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Phnom Penh's restaurant landscape changing

Phnom Penh's restaurant landscape changing

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The staff at the Tea Club prepares a cake to celebrate the restaurant’s eighth anniversary on Friday. Photograph: SP Loh

With the arrival of many new restaurants and coffee shops in Phnom Penh, the complexion of the food and beverage market is swiftly changing, according to restaurant owners.

Tea Club owner SP Loh said existing restaurants had to work harder to retain their customers in light of the new competition.

“The important thing is you need to keep the quality of the foods and provide good service. The variety of the foods is equally important,” she said.

Loh, whose father passed away last month in Malaysia, kept her eighth anniversary Tea Club celebration on Friday a small event, in respect to a Chinese tradition of a 100-day period of mourning.

The Tea Club opened on May 18, 2004, and specialises in Asian Chinese food with an Asian buffet lunch from Monday through Friday for US$4.80.

On weekends and public holidays, the Tea Club offers Malaysian specialties curry laksa noodle soup, nasi lemak and curry chicken rice.

Owner Carl Saunders of Aussie XL, a traditional Australian pub located on Street 51 in BKK1, said Phnom Penh was becoming over-serviced with restaurants and coffee shops with a trend toward the up-market.

“Gone are the days of renting a place for $250 and setting up some plastic chairs,” he said. “Nowadays you’ve got all the big takeaways, the big beer gardens and the coffee shop culture has gone berserk. I’ve coffee shops open, close down and re-open again.”

Saunders says the key to a successful restaurant is having a system and targeting the market before you open.

“I’m sure the market is saturated. If someone was to ask me, I’d say do your homework big-time, study your location, capital and customer base because to build it will take a long time, unless you’ve got a franchise.”

Saunders said for his Aussie XL business, which employs 14 people, the customers were regulars who mostly came from word of mouth, with a roughly equal split between Australians and British customers, “a smattering of Kiwis” and various others, mostly foreigners.

Meals include steaks, fish and chips, pizza and other Western fare, ranging in price from about $7 to $18.

“People are creatures of habit. Once they get into the habit of going, wherever they are used to, that’s all they want.”

Saunders will often have a rugby league or Australian football game on the big screen television, in classic Aussie pub style.

“This is not to everyone’s taste. I’ve had people come in and complain that the music’s too loud or that the game is on. You can never please everybody. If I walk into a place and the beer’s hot, I’ll go somewhere else,” he said.

Saunders opened Aussie XL two years ago and has seen a big transition in the restaurant scene during that time.

“The standard has been brought up a lot better, but I’ve seen a lot of places go under. It is easy to fail,” he said.

“The secret to my success is perseverance. Don’t go thinking you can undercut someone else’s prices. You’ll go broke; you’ll kill yourself. People will pay for good service at the end of the day.”

In keeping with his “grill it and they will come” philosophy, Saunders says the key to his success has been perseverance. Originally from Adelaide and in the golf course construction business, Saunders first came to Cambodia in 2003.

“It has been a gradual process of introducing myself to the people in the area,” Saunders said.

Kouch Sokly, managing director of CBM group, which owns the Pizza World, BB World and T&C brands, with 22 outlets in total, agreed that the food and beverage landscape was changing.

“The international franchises are coming. If you cannot compete with them, you cannot stay in business,” he said. “We target the middle class and that middle class is increasing in number,” he said.

The Tea Club’s SP Loh said the Cambodia’s youth is helping to lead the industry, and the country, forward.

“The education of the younger generation is very important to the country’s development. Twenty years ago, you could hardly find staff who could speak English or Mandarin Chinese to work, but now this younger generation is one of the great assets to Cambodia.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Stuart Alan Becker at [email protected]

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