In a classroom at one of Phnom Penh’s larger international schools, uniformed children aged three and up are jumping up and down in increasingly wild abandon. Today, they are being paid a visit by a special character. Class has been cancelled for both the morning and afternoon, and dozens of excited children are assembled to join him for a special round of activities.
When Chicky, KFC’s costumed chicken mascot appears, the music for K-Pop hit Gangnam Style comes on, and everyone is encouraged to dance. Chicky moves as best he can.
There is no discernible educational element to the event, but there are a lot of balloons and spirited encouragement from the KFC staff – the youngest children are completely caught up.
When this “KFC Day” happened at his school, English-language teacher Peter* was not impressed.
“We were told the day before that KFC would be coming to do a fun day with the kids, ‘to play games with the kids.’ I thought it was pretty ridiculous. They came and sang a song about watermelons and then Chicky came out and played Gangnam Style. Then they played Gangnam Style another 20 times and then they sold chicken to them. That’s the day in a nutshell.”
In the month of February, Chicky made appearances at five schools – mostly at the behest of parents, says general manager of KFC (Kampuchea Food Corporation – KFC’s Cambodian franchisee) Benjamin Jerome.
“Most of our children’s activities – the parents come and ask us to organise birthdays,” he says. Other classmates then join in on the activities. This was not what happened at his school, Peter says.
With 10 KFC stores rolled out in the five years since the company set up in Cambodia, the country’s first drive-thru planned, and US fast food giant Burger King making its foray into the market, the taste for fried chicken and sweet hamburger buns appears to be rapidly growing on Cambodian consumers.
How much do fast food companies want it to grow on children as well?
Battle for a Burger
If food franchises trade on the pull of the familiar, then the Phnom Penh International Airport Burger King – the first in the country – has found a happy approximate. I haven’t even been to a Burger King before and already I’m feeling lulled into a sense of routine. As I walk into the brightly lit restaurant and breathe in the nondescript, savoury-scented air, I unthinkingly step into a queue. It’s a long queue and my first interaction with a fellow customer is one that is probably also happening in Burger Kings all over the world.
The lady – a large American – squeezes past behind me and speaks into my ear.
“There’s two queues!” she tells me urgently, as though making a public service announcement. “Everyone’s queuing in one but there’s two! My husband is by himself in that one there.”
Realising she’s just giving a fellow patron a tip, and not trying to steal my precious spot in the queue, I in turn generously pass on the tip to the man ahead of me. It will be the last charitable thought I have in my visit.
The crowd at Burger King this Sunday evening seems to be almost entirely made up of foreigners, mostly from the US. Plonked into the padded lounge chairs, staring into space, loosening bundles of pale greasy fries from their cardboard pockets. Little kids getting their chops around Whopper juniors.
I assume everyone is waiting for flights, but then I spy two long-term Phnom Penh hacks walking through the doors, with no signs of luggage. They don’t look terribly proud to be there.
The wait for the food is starting to feel quite long. After ordering in an efficient, army-like manner, you are given a table number and told to go sit down. If I had a plane to catch, but was still waiting on my chicken nuggets, I’d be having palpitations. Like Lucky Burger, the restaurant doesn’t yet boast the razor-quick, trademarked assembly line that make McDonald’s et al the sanitized hamburger troughs that they are in the West. That doesn’t stop some of the customers from behaving like pigs.
Instead of ‘thank you’, one bulky foreigner slams his fist down on the table when his order finally arrives.
The burgers are disappointing. The junior Whopper deal ($3.40) a paltry stale bun, with a thin, hard meat patty. Thick slices of onion and too much sweet mayonnaise overpowers the burger.
Chicken nuggets, as I should have known, are not real cuts of chicken. I’m not sure what they are: chicken flavoured sponge? They don’t disappoint though and are quite tasty. Fries are not very pleasant at all and undercooked.
After I’ve eaten my things and left a tray of paper and cardboard, I slip out just as a new crowd of traveling Westerners arrive, their beleaguered posse dutifully forming one long queue.
“The demographic is teenagers and young adults,” says Jerome.
There might be no nutritional message to Chicky’s school visits, but the chicken – who, admittedly, can’t really speak but is a good mime – leads games that encourage communication skills and team-building, a KFC staffer says.
The newness of Cambodia’s fast food industry means companies’ activities don’t arouse the same concerns over health and advertising tactics that they do in the West, says PR specialist Glen Felgate, managing director of Quantum Publicity.
“I think the perception of fast food here is probably somewhat different because it’s fairly new. Some have been in the market for a number of years, but there are restaurants that make fast food attractive to more than just youngsters and teenagers.
“From what I’ve seen, you do see families with kids going to fast food restaurants. It becomes more of an outing than just a meal.”
Lucky Burger is KFC’s main rival, according to Jerome, because it has cornered the burger-chicken market.
“Lucky Burger has adopted a very good system by providing the locals a range of burgers as well as chicken. They were the first to introduce fast food in Cambodia,” he says.
Does he anticipate the kind of debates now raging in the West about children being marketed fatty food?
He turns the question around. “If you talk about healthy eating, anything you eat can be healthy [if you live healthily].”
Jerome sees Cambodians leading very healthy lives: doing aerobics in the park, walking along the river. He doesn’t foresee obesity becoming an issue here. “You see a lot of people walking around Phnom Penh . . . Cambodian people are living and eating healthily. Every day, they go for group exercise, aerobics, they play badminton – something we don’t see in more modern cities.”
More aggressive advertising is not guaranteed just because there are newer, international players entering the Cambodian market, Jerome says.
“Depends on the strategy employed by other companies. I think most of the advertisement is done by Pizza Company and BB World.”
Tep Virak, the general manager at Express Food Group, which runs the Pizza Company (as well as ice cream parlours Swensen’s and Dairy Queen), says their advertising campaigns begin every two months, when new products are launched. He says families, not children, are the target market. The company sponsors school sports days and exhibitions, give tours of their outlets to international schools and runs a business plan competition.
At the Phnom Penh international school, as Gangnam Style began to play once more and another round of excited shrieks filled the air, Peter noticed some of his older children slipping away from the KFC carnival.
“The older kids just left and hid in the classrooms. I didn’t have the heart to stop them.
“Grades two and up didn’t care about a guy dressed up in a chicken costume. It was a waste of a teaching day.