When chef and restaurant entrepreneur Tom O’Connor started scouting for locations more than a year ago with a new business plan for his latest venture, he came upon an old French colonial building north of Wat Phnom along Street 47.
“Just through general conversation, I found out it was a property that belonged to one of my customers,” he says.
Now that customer is one of several partners in The Exchange, one of Phnom Penh’s newest places to eat and drink. It also has a private member’s club upstairs called The Vault.
“I already had a business plan, and I was in need of a property to put the business plan in place,” O’Connor says.
During 2011, O’Connor and his partners had the old French colonial building stripped to the bare brick, and care was taken to keep as much of it as original as possible.
The choice of the location was driven not only by the integrity of the old building, but by the availability of parking and the nearness to the city’s symbolic epicentre, Wat Phnom.
“Renovating a building this age doesn’t come easily. The physical structure of this building is 98 per cent original.”
The Exchange, located on Street 47, is about 700 meters north of Wat Phnom.
“We have a beer garden outside so we can cater for cocktail parties and events. Internally, lunch and dinners are our busiest times of the day and we get people drifting in and out through the afternoon.
“There’s a natural breeze through the building on all four sides,” he said.
As far as the menu goes, O’Connor says Asian people love imported steaks, lamb and salmon.
“These are your key big-selling items. People want to go where they feel safe with clean, hygienic, food that is prepared properly.”
O’Connor reports that since opening at the end of January, expectations have been exceeded.
The first 100 of The Vault’s membership packages come with private security boxes to store one’s favorite bottles to share with guests. Fifty have already been sold.
The Exchange targets business people as customers.
“We’re very close to Canadia Bank Tower, the Stock Exchange many other banks and we’re very central to the business and banking community,” O’Connor said.
“We’re also close to the British, French and American embassies, so we get a fair amount of diplomatic traffic.”
“The Exchange is generally focused around business people. The customers are either local expat or Asian business people,” O’Connor said.
“The concept is a public beer garden, modern café and bistro downstairs and upstairs it is a private business club, giving business people a place where they can go and have constructive business meetings in a relaxed atmosphere while eating and drinking good food and wine.”
“A lot of people are surprised when they come here. You don’t feel the pressure of anyone’s miscomprehension of what Cambodia, is a perception of being rough and tough. This is a closed environment with good furnishing and good quality food.”
In addition to the relationship with the Kith family that owns the building, O’Connor has another long-time friend involved in the business, chef Al Scaff of Sharky, who is also the owner of Fat Boy subs.
Scaff is famous locally for his approach to Mexican and American food at Sharky.
“I’ve known Al for 13 years, and we always end up talking about food. Both of us are chefs, and we worked out a similar thought pattern about styles and qualities of food.
“The fact that he’s worked here for so long, and speaks, reads and writes Khmer, makes him an easy choice, and makes it a lot easier to train, and communicate with, staff.”
As far as philosophy of service, O’Connor says you sell what you are.
“Drop all the pretentiousness; if people don’t like the food and service, they won’t come back. We offer a little bit of something for everyone.
“It’s very nice to be a very specific food-oriented restaurant, so you can focus on one theme, one style that sets you apart from everyone else.”
O’Connor says catering to a wide range of businesspeople means making something appetising to everyone, with both Western and Asian influences.
One menu item is salmon cheesecake.
“If you take smoked salmon and cream cheese, this is just a different play at the game.”
A veteran of the Phnom Penh restaurant scene since 1998, following a career with Grand Hyatt, O’Connor has had influences on such places as the FCC, Metro, and Fish.
Today, his focus is on The Exchange as shareholder and manager.
“A lot of time and thought went into it, with all the parties involved. How to keep the building sound, and how to marry the old world cool of tradition, the French building and the new world look of a round circular bar and glass and make it still feel like it is blended in rather than being too opposing.”
O’Connor says three-quarters of the Phnom Penh market consists of small bars and cafes, while only one quarter is composed of high-end restaurants including those in hotels.
For downstairs customers at The Exchange who want to enjoy The Vault upstairs member’s club, there’s a fee for a daily membership. Various types of other memberships are available, including corporate, individual and temporary.
O’Connor says the Phnom Penh market is currently flooded with restaurants and bars that are mostly “copycat” style.
“To be successful you’ve got to offer a single style of fare that’s completely different and makes you stand out from the rest of the market,” he said.
He says The Exchange has a business lunch and dinner crowd, plus growth as a late night stop for cocktails and after-dinner drinks.
“We get a lot of people coming in after 9:30 or 10. Normally shut-off time is midnight, but it depends on the business.”
Upstairs, The Vault has comfy Chesterfield chairs and Cuban cigars.
“A lot of the business people were starting to feel they couldn’t go to riverfront because it became two touristy and there was no place to park. It was not their place anymore, so we tried to fill that gap in the market. We’ve only been open four months.”
O’Connor says The Exchange is a café and bistro with fine dining that is available for outdoor functions, catering and with plenty of parking.
The Exchange has also signed at least a dozen reciprocal agreements with other similar member’s clubs around the region, including Australia, Bangkok’s Pacific Club and clubs in Europe.
“We just approached other clubs of a similar calibre around Southeast Asia and showed them what we have, and with most clubs there’s an organisation, you get reciprocal rights, and if they’re here on business, they get to use the facilities.”
Last Friday, The Exchange drew a big crowd for the birthday party of David Potter, a shareholder and the director of sales and marketing.