Student Pok Ratha, 22, spears a Mondo Burger pizza. He and his friends said they welcomed a Pizza Company franchise, but would rather see an international doughnut chain come to Cambodia.
Contradicting its moniker, Lucky Burger's cash cow isn't beef. It's chicken.
"Asian people like fried chicken better than burgers," said David Tang,
senior director of Lucky Market Group. "Why do you think there are so many KFCs
[in the region]?"
When western fast food comes to Asia, success is hard to predict. In the fickle game
of cultural absorption - which merges local palates with foreign idiosyncrasies -
some imitations catch on, and others don't.
The Pizza Company aims to be a hit. Cambodia's second international fast food franchise
opens April 8 in Sorya Center and will offer a large selection of western-style pizzas
and pasta, said Ngorn Saing, accounting and finance manager for the rest-aurant's
franchisee, RM Asia Co.
Both foreign and local investors will monitor the outlet's progress. Their underlying
question: Can the chain get Cambodians to accept a stuffed crust?
Until now, response to western fast food has been mixed.
Though political instability, a lack of high-quality local ingredients, and the modest
buying power of many citizens have all kept out name-brand chains, taste also plays
a role. Some flavors more easily adapt to the Khmer diet than others.
Local burger staples, like BB World, understand they have to make some adjustments
to Cambodian preferences - at least to get people hooked.
"BB World wants to make a real American hamburger, but I can't say we're 100
percent like westerners," said Chy Sila, one of the restaurant's owners. "For
example, we always put some sugar in the hamburgers, because Cambodians like sweet
Even more daunting is the task of weaning Cambodians off rice, he said. When Sila
first opened BB World in 2002, most locals couldn't imagine a meal without their
favorite starch. Other chains throughout Asia have confronted the problem by introducing
new items, like sticky-rice hamburger buns.
Though Sila dismisses such substitutions as unauthentic, he conceded that BB World
is considering starting a rice-centered breakfast line.
"Hamburger is hamburger," he said. "You can't replace the bun to the
rice - it's impossible. We add [local dishes] for now, but we actually want to get
people used to foreign tastes."
Whether locals are ready for this culinary initiative is another matter. Cambodians
find much western fast food overly bitter and sour, Tang said.
And they're not particularly fond of pizza.
"It's one of our worst-selling items [at Lucky Burger]," Tang said. "We
still have people who walk in and ask 'What's pizza?'"
Tang said he was surprised when he heard Cambodia's first centrally located international
franchise was a Pizza Company outlet. (A Dairy Queen shop opened at the Phnom Penh
Airport in 2002, but it has a limited menu and caters mostly to travelers).
"It's strange because pizza has never been a popular item in this market,"
he said. "But I think [the restaurant] will survive because it has a good location
and kids will want to hang out there."
Saing said he thinks Cambodians - especially youth - will enjoy international standard
pizza, even if it takes some getting used to.
"When I eat pizza, I think it's just okay and I'd rather eat rice," he
said. "But the young generation is the opposite; they really like it."
That's the demographic RM Asia is counting on. Envisioning a market for fast food,
the trade company created the Express Food Group (EFG) last August to explore potential
investments. Around that time, The Minor Food Group, which franchises the airport
Dairy Queen as well as Thai chains of Burger King, Sizzler and Swensons, was looking
for further involvement in Cambodia.
After negotiations, EFG bought a franchise from The Minor Food Group, "making
us the first franchise company in Cambodia," Saing said.
Select Service Partner, an international company that operates airport food establishments,
manages Phnom Penh's Dairy Queen from Bangkok.
Though Cambodians generally don't eat pizza, The Pizza Company will have an advantage
since it's the first foreign chain in town, Tang said.
"People like what they get used to, especially the teenagers," he said.
"They go not just for the food, but to hang out. Then they get used to the taste,
and we teach them to like it."
The new restaurant may also attract foreign clients, given its history with a famous
western chain - Pizza Hut. The Minor Food Group managed Pizza Hut outlets in Thailand
for 20 years before a legal dispute and separation in 2000.
Since that time, the group created The Pizza Company label and opened over 100 restaurants
throughout Thailand. Different name, similar pizzas.
"But even when you go to Thailand, and you ask 'who eats the pizza?' the answer's
usually the same," Tang said. "Youngsters."
He added that Cambodian teenagers are also eager to follow new trends. Yet Tang cautioned
that even they - fast food's biggest supporters - could be a volatile market.
"One day it's popular to eat burgers, but the next day it could be bubble tea,"
he said. "They're hard to hold on to."
Luckily, The Pizza Company has a foolproof strategy built into its menu.
Said Saing: "Of course we sell fried chicken."