The concept of a fast food, fried chicken restaurant might not be difficult to digest for today’s restaurant-going Cambodians, but many of those at KFC’s soft opening Sunday morning had trouble taking it down without a little plain white rice.
“No rice,” said 25-year-old Reat Sokun, of Kandal province, peering over the barrier between her and the counter, where cashiers were busily taking lunch orders from a steady stream of people.
Reat Sokun works in a T-shirt factory in Phnom Penh and said she hadn’t heard of KFC, the US-based fast food chain that boasts more than 11,000 stores in more than 80 countries, until Sunday when her supervisor at work, a Chinese woman, told her about it.
“It tastes good,” she said of some original recipe fried chicken.
“Only people used to being abroad understand the brand,” said 27-year-old NGO worker Lun Yeng, who has visited Malaysia and was lunching with friends. “Otherwise, the people still like Lucky Burger, Mondo and BB World.”
But Um Punlieu, 32-year-old assistant manager at KFC on the corner of Monivong Boulevard and Street 136, said he didn’t think it would take long for KFC—which has five more stores planned—to build name recognition.
“Actually, they don’t know, but I believe after this one [store] they will know,” he said, adding that they sell chicken-flavored rice.
KFC, a joint venture between Cambodian conglomerate Royal Group and a Malaysian company, opened its doors at 7 am Sunday, making it the first international fast food chain to hit Cambodia—other than a Dairy Queen at Phnom Penh International Airport.
For many at the soft opening, if there was one thing they were foreign to, it was Cambodia.
The Philippines, Indonesia, China, Malaysia, England and the US were among the countries represented by an estimated 80 percent of Sunday’s clientele.
Ke Saravuth, who wore a crisp uniform and KFC cap, said she was nervous for her debut behind the cash register and a bit thrown off by all the foreigners.
“I try to talk to them friendly, but I only know Khmer and English,” she said, adding that a one-month training program in Malaysia helped her prepare to juggle the long lines of people.
Benjamin Jerome, KFC Deputy General Manager, said KFC’s opening was an attempt to bring “Western eating culture”—complete with a warm, energetic welcome and an English “Hi!”—to Cambodia, but that he thought it was something Cambodians would eventually make their own.
“We try to bring KFC to the people of Cambodia,” he said, adding that future dishes will include a chicken and rice breakfast meal.
While the store imports many ingredients from Malaysia, he said it relies on Cambodian chickens from Kompong Cham province as well as vegetables from vendors at Phnom Penh markets.
Benjamin Jerome said set-up costs neared $1 million, and April’s grand opening will be preceded by a heavy marketing campaign.
Customer Lun Yeng said he was thrilled to be eating at KFC, but was made slightly uncomfortable by the way the new restaurant highlighted a widening wealth gap.
“I look outside and see many poor people…. It’s very hard for them to touch this new lifestyle,” he said.
Kith Meng, CEO of Royal Group, said it was difficult to convince KFC to set up shop in Cambodia.
“They said the market wasn’t ready…. We managed to convince them. It’s good for Cambodia,” he said, sampling the chicken along with everyone else though declining to wait in line.
“It’s the original taste,” he said, licking his fingers and echoing the chain’s famous motto, that the chicken was indeed “finger lickin’ good.”
“Let Cambodia taste the world’s fast food. You used to have to go abroad. Now it’s here.”