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ToTo brand appeals to local tastes

Samol Sothyta, CFO of ToTo Food and Beverage
Samol Sothyta, CFO of ToTo Food and Beverage, talks in a ToTo ice-cream shop on Norodom Boulevard last month. HONG MENEA

ToTo brand appeals to local tastes

At age 23, Samol Sothyta runs finances for ToTo Food and Beverage, which operates ice-cream, ramen and barbecue restaurants in Phnom Penh. She sat down with the Post’s Laura Ma at the flagship Norodom Boulevard ice-cream parlour to discuss the food and beverage industry.

How did ToTo start?
My cousin and her friend, who are the owners, were really interested in having a homemade ice-cream parlour in town. There was no other shop offering this at the time. To follow up on the idea, they had a consultant help us work out the ice-cream flavours and logistics of the ice-cream business. We started that in 2011.

Ice-cream is how it started, but why did you branch out into ramen and barbecue?
They do seem completely different from each other, and a little random. But everything came simply from the dishes that the owners were interested in. One of the owners fell in love with ramen while in Singapore. Because there was also no ramen in Phnom Penh, they decided to talk to the consultant again to get a license. Then they decided to cash in on a trend that was already popular here, which is barbecue. But our barbecue is different, because it’s Korean style.

How has ToTo Food and Beverage expanded?
Since I joined as CFO, ToTo has continued to expand its business. We opened a new ToTo ice-cream location on the riverside near the Royal Palace in February this year. This past August, we also opened a parlour at Legend Cinema, so moviegoers can enjoy ice-cream. Then this year, we started the ramen in April, and barbecue in June.

How successful is the brand?
People here really like our ice-cream, so that has been successful. It’s modeled after Italian gelato, so it’s homemade and 95 per cent fat free. The flavours are mostly seasonal and made from fruits. Profits have grown around 60 per cent a year between 2011 and 2012. With ramen, it was a gamble hoping people would catch on, but we are hoping for an increase in customers. We get a few Korean and Japanese business people and expats here, looking for a taste of home. But ramen and barbecue just opened this year, so we are still small on that front. We are still looking to make people aware of those.

Any more future plans?
In December we are going to open a three-in-one on Tuol Kork Avenue, with ice-cream, ramen and barbecue. There’s going to be a mall in Tuol Kork for food and beverage, so a lot of people will be around that area. It’ll be easy access for customers. We are discussing plans to possibly open a ToTo ice-cream in Aeon Mall when it opens, but we’re not sure yet.

What are some challenges you’ve faced in building ToTo?
With ramen, sometimes customers complain about the price. They seem like normal noodles, whereas they’re actually Japanese. And the price is acceptable for us, I think, but some people think it is expensive. For the barbecue, we have a lot of competitors. Lately, there have been a lot of restaurant and shop openings to add to the competition too.

How do you compete in the market?
There are Japanese ramen places in Phnom Penh, but we are the only Cambodian-owned shop. I think the original flavour of ramen, very salty and oily, is too strong for Cambodians, so we try to cater to local tastes. For barbecue, honestly, it’s hard because we are up against so many Khmer barbecue places that are also cheaper. But we offer a variety that those places don’t. We have three sauces for the barbecue. This is our strategy to bring choices of flavour to customers. I think it’s hard for many Cambodians because they don’t like to try new things. But the new generation now is willing to try new tastes.

Who are your target patrons?
Mostly local people, younger Cambodians, and families. For ice-cream, we get a lot of tourists as well. Establishing brand loyalty among these target groups is also a challenge for now.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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