, offering up so many lovely choices; who can resist a hearty tea latte, a refreshing G & T, a plant-based wine or a nice story? Not me, that’s for sure.

Photos courtesy of The Moth Cafe

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