From Burma to Broadway

Broadway Barista owner Cassandra Huang emigrated from Burma to actualize her dream of becoming an accountant, then found herself in the coffee business.

Walk into in downtown Redwood City, and you’ll immediately be greeted with a “Hi Darling!” by name.

Owner Cassandra Huang has owned Broadway Barista for nearly 11 months now and is loving every day she gets to bake pastries, concoct lattes and chat with familiar faces.

“I just like talking to people,” Huang said. “And when you say their name they feel more welcome.”

Rather than sitting behind a desk utilizing her accounting degree, which was her ticket to the US from Burma, Huang serves dozens of people every day and gets to meet new residents. 


Winning the Golden Ticket

Only 5 percent of Burma residents are granted Visas to the United States, a highly competitive process that requires a display of superior English speaking skills, financial stability and clear goals, Huang said.

And she was one of the lucky 5 percent to obtain a Visa from the American Consulate in Burma.

Though Huang said she considered herself middle class in Burma with parents and a brother who all lived comfortably, her aspirations couldn’t be stifled by Burma’s limited educational opportunities. She attended International School in Singapore, but was left with no other opportunities if she decided to return to Burma afterward.

“The school system [in Burma] sucks,” she laughed. “So it’s like winning a golden ticket to escape.”

Every year, the US uses a lottery system to grant 50,000 diversity visas, according to the US Embassy’s website.

But Huang didn’t leave her chances to a lottery to obtain her golden ticket. She studied voraciously for her Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam, scoring a high 625 out of 677. Having studied at an International School and tutored other Burmese students in English, Huang refined her language skills. 

This solid score combined with her well-delineated plans to attend San Francisco State for accounting plus having her finances in order impressed the American Consulate in Burma. Huang received a Visa and jetted to the US to attend Skyline College then transferred to San Francisco State.

While at school, Huang took the traditional route and first worked for Sterling Bank & Trust. But she later worked a job at a coffee shop to earn additional money for tuition. This job became much more than extra money in her pocket, Huang said. It was the beginning of a career re-direct.

She loved the coffee shop atmosphere and meeting new people every day, seeing them smile after she handed them their espresso. She said she couldn’t imagine working at an office accounting job.

While at school, she met her husband, Raymond, and the two began sharing her dream of owning a coffee shop.

Huang began working 70 hours a week, while attending school, to put money towards purchasing her own shop.

In early 2011, the Huangs were finally able to open Broadway Barista on Broadway Street.

And as every restaurateur is keenly aware, the hours invested are seemingly endless.

“She works six days a week, 12 hours a day,” said Huang’s brother, Byron, who occasionally works on the shop while attending school at City College of San Francisco. “But she likes it much better than being an accountant.”


What the Future Holds

For customers, the quality and taste of the food rivals Huang’s warm personality as reasons to frequent the cafe.

“Oh, we love coming here,” said customer Johnny Dominguez. “The pastrami is just fabulous.”

“She’s always so cheerful,” Ronnie Martin added.

Customers from across the street are always stopping by for a quick pick-me-up in the form of a smoothie or espresso.

But with the recent addition of Burmese food, Huang has seen an increase in customers, particularly from , whose staff look for something a little spicier and a bit more pungent for their palate.

The Burmese food has been selling out by mid-afternoon most days, Huang said. The Coco Noodles, a colorful mixture of flat rice noodles, chicken, fragrant herbs topped with a light coconut sauce, and Shan Noodles, another chicken and noodle dish with more spicy and pungent flavors, are the most popular dishes.

But because there is no grill in the café, Huang is a bit confined to certain dishes that only require boiling. No sautéing, no stir-frying, no grilling.

Which is why Huang hopes to open a Burmese restaurant in San Francisco, possibly in the Castro district or Noe Valley area, she said.

Though this doesn’t mean she’ll be leaving Redwood City.

“I love how it’s small and intimate and everyone knows each other,” Huang said.

She added that she left her door unlocked the other day and she wasn’t even worried. Nothing was touched in her house.

The downtown area where everything is walking distance has been a definite plus, she said. She can get to and Caltrain without having to drive anywhere.

And compared to some of her accountant friends in other states, she says that she would be making the same amount of money as they are.

"There's nothing else I'd rather be doing," Huang said.

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Corinne Kason January 09, 2012 at 07:22 PM
I'm so glad you profiled Broadway Barista. Cassandra is a doll and always so friendly and gracious. I first was introduced to "BB" when a friend had her birthday celebration there. Cassandra made us all wonderful sandwiches and delicious drinks and I believe even got the cake for the party! Please do stop by this quaint establishment and support our new businesses.


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