DURING his seven years running Abacus Garden Restaurant and Bar, Renaud Fichet has experienced the highs and lows of the hospitality industry in Siem Reap, ranging from being kicked out of his premises with less than 24 hours notice, to attracting glowing mentions in tourist guidebooks.
The survival of Abacus through several of the worst tourist downturns in Siem Reap’s recent history has made Fichet something of an authority regarding the ins and outs of the bar and restaurant trade in Siem Reap, a longevity he credits to his early experience managing one of the first bars on Pub Street.
“In the early 2000s, I was running Le Tigre de Papier, the second bar in Siem Reap after Angkor What? I managed it for two years, and it was originally a bookshop at the beginning with the top floor full of French books.
“While managing Paper Tiger I was seeing this amazing transformation in the bars and restaurants. Nowadays especially you can’t use the old model of renting a little shop, putting on a bit of music and having four tables and a counter. It doesn’t work any more. In Siem Reap you need to be a bit original, develop a new concept to stand out. People are choosing to dine out where the décor is nice, and the music is better.”
This revolution in quality encouraged Fichet to reopen Abacus as an upmarket French restaurant in 2004, serving French-influenced cuisine with an Asian twist, featuring ingredients sourced from around the globe including crab meat and scallops from Alaska and imported foie gras and cheese from France.
“Here at Abacus we have an expensive product but there is a market. Those people who can afford to pay $300 to $400 a night for a room need somewhere to eat,” he said.
Fichet, who previously worked as an entertainer at Club Med resorts, first visited Siem Reap 15 years ago as a tourist and then started coming back each year, gradually spending more and more time in the city until deciding to open his own restaurant.
After it launched, Abacus was an instant success, partially due to its prominent location near Angkor Market which attracted passing foot traffic from expats, ensuring the bar was always full.
This all changed in 2008 when Fichet discovered his landlord did not actually own the building and the real owner showed up with bulldozers.
“He didn’t kick me out, but he said ‘I’m going to start construction tomorrow, you might not want to be here when it happens’. We had this mad scramble to move all the furniture and breakables out of the building that day. It was crazy.”
Within a day, Fichet relocated Abacus to a side street off Airport Road, practically Siberia compared to its previous location.
“We lost a lot of customers at the bar and started attracting a different clientele,” he said. “You come here now because you heard about it on the internet or through guidebooks and you really want to visit. It’s been a mixed blessing. I’ve been doing bar life in Siem Reap for seven years, closing at four in the morning for seven years, so its nice to have a change.”
As well as the new location, Fichet added a new partner to Abacus, fellow Frenchman Pascal Schmit who had previously worked as the head chef at La Residence d’Angkor.
“When I needed to move he wasn’t happy where he was and decided to open his own restaurant. So I said ‘Come on in with me, I want to improve my kitchen and have the best chef I can’,” said Fichet.
Since then Schmit has significantly overhauled the restaurant’s menu which now includes a wider selection of meats and seasonal fish.
Main courses at Abacus are generally priced between $12 and $20 which, Fichet jokes, is reasonable considering how far the ingredients have to travel.
Crunch time for the second version of Abacus came in 2009 during a post-global-financial-crisis drop in the number of tourists visiting Cambodia.
Isolated in its new location, the restaurant struggled to get regular customers to the bar and Fichet said he seriously considered closing it.
“We lost money for seven months. It was just after the move and we didn’t have cash reserves so we really struggled. When you lose money every day it becomes a real struggle.”
The vulnerability of working in an industry so closely linked to tourism is something Fichet thinks many newcomers to the restaurant and bar scene often miss.
“An external event can upset everything. In 2009, it affected everyone here. It’s difficult to imagine a time when everyone was wondering whether they could make it through the year.”
Since then customer numbers at Abacus have improved dramatically, and when 7Days spoke to Fichet last week, he was busy preparing for a Brazilian-themed party held at the bar last Saturday night to celebrate the paving of the road outside.
“This is a great reason to have a party. I’ve been waiting for them to pave the road for the last two years! Also, this is the last great hurrah before we close for one month in June. We do this every year to give us a chance to do a new paint job and renovations. This year we have a bit of money so we can do more and still keep some for a holiday for ourselves.”