Kong Sopheak is the founder of The Snacker, an ice cream shop at the southeast corner of the Russian Market. His homemade, dairy-free ice cream includes exotic flavours such as taro root and durian. The 31-year-old doesn’t just tantalise tastebuds – he also works as a communications officer for international NGO World Vision Cambodia, photographing, filming and interviewing some of the country’s poorest and most vulnerable. With Cambodia in the throes of its scorching hot season, Julius Thiemann found the perfect respite and discovered a newfound addiction for icy, sweet Cambodian treats.
What makes a good ice cream?
It has to be made fresh from local, seasonal fruits – you have to be able to trust the quality. Cambodian ice cream should always be made from an old, traditional recipe; it’s a bit different [from Western styles of ice cream]. We use coconut milk rather than dairy products. Locals prefer this – there is a limit to how much dairy we can take. I eat lots of my ice cream everyday, and I can never get enough. We don’t add artificial sweeteners and preservatives, which I think is important.
Is it just you that makes the ice cream?
No, I have five young women who work in the shop – I met them through my work at World Vision. I’ve heard so many stories and seen so many examples of the abuse of girls and women, I decided I wanted to help directly. These particular girls had no other life or perspectives other than working long hours in garment factories or abroad, where they were treated with no dignity – one was working in Malaysia for seven years. I told her family it wasn’t safe and that she needed to stop. All five girls live with my wife and I. I taught them how to make the fresh ice cream every morning starting at 6:30am. They all went to high school, but what we want now is to get them into university. Two want to go to medical school to become doctors. We’re like a big family, and until I can help [the girls attend university], we won’t have our own children. But I hope that we will be ready next year.
What have you learned through your job at World Vision?
Through this job, I have travelled extensively across Cambodia, to some of the country’s poorest provinces and villages. The poverty and lack of opportunity, particularly for girls, broke my heart. My question was how I could help the people and give them what they need.
How did you come up with the idea of a social business?
I am an ice cream lover, and many Cambodians are too. I combined my idea of helping the girls with a business idea that I have always thought would work. One day, in 2002 while at university I drove down a main road in Phnom Penh. It was blocked with barriers and a huge crowd had gathered around something I couldn’t see – I thought a road accident had happened. I got off my bike to see what was going on. It was an old man selling ice cream! I put faith in the crowd and waited 30 minutes for an ice cream. It was incredibly good. I became addicted.
So did you ask the old man to divulge his ice cream recipes to you?
I began to buy his ice cream on a daily basis, but one day in 2006, the old man was gone. I went to his house to ask him what was wrong and he said that he was too old to sell ice cream in the streets now, but he asked if I’d like to learn how to make it. I jumped at the chance. He taught me about the ingredients and gave me the recipes for every flavour for free. He said as I had bought his ice cream for four years, he now considered me a friend. But I gave him some money anyway.
Where is the old man now?
I have no idea . . . I cannot find him because he sold his house in Phnom Penh and moved back to his home province in Kampong Thom. I don’t know his name either because I always called him Om [uncle]. But when I have time, I am sure I will find him. He will be proud of his student, what the shop is now and what he started.
How are you going to continue making people’s lives better with ice cream?
We opened a franchise of The Snacker in Kampot that is not for our profit but for the people that run it. They sell as much ice cream as the branch in Phnom Penh – up to 25 kilograms a day. I want to help people and therefore eventually stop working. I want to be close to the people and see what they really need.