Mobile food and beverage carts are doing brisk business, filling gaps in the country’s crowded matrix of restaurants and cafés, and competing on price and convenience. The advantages of mobility are many, with carts able to adjust to changes in customer traffic flow, operate on minimal overhead, and avoid many of the rent and tax issues associated with a fixed location.
While some restaurants are trying to extend their reach by operating a food cart – such as Marugame Udon’s wagon in Phnom Penh – a few cart fleet operators are taking things in the other direction, adding a brick-and-mortar restaurant or café to their business.
Mobile Coffee, which operates a fleet of 26 mobile coffee carts in the capital, recently opened its first non-mobile branch on Norodom Boulevard. Yem Chhim, the chain’s owner, said the new branch, which seats up to 20 people, is helping to expand his customer base.
“We have over 2,000 customers a day at the carts, but some people feel they do not want to buy coffee from the street, so we built this café,” he said.
The café also serves another purpose, Yem admits. He said a handful of copycat coffee carts, some using an almost identical name and logo to deceive customers, have put pressure on his mobile business. The new physical branch will stand out from the cart crowd, while allowing him to offer a wider variety of beverage products and attract new customers.
“We tried to find a location where offices were located because we are targeting office staff,” he said. “We try to do all products . . . because we want them to come every day, not just once.”
Vitu Boeun Chamroeun, owner of Frank Coffee, has also made the move to a fixed location. He said his original drink cart, which he parked among a row of food carts behind the Apsara TV and radio station in Boeung Keng Kang I commune, was very successful but faced some issues after police moved in to clear the area of street vendors.
“There were some issues with the carts selling near the market,” he said. “There were too many customers and they caused traffic jams in the street.”
Chamroeun said he was the sole cart permitted to remain on the block because he owns a channel at the TV station next door, but business changed after the sweep and he decided to look for another location.
After initially parking his mobile cart on Sothearos Boulevard near Aeon Mall, he retired his cart in favour of a larger fixed location on the grounds of Svay Pope pagoda, built out of a modified shipping container. The new location has come with challenges, he admits, explaining that the new site is far less visible to motorists and his turnover has dropped by half. He must also now pay rent.
But the larger space has allowed Chamroeun to build on his 600-plus item menu of beverages, and adding food items has given his long-time customers a reason to make the extra trek to the new location.
“I only served drinks before, but my customers asked me to start selling food because it takes them more time getting to my place now,” he said.
Belgian chef David de Wolf said he jumped at the chance to expand his iBurger food cart business to a leased shop on Street 278 in BKK1. He said the business did well during the three weeks it was open, proving especially popular with late-night clubbers who got burger cravings at 2am, but he was forced to close due to a dispute with the building’s landlord.
De Wolf has since taken over operations of the kitchen at the adjacent Tusk Guesthouse, which he uses as a processing hub for iBurger. And while his food truck is still operational, parked around the corner from dusk till nearly dawn, he admits he prefers managing a restaurant over a food cart.
Food carts may be cheaper to operate and offer mobility, but they also face unique challenges: battery-powered carts often lose power, food kept in coolers or on ice can spoil, menus must be limited, and the search for a good location is an ongoing struggle.
Moreover, De Wolf explained, hygiene and proper food preparation are much more easily attained in a restaurant setting.
“Overall, I’d say it’s much harder to operate a food truck than a restaurant,” he said.
“If you can master the experience of owning a food truck, you should be more than fine opening a restaurant.”
But success is far from guaranteed. Several popular food cart businesses, including Diamond Kitchen and Bong Churro, were forced to shutter operations after failed attempts at opening brick-and-mortar restaurants.
“They didn’t have a plan,” De Wolf suggested. “Every business needs a plan, whether it’s a food truck or a brick-and-mortar restaurant. You need to think about the breakeven point.”
One mobile cart business to successfully make the transition is Cafe4U, which last year opened a café on Street 51 in the capital’s Daun Penh district.
The company’s owner, In Vichet, said the decision to shift from mobile operations to a fixed location began as a search to find a place to park the company’s growing fleet of food and beverage vans and carts. Having at first used the corner building as an office, Vichet decided to develop it into a full-fledged café.
“[Originally] this was just a place where I could meet with my staff when they come back from selling,” he said. “But then I thought it was a waste of a place and I felt we could sell [our products] in the morning and afternoon.”