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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Khmers Go for a Slice of the Pizza Action

Khmers Go for a Slice of the Pizza Action

Carpetbagger business men coming to Phnom Penh to make a quick buck should take note

of a couple of events that have taken place in the city recently.

First there was the case a few months ago of King's restaurant. Here, the owners

absconded owing staff wages. So, in lieu of payment, the staff 'liberated' everything

moveable from the premises.

The latest incident took place at PP Pizza, opposite the Cambodia Commercial bank.

"My boss, Mr. Graham [the owner of PP Pizza and BK's Bistro] did not pay me

and after he owed me money for two weeks, I just took the money from the till and

walked out," pizza chef Sophal stated.

Sophal, in fact, was one of the lucky ones, some staff waited for much longer periods

to get paid.

"When we asked for our money, Mr. Graham and the manager said wait, wait, wait,

every time," waiter, Lay Neth, complained.

Sick of the way they were being treated, they embarked on a much more subtle version

of what happened at Kings. They didn't actually physically remove anything from the

restaurant, they just stole the idea. And then they went and opened up an exact replica

of PP in a building right next door .

"We collected all the staff and we collected all the money and we decided to

rent this house," Sophal said.

The staff pooled their savings and borrowed some money from their parents. Some,

however, didn't have the courage to go through with the venture.

"At first there were ten people, but five got scared and backed out. They didn't

want to take the risk," he added.

The start-up costs, however, were less than they originally imagined.

"At first we thought it would be U.S. $10,000. Then we did everything ourselves,

we built a clay oven and the price came down to U.S. $7,000," he said.

The Khmer's pizza joint opened on Apr. 19 with a menu identical to what's on offer

next door.

The only thing that is really different is the name, they call their place "Happy

Herb Pizza."

The name has obviously led to some confusion leading one diner to speculate that

perhaps they might be a little risque with the oregano. His companion agreed, suggesting

that it was probably more of a waist, not mind, expanding ploy, aimed at boosting

dessert sales.

However, the cheesecake the Post experienced was sufficiently mind altering all by

itself. And reliable sources stated the lemon meringue pie was nothing less than

hallucinogenic.

The staff, however, dismissed these musings with a rather charmingly innocent explanation.

An American called Herb, who also experienced some financial frustrations and subsequently

left PP Pizza, was the original pizza chef. Herb taught Sophal, previously a cyclo

driver, and the other kitchen staff how to master the doughy discipline.

" First we had to get the name. So we thought of Herb because he was our teacher.

Then I put in 'Happy' because he is a happy man. A very good man who was never angry

with anyone," Sophal said.

With both restaurants, side by side and looking so alike, many casual diners don't

realize that the two are separate entities.

Further confusion is created by the menus offering the same fare and by the fact

that some people recognize the staff from working in PPs.

There was one difference and that was the prices. Happy Herbs was a dollar or fifty

cents cheaper on most items. But that sparked off a price war and now PP has dropped

its prices too.

Although there is no love lost for former boss Mr. Graham, the war ends at prices

when it comes to the staff next door.

"We still have some friends working next door. They know their restaurant won't

last and some want to join with us. But we have enough staff," Lay said.

Happy Herb's Pizza is also open for breakfast with a European smorgasbord, offering

Spanish omelets, French toast, English muffins, along with bagels and cream cheese,

home fries and cookies.

The only minor problem the Post had was the salami, it was slightly better next door.

But that's a small price to pay for the digestive comfort of knowing you have just

had an ideologically sound meal, with no question of the staff exploitation.

Okay, it's not as ideologically sound as La Casa, where the profits go to an orphanage.

But Happy Herbs is a lot nearer the center of town. And there's a limit to how much

ideology you can take when you're hungry.

Sophal said he thought they would still be in business after UNTAC's departure.

"There's still the NGOs, business people and tourists. And our costs are low,

we are the owners but we are also the staff," he said.

And maybe Khmers will develop a taste for pizza. "One of our mothers came to

eat with some friends the other night and she enjoyed the pizza," Sophal said.

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