Yuppies sipping iced coffee? Students on laptops? Businessmen chatting over a danish? Sounds like any coffee shop in New York, Hong Kong, Seoul or Tokyo.
Except that this place sits in the middle of the less affluent streets of Phnom Penh.
Indeed, the inside of Cafe Sentiment on Monivong, with its cushioned chairs and flat screen TVs showing Korean dramas, seems eons away from the chaotic pile of motos outside struggling to squeeze through a busy intersection, ignoring the traffic lights.
It remains uncertain how many Cambodians reside in the cavernous gap between the country’s rich and poor, but a handful of coffee shops may be able to shed some light on the issue. Shop owners and managers say they are targeting a tiny but nevertheless burgeoning Cambodian middle class, and customers describe themselves as such.
“We are targeting young, trendy Cambodians,” said Luu Meng, director of operations for the Topaz group, a small company of investors that owns Cafe Sentiment.
The shop is among the first to recognize a market that does not want to go out to drink or go out for a large dinner, Luu Meng said. This market, he said, simply wants to sit quietly in a comfortable, clean, air-conditioned environment. Patrons can even access free wireless Internet, he said.
“Our concept is Western design, Western quality, Cambodian price,” he added.
With lunch specials for $2.80, it is much cheaper than places frequented by expatriates or rich Khmers.
“You pay 1,200 riel for a coffee in an outdoor market under the heat with lots of rubbish. But [here] you can pay 2,000 riel and you can be comfortable,” Luu Meng said.
While Luu Meng admits that profit margins are low, he plans to open a new branch in January and six more within the next 12 months.
Economist Sok Sina, however, doubts that the existence of just a few coffee shops or fast-food restaurants carries any socio-economic connotations.
“You can’t conclude from those restaurants that the middle class is growing,” Sok Sina said, referring to the pizza shops and fast food stores that are increasingly popular among young people in Phnom Penh. “There is mixed evidence.”
Sok Sina said that to date there have been no studies done to determine just how large Cambodia’s middle class might be, or whether it is expanding.
Still, some customers at Cafe Sentiment believe they can’t be counted among the rich or poor.
“We are middle class,” Heng Socheata, 21, a saleswoman for a mobile phone company, said of herself and her friend Long Sophea, 30, an administrative assistant at a garment factory.
Long Sophea added: “I like to go to places like this. I like this much better than other places.”
Other coffee shops have been targeting the same Cambodian clientele.
Chy Sila, owner of Coffee and Tea World, which has four branches in Phnom Penh, said his business has picked up significantly in 2007. “The middle class has more buying power now,” he said.
Chy Sila said he sees no need to target the wealthy to make a profit.
“If you talk about rich people, they are a little bit choosy,” he said. “They have many choices, they would want something like a five-star hotel.”
Roth Piseth Thida, assistant manager at Black Canyon, the first of the Thai coffee shop chain to open in Phnom Penh, said her branch in the Paragon shopping center is also drawing middle class Cambodians and is possibly the closest you’ll get to the global coffee chain Starbucks in Cambodia.
The coffee, served in paper cups with plastic tops, is also similar—iced cappuccinos, lattes, etc.
Coffee shop owners, managers and customers said they all hope to see this consumer trend continue.
As Chy Sila explains: “We want to educate people about what coffee drinking is, and how to drink coffee.”