Nine years after arriving in Siem Reap and buying a half share in the famous Angkor What? bar, Alex Sutherland has established a small commercial empire of restaurants and cafés around Pub Street.
And last month he expanded further with the construction of Old Market Smokehouse, a new southern-style US barbecue eatery.
Sutherland, who, in addition to Angkor What? and Old Market Smokehouse, also operates Central Café and Eight Street Bar and Brassiere, told 7Days he and a partner bought a $50,000 half stake in Angkor What? in 2003, on the advice of a friend who worked for UK de-mining charity The Halo Trust.
Sutherland said: “I would see him every year and I heard about Cambodia through him. He and other friends told me that Siem Reap had been cleared of landmines and the temples were being renovated, and how they thought it was going to be a real big tourist destination. So I sort of got a heads up, a tip-off before the boom really kicked in.”
At that time, Sutherland had never worked in the hospitality industry, and he made the switch after growing dissatisfied with a career in finance in the UK.
“I was frustrated and fed up. My career wasn’t going where I wanted it to go so I quit. I wanted to own my own business and work for myself and I didn’t have a great deal of money. I bought the $25,000 share in Angkor What? on my credit card. That’s what got me started and then it sort of went from there.”
One thing that stands out to people who know Sutherland is his willingness to quickly shut down restaurants that don’t prove immediately profitable, and then promptly reopen them with different names and altered menus.
The pre-financial crisis years were boom times for the restaurant trade in Siem Reap, when Sutherland and a few other operators such as Serge Billot and Lee Kongvong, who between them own several key pieces of Pub Street real estate including Temple Bar, made a killing.
But trade then slowed dramatically and is now gradually picking up.
Sutherland’s advice to novices seeking to enter the restaurant trade in Siem Reap is simple: forget it.
“Don’t do it,” he said. “I think people who are going into the bar or restaurant business for the first time perhaps underestimate the risks in terms of the investment required and more importantly the amount of operating capital required.
“I would say the only advice I could really give to them is: When you model your business financially, whatever your worse case scenario is, make it worse.”
That said, Sutherland is sunny about the prospects of Siem Reap’s hospitality industry in the future, and told 7Days he sees areas popular with western tourists like Pub Street continuing to develop along the lines of regional centres like Bangkok.
“I think Pub Street is primarily geared up for western tourists and if you want to see where it’s going … you have to look at more developed western tourist centres like Thailand.
“Maybe in the future we’ll get franchise operators here, but for now it looks like it’s going to be the same crew doing their thing.”