Ponlork Malis – the owner of the popular Champa Donroeun Restaurant in Prey Veng province who is well known for her cuisine, especially the fried pork leg – speaks of her experiences in the food industry and what is needed to ensure success in business.
How did you get started as a businesswoman? And what initial challenges did you need to overcome?
In 2000, I took over the business from my parents, who initially only sold soup from our home. The biggest challenge then was not having enough working capital to expand the business or to hire staff. However, my family and I continued to run this small business with what we had.
It was tough as we had to manage practically everything ourselves, from sourcing our ingredients at the market to cooking, washing dishes, running tables, taking orders, serving customers and collecting cash.
A typical day would begin at 5am, and while the restaurant closed at 9pm, cleaning up usually meant finishing around 11pm. It was exhausting, but if a person is determined and enjoys what they do, it is rewarding as well.
As a wife, mother and businesswoman, how do you use your time effectively to balance the different aspects of your life?
When I first took over the business in 2000, I was married with a young daughter and also pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Management. It was definitely the busiest time of my life! I needed to be fully focused while allocating my time between running the business, studying and looking after my family. However, with my dream of being successful and ensuring a prosperous life for my family to provide good education opportunities for my children continuing to motivate me, I managed to organise my time effectively.
A typical day for me involved getting up at 5am every day to go to the local market. Then it was time to get the children ready for school, with cooking and food preparation coming next as we prepared to serve lunch. It was time for the children again after school, before getting ready to serve the dinner crowd. I would then study at night.
To this day, I continue to follow this routine, especially as my children grow up. I have to spend more time looking after them both with their education and outside school. Time off to be able to de-stress is also needed, which requires support from my husband and family.
What have been the most difficult periods to get through?
The most difficult period of my career was between 2007 to 2008 during the global economic downturn. A lot less customers were patronising my restaurant. At times it was very quiet and there were hardly any customers at all during peak lunch hours! I was really upset, worried and anxious during that time.
However, I took the opportunity to innovate new dishes and improve customer interaction, while pricing the menu even more competitively to attract new customers. When the quality of the food is good and the price is affordable, customers are bound to recommend your restaurant to their friends and families. Word of mouth recommendations are very important for any business.
The current Covid-19 pandemic is also very challenging, affecting customer traffic and making my restaurant quiet again. To manage my overheads, I have turned to takeaway orders and delivery to keep the business running.
These two experiences in particular have given me important lessons and have made me a tougher businesswoman, one able to face future challenges. You need to go through tough times to appreciate the good times. Perseverance, focus and a never-give-up attitude are the ingredients for success in the business world.
What advice do you have for women wishing to venture into business?
Based on my experiences with the restaurant over the years, I would like to advise all women who want to venture into business to never give up on their dreams – especially do not be afraid of working hard as there are no easy jobs.
Great customer service is of paramount importance for any business. Having well-trained staff is crucial to the success of any business as they represent the owner and the services being provided to customers. We must also be willing to listen to our clients at all times to keep improving products and services, and appeal to both returning and new customers. There is also a need to innovate to keep up with the latest trends.
At the end of the day, to be a successful businesswoman, you must be able to divide your time successfully between your business and family obligations. It may appear easy, but allocating your time effectively is perhaps the hardest thing. As the famous saying goes: “A woman’s work is never done!”