Coffee culture with a ‘Khmer touch’

Home-grown success story Brown Coffee is taking on the international brands pouring into Cambodia

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August 24, 2017
Coffee culture with a ‘Khmer touch’
Chang Bunleang, one of the five founders of Brown coffee. Photo: Sam Jam

An oasis of air-conditioned sophistication in the hubbub of Phnom Penh, home-grown Brown Coffee’s appeal has not gone unnoticed by a new generation of Cambodians craving the comforts of a Western-style coffee chain. In the twin stores mirrored across Street 51 in the city’s centre, members of the Kingdom’s young middle class sit in rapt conversation, iPhones stacked carelessly on the tabletop before them, cappuccinos cooling at their elbows.

Speaking to Focus Cambodia, creative manager Ngy Lay said that Brown Coffee’s customer base had shifted drastically from the gaggles of expats that had flocked through its doors in its earliest days in 2009.

“Before our shops opened, people saw coffee shops as a place to hang out and use the internet,” he said. “Now, people come here for a whole new experience. They come for a good cup of coffee and to have a sense of community. We see a remarkable growing number of younger local consumers. We believe this particular segment will continue to grow.”

“Not many knew what a cappuccino was, what a latte was…They only knew iced coffee with sweet milk.”

Chang Bunleang, founding partner

Since its first store opened on Street 214 in 2009, Brown’s caffeinated crusade has seen it open 14 outlets across Phnom Penh and, just last year, Siem Reap. In that short time, Cambodia’s coffee scene has witnessed an influx of international brands such as the UK’s Costa and US giant Starbucks into a market now primed for high-quality coffee, bringing with them a daunting wealth of experience and resources. But Chang Bunleang, one of the five young founders of the home-grown franchise, said that Brown Coffee’s youth and flexibility gave it an advantage over more established international brands.

“Costa moves from one store to another with the same ambience and design, whereas we have different designs in each store,” he told Southeast Asia Globe in 2013. “Because we are a small business, it’s easy for us to play around with the concepts we introduce.”

For Lay, this freedom allows Brown’s outlets to blend international style with unique traces of Cambodia’s own rich heritage.

“In terms of product offering, we try to include local ingredients [such as palm sugar and Kampot pepper] as much as we can,” he said. “In terms of store design, we always and will always continue to incorporate our Khmer touch whenever we can.”

Although Cambodia’s love affair with coffee dates back to the Kingdom’s years as a French protectorate, its signature version – blindingly strong iced coffee laced with condensed milk – has slowly ceded sovereignty to a range of Western espresso-style and filter-brewed coffees as a more diverse approach to the daily pick-me-up takes hold. According to Bunleang, it is a shift that would have been hard to imagine without Brown Coffee.

“Not many knew what a cappuccino was, what a latte was,” he said. “They only knew iced coffee with sweet milk.”

With a young population and an increasingly prosperous middle class, Cambodia has been quick to embrace the international obsession with all things caffeinated that has seen cities from Melbourne to Seattle become icons of coffee culture.

“We were the first coffee shop to introduce true Italian-style coffee to consumers,” Lay said. “We are glad that we were able to educate more and more people about coffee-drinking culture.”

With the opening last year of its first outlet in the tourist-heavy city of Siem Reap, Brown Coffee shows little sign of slowing down despite the growing presence of international competitors in the Kingdom. For Lay, Brown’s success story has not just been a chance to share the founders’ passion for coffee with their homeland, but to forge a brand identity that will keep Cambodians coming back for their next coffee hit. 

“Over the years, we have learned to be more open and challenge each other’s ideas and leadership styles,” he said. “We have learned that no matter what challenge we face along the way, we must keep our values and mission in mind and that our employees and customers must always be our priority.”

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