The caffeine king

Brown Coffee’s Chang Bunleang says that education is the key to standing out in a crowded market

Rebecca Foster
October 29, 2013
The caffeine king
Chang Bunleang, one of the five founders of Brown coffee. Photo: Sam Jam

Chang Bunleang smiles. “I’m the coffee guy,” says the managing partner and co-founder of Brown Coffee, the chain of coffee shops that has recently opened its sixth outlet in Phnom Penh.

After earning an MA in communications in Sydney, Australia, Chang Bunleang channelled his energies into running the Overseas Education Centre, a non-profit organisation he co-founded. Following this, Bunleang and four of his cousins pooled their talents to launch their first business venture with Brown Coffee and Bakery in Phnom Penh in 2009.

Launched in October 2009, the business – founded by five cousins – has grown exponentially from a single coffee shop that once sold 100 cups per day to a chain that now clears 1,500. “Our objectives developed gradually,” explains 27-year-old Bunleang. “When we started, we just wanted a coffee shop; but as time progressed, we realised the potential of the business and that we had the chance to distinguish ourselves.”

Over the past four years, Brown has focused on building a modern coffee culture in the Cambodian capital, aiming to educate the local clientele on the numerous brews. “Not many knew what a cappuccino was, what a latte was; they only knew iced coffee with sweet milk,” says Bunleang.
“When we opened, our target clientele was 50% expats and 50% Cambodians; but in the past two years, we have seen that more Cambodians are going to cafés with their friends, or for business.”

Despite concerns that certain areas of the city are becoming congested with coffee shops, Brown continues to grow, serving 1,700 customers per day and recording average monthly growth figures of 2-3%. “The more cafés that open, the more customers there seem to be,” says Bunleang.

Even with international brands such as Costa and Starbucks drawing on their wealth of experience to widen their Southeast Asian empires, Bunleang remains undeterred. “Costa moves from one store to another with the same ambience and design, whereas we have different designs in each store. Because we are a small business, it’s easy for us to play around with the concepts we introduce.”

With the appetite for Brown’s products showing no sign of letting up, Bunleang’s sights are set on expansion beyond the capital. A new branch is expected to launch in Siem Reap next year, while Bunleang has also “looked at” Vietnam,

Thailand and Myanmar. However, before leaping across borders, Bunleang insists that he will seek out “partners who are really knowledgeable about the industries in each particular place” before moving in “the next few years”.

Bunleang emphasises that, for now, Brown will focus on maintaining existing outlets in terms of service and consistency of products. To that end, the company offers all employees two weeks of barista, customer service and hospitality English training, while branch managers can receive funds for their college fees or for a vocational training programme. “It’s a test for us to invest and see if the results are good,” says Bunleang.

Keeping the production of baked goods and other foodstuffs in-house is another integral part of Brown’s strategy to maintain quality. “The whole supply chain has to be connected,” he says. “Right now, everything is centralised, from the baking to the kitchen… We’re not as big as Starbucks, where they have whole armies of researchers, but we just set up our own research and development team [because] we believe modern coffee shops are one of the features of a modern city.”

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