Around 7 in the morning, at the newly opened second branch of Bagel & Bakery Sancha in Russian Market, owner Mariko Okuda is behind the counter in a chef’s hat and apron alongside two of her local staff members. She greets customers enthusiastically in Khmer, English or Japanese as they walk in the door.
Okuda has travelled to 33 countries around the world, tasting their bread along the way, but found that none could compete with that from her home country of Japan. When she arrived in Cambodia in 2013, it didn’t take long to notice an opportunity in the market for a pastry business.
“In most Asian countries, breads are not sophisticated or well taken care of,” the 35-year-old Okuda said. “I tasted bread all over Phnom Penh, and to be honest, bread in Cambodia is not delicious . . . or not yet.”
After being in the retail bread business for two years, Okuda opened Sancha on Street 294, near Phsar Kabko – a hole-in-the-wall shop stuffed with bagels, croissants, bread loaves and other goodies. The bakery is named after an old Tokyo neighbourhood, where she first worked in a bakery. Okuda admits she didn’t know much about Cambodians’ food preferences, but she was confident she could win them over. “My bread is so good, and anyone who eats it will like it,” she said.
Over the course of the last year, word of mouth has spread, and Sancha has become a popular breakfast and tea-time snack destination for both Cambodians and expats. From its opening hours in the early morning to the end of its day a few hours before dusk, there is a steady stream of customers who leave with their favourite breads in biodegradable paper bags.
At the end of last month, Okuda opened the bakery’s second branch to cater to an increasing customer base and to provide more opportunities to her employees.
“I met a lot of great staff, and I taught them,” she said. “As time goes by, they become so good, and I need new positions for them, as well as the opportunities for them to play the roles of the leaders.”
Sancha serves a wide range of Japanese and Western bread and pastries. The former include kare pan ($1.25), a hot breadcrumb-coated dough filled with savoury Japanese curry – somewhere between a gravy and a paste – and dorayaki ($1.10), a red-bean pancake known for being the favourite snack of the anime and manga character Doraemon. The Western selection includes delicious, fluffy croissants ($1.15) and a variety of bagels ($1.25).
But most popular is the pain de mie ($1), the sliced, almost pillow-soft white bread also used for their sandwiches.
In addition to high-quality ingredients, like flours and yeast imported from bread-obsessed countries like France and Denmark, Okuda says the secret behind her success is her “love” for bread.
“Bread is alive . . . [It] grows up and needs careful attention,” she said. “I always try to make everything perfect: the size, the colour, temperature and necessary ingredients, and in order to do that, you need real passion.”
The first branch of Bagel & Bakery Sancha is located at #24 Street 294, and the second branch at #54 Street 454. The former is open every day from 7am to 4:30pm from Monday to Friday and until 2pm on the weekend, while the second branch is open every day from 7am until 2pm.