Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Capital’s mobile F&B chains show signs of settling down

Capital’s mobile F&B chains show signs of settling down

Cafe4U, a chain that successfully transitioned from a mobile cart to a brick-and-mortar location, is seen in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district.
Cafe4U, a chain that successfully transitioned from a mobile cart to a brick-and-mortar location, is seen in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district.

Capital’s mobile F&B chains show signs of settling down

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.”

MOST VIEWED

  • Would you like fries with that? US burger chain makes Phnom Penh debut

    California-based The Habit Burger Grill restaurant chain is all set to serve up a delicious array of charbroiled burgers and sides at its newest international location in the centre of Phnom Penh. The Habit is “renowned for its award-winning Charburgers grilled over an open flame,

  • Banteay Meanchey flood victims receive aid

    Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday provided aid to more than 10,000 families affected by flooding in Banteay Meanchey province’s Mongkol Borei district and offered his condolences to the 18 victims who drowned in the province over the past week. He said flooding had occured in

  • PM urges caution as Polish man tests positive for Covid

    The Ministry of Health on Wednesday reported that a 47-year-old Polish man tested positive for Covid-19 after arriving in Cambodia on Monday. There are a total of six Covid-19 patients currently in the country, all of whom are being treated at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital

  • Banteay Meanchey floods kill one more as death toll reaches 15

    As floodwaters start to recede in Pursat, Battambang and Pailin provinces and Phnom Penh, Banteay Meanchey continues to bear the brunt as one more person was killed on Monday, bringing the total number of flood-related deaths to 15 in the province this month. Banteay Meanchey provincial

  • Serving coffee with a side of robots

    The eye-catching glass building surrounded by greenery at the intersection of Streets 371 and 2002 in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district is more than just another coffee shop where you can while away a few hours. UrHobby House cafe is filled with robots and characters from

  • Floods prompt evacuations in Kampong Speu

    Rain-induced floods and water flowing from Kampong Speu province have submerged the houses of 1,527 families living close to the Prek Thnot River in Spean Thma, Tien, Kong Noy and Roluos communes in Phnom Penh’s Dangkor district, according to data from local authorities. Spean Thma