When a group of Cambodian Chinese cousins discussed what they should name their coffee shop, aimed at employing Cambodians and making a difference in the country’s development, they came up with the Khmer word for palm tree: tnout.
“When you translate brown into Khmer, you get tnout, which means palm tree, and that’s our national tree,” says managing Partner Chang Bunleang, who sat down for an interview earlier this month to explain how the very popular Brown cafés came into existence.
“When our customers ask, ‘Where are you?’ and our staff answer, ‘We are at Brown’, we knew we had picked the right name.”
The group of founder-owners includes Kang Hok, Liv Chhong and Kang Sen.
Chang runs the operations of the four Brown outlets, Kang Hok is the architect, Chhong is the pastry chef and interior designer and Kang Sen is a structural engineer who oversees the construction of the outlets.
Chang, born in Phnom Penh in 1986, says his family was lucky that most of them survived the Khmer Rouge regime, although his grand-father on his mother’s side was killed.
He attended Baktouk High School and got a degree in education from the Institute of Foreign Languages, followed by an MA in international communications from Aust-ralia’s Macquarie University.
When he returned to Phnom Penh in 2008, he had a notion to do non-profit work and provide ducational counsell-ing for Cambodian students.
His architect cousin Kang Hok had returned from Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, also with the idea of doing something for Cambodian students.
He and Chang began helping students prepare for admission to US universities, with the idea of raising funds for an NGO, but then the Asian financial crisis hit in 2008.
“Looking back, we were very naive, but we wanted to do something impactful,” Chang says. “We sat down together thinking maybe we could go into business not just doing non-profit work, but giving employment to Cambodians and making an impact on Cambodian society.”
That’s when the idea of a coffee shop came up.
The cousins opened the first Brown Café, on Street 214 near Pencil Market, in 2009.
“Business was very slow during the first three months, but we learned what our customers wanted, added new products and business began to pick up.”
A big feature of all Brown outlets is their architecture.
“Every shop has a different design. They’re cosy, and we design all the furniture ourselves,” Chang says.
The concept of the first outlet was minimalist, with small pools and gardens, a Zen feeling and a frangipani tree on the side.
“It was only a nine-metre by 20-metre house, but we used trees and water to open it up. We always pay great attention to the space.”
The second Brown outlet, on Street 51, opened in October, 2010.
“The second one has a cosy, woody feeling with exposed bricks, and we spent a lot of time creating the right atmos-phere,” Chang says.
The response to the second Brown Café was fantastic, even more so than the first.
“The first day we opened the gates, people walking by said it looked really cool. Our team was surprised that we were full every day for three months. That’s what prompted us to open another location.”
The third outlet is Brown 57, only a short distance from Brown on 51, which was opened in July, 2011.
“We decided to take a chance, and people thought we were crazy. Our concept was a little store with a garden, and we went to various locat-ions finding trees.”
Brown 57 is one of the public's favorites, and is almost always busy.
The fourth location, opened in April last year, is on the riverside in an old French colonial building.
“The concept was to transform the exterior into the original design of the house. Our architect found the orig-inal plans in Paris and worked with a heritage conservation team to restore the building to its original, early-20th-century look,” Chang says.
“We decided to keep the bricks exposed on the inside of the building.”
The idea was to make the riverside location like an old school library with the exposed brick.
This month, another Brown will open opposite the Instit-ute of Foreign Languages.
The partners made a commitment when they first went into business to re-invest every dollar in the business to funds its expansion.
“The more we do business, the more we understand that it’s very important to expand and find the core values.
“That drives our team. We invest a lot in staff training.”
Because they realise $2.50 for a coffee is “quite pricey”, Chang says customers are paying for the service and the ambience - hence the emphasis on training
“Every single member of our team coming in has to do our training program for two weeks at head office: from technical to customer service to leadership, basic food and beverage, English, the staff handbook and technical training.”
Even Chang gets involved in the training.
“We are more structured now. You cannot afford to run a chain of businesses without organisation and structure for the team,” he says.
Another key to Brown's success is its focus on retaining employees.
“We pay 15 to 20 per cent higher than others, and it’s costly to invest in training. That’s why our staff turnover isn’t high. We have our own plan for retaining our staff, including more training, creating a sense of teamwork and belonging,” he says.
At the end of this year, the partners will invest in a coffee roasting facility for the coffee beans they obtain from Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, in northern Thailand. Chang says he took a trip to Mondul-kiri to source coffee from local Cambodian farmers.
The pastry items are produced fresh daily at a central baking facility and delivered to each location.
The Brown team is working with teachers at the Royal University of Fine Arts for the design of mugs and logos for the launching of local hand-made mugs.
Chang Bunleang says he endures the fact that other shops copy what Brown innovates, taking it in his stride and staying focused on service and consistency.
“Making customers happy is what matters most. As long as we keep our quality, service and branding strategy, we can differentiate ourselves. We are confident. I tease my graphics designer to put in two sentences: ‘It’s not green.