A Taste of Change

Gripped by decades of war, and bypassed by the Asian economic boom, Cambodia remains a grim place with few possibilities. Except pizza. For years, famed Herb's served happiness, one slice at a time. Now, the marijuana pizzeria has plenty of company, including the country's first chain restaurant.

By Ron Gluckman /Phnom Penh, Cambodia

OF ALL THE NATIONS overlooked by the Asian boom, none share Cambodia’s misfortune, or misery. Right through the 1990s, it claimed no ATMs and few paved roads.

  Even after the UN helped end decades of war, it remained a danger zone. Shops posted signs welcoming customers, just not their guns.

  Tourism stayed a trickle, mostly backpackers, lured partly by Happy Herb Pizzas, so named because of they were liberally garnished with marijuana.

  A decade on, tourism thrives, as Angelina Jolie and the world rediscovered Angkor Wat. Cash machines remain a dream, yet a grader moves through the capital, smoothing the pot-holed city, street by street. Weaponry no longer is displayed at the Russian Market, but shops still post no-gun signs.

  And Herb still serves happiness by the slice, now with three locations and ample competition, from Double Happy to - imagine the secret toppings! - Ecstasy Pizza.

  Phnom Penh has shortages of everything from power to jobs, but pizza aplenty. Hence, the surprise to see so much hoopla over yet another pizzeria, opened last week (in August 2005) by Pizza Company.

  Lines snaked out the doors, deep into the food court at Sorya Mall. Even waits of 45 minutes didn’t send diners two floors below to fast-food outlet BBWorld, or a pizza stand in the lobby. Clearly, crowds didn’t come only for melted cheese, but something new, Cambodia’s first franchise restaurant.

  “Probably 95 percent of Cambodians have never tasted pizza,” said Virak Tep, operations manager for Express Food Group, holder of the Pizza Company franchise for Cambodia. “They may have heard of pizza, but most have never seen it. And even those that have, have never tried this kind of pizza, or had this kind of brand experience.”

  Pizza Company, launched in 1981 by Bill Heinecke, a longtime American resident of Thailand, has enjoyed extra-large success with 120 outlets in its home market alone, besting international rivals like Pizza Hut. Yet, none would stand out amongst myriad of Thai dining options.

  In Phnom Penh, the chain is up-market, perched on the top floor of the country’s flashiest shopping, probably more visited than Angor Wat. Cambodians come to marvel at modern wonders, like rows of escalators, mobbed by baffled onlookers, gingerly trying to leap aboard.

  Typical chain pizzeria décor has pizzazz here. Colorful Italian murals fill one wall, while a mock Pisa tower lists towards another. Rather than fast food, Mr. Tep terms it “a casual dining place.” 

  Tall glass jars of pasta decorate counters. Pasta is made fresh in a glass-fronted open kitchen, another local novelty that drew loud gasps whenever the oven flames flared up.

  “Cambodia has been dying for a place like this,” said Johnny West, a New Yorker famous on local television for his weekly Fun Club show. “There really just aren’t many options, and the lines prove it.”

  The reception exceeded even company expectations, conceded Mr. Tep, a local with an MBA who has studied in France and the United States. “This is the right time, and a good time to bring Cambodia its first experience with this kind of branded, quality restaurant.”

  Still, the risks cannot be minimized, explaining why no franchise has targeted a country ranking among Asia’s poorest. Corruption is rampant, say diplomats, NGOs, even government officials. Businesses complain of being squeezed for fees at every turn.

  Rather than provide protection, police tend to congregate on corners, flagging motorbikes for minor infractions, begging up bribes and beers as payment.

  “This used to be a cowboy country,” said one consultant from Washington, DC, who lived here for years. “Now, it’s a Mafia country.

  Hence, while companies ship in cars – for cash – and strip Cambodia resources, few are willing to risk substantial investment. The biggest asset of any franchise, they note, is the brand name.

  Even Pizza Company, aggressively expanding from China to the Middle East, didn’t have an appetite for Cambodia. That fell to Kevin Whitcraft, another American, born and reared in Thailand, whose family business, R.M. Asia, has been operating in Cambodia for a decade.

  Mr. Whitcraft said his food subsidiary would open ice cream as well as pizza outlets in Sihanoukville and Siem Reap. The latter might seem a more lucrative location for Pizza Company’s launch, given all the tourists who fly direct to Angkor Wat, giving the sleepy capital a miss.

  “But our target isn’t foreigners,” Mr. Tep noted. “We’re really focusing on the local market.”

  As a result, pizzas are spicier and sweeter than western pies, noted Express Food General Manager Jean-Boris Roux. Prices have similarly been geared towards the local market, he added. Still, 12-inch pies fetch $9, more than a typical government worker earns in a week, not including bribes.

  Yet customers like 19-year-old Mone Keograth said the restaurant was a smash hit. “This is delicious, fantastic,” she said, as she shared a pizza with two friends.

  “This is a special night for us,” one added. “We’ve never seen anything like this before.” She indicated the sweeping glass windows that circled the parlor, overlooking the entire capital, just like a swank penthouse restaurant.

  “This is real different from Phnom Penh restaurants,” Keograth added. “Most are so small, and dark. This is exciting. I’ve only had pizza once before, but this is really different. And not at all expensive like I thought. I’ll come back.”

  That’s the hope of this pizza company, whose motto “Flavoured to Excite,” is plastered around the pizzeria.

  Much like the motto of Happy Pizzas of Cambodia’s past, it’s already proven an apt description.

Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who has been living in and covering Asia for 15 years. He is currently based in Bangkok, but spends much of his time in Cambodia, where he wrote this piece in August 2005 for the Asian Wall Street Journal.

All pictures by Ron Gluckman.

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