From Bagels to Bibimbap – Rattana and Sophea Branch Out In Phnom PenhJanuary 24, 2013
When Rattana Gordon and Sophea Prim talked about opening a brick and mortar business, their first idea was to open a bagel shop in Phnom Penh.
That was in 2009.
Four years later, the two enterprising women not only make great bagels, they also run Phnom Penh’s premier salad bar, Vego, which last month expanded into a second, larger and more diverse location on Street 294.
And they offer much more than bagels.
“When we met, I’d just moved to Phnom Penh with my family from Thailand and Sophea was moving here from Siem Reap,” said Rattana. “Our husbands had been friends for a long time so it seemed like an obvious thing for us to start a business together.”
While Rattana has always been an avid cook, Sophea is happier behind the scenes as she had worked in her father-in-law’s hotel, Auberge Mont Royal, in Siem Reap for seven years, overseeing staff, planning functions and working with customers. The two women met when Rattana’s husband, Brad, introduced her to his long-time friend, Phlouen, and they started brainstorming ideas for collaboration.
The first step was to start a catering company – Pepper East – which they operated from Rattana’s home. Vego was launched a year later when the women decided it was “time to have a real kitchen”.
That’s when the bagel idea was conceived and their initial exploration turned into a 60-day experimentation with dough and yeast. More than 20 recipes later, they came up with the perfect formula, then decided to expand the idea and gave birth to Vego Salad Bar on Street 51 opposite Wat Langka.
“We both like healthy food and we kept hearing from expats that they got stomach upsets from eating local vegetables,” said Rattana. “So we decided to open a healthy food restaurant, came up with a menu and called it Vego (vegetables to go).”
Suppliers were found through visits to farms in Kampong Speu and Kandal, employees were trained in western ingredients and service and Vego opened its doors to the Phnom Penh public. The menu included power drinks, wraps and salads with such names as Istanbul, Venice and Barcelona.
“We thought it was boring to have names like Greek or Nicoise salad so we decided to call them after countries instead,” said Rattana, who received much of her inspiration from her extensive travels. Thai by birth, she met her husband in a refugee camp 23 years ago, moved to the U.S. where she completed a Masters degree in management in Boston, lived in New York then moved to London, followed by stints in Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Thailand.
With a successful restaurant under their belts, Rattana and Sophea launched a second, more ambitious location last month on Street 294. They more than tripled their capacity, added outside seating and offered a new concept: You Pick, We Cook. With an extensive display counter filled with dozens of ingredients, Vego 2 gives customers the opportunity to select from the items and create their own meal.
There’s stir fry or curry, vegetarian or seafood, rice or noodles. You can add chili and lemongrass, opt for flat rice noodles or vermicelli and add tofu, tuna, prawn and salmon. You can order hot meals (again named after places) such as Kep (pan-fried salmon with vegetables and sweet and sour sauce), Seoul (traditional bibimbap with vegetables, fried egg and rice) and Rome (stir-fried spaghetti with squid, prawn, vegetables, chili and basil leaves). Everything on the menu is priced between $2.95 and $5.25 (with extra ingredients priced accordingly) and they do as many as 20-35 home (or office) deliveries most days. There’s also a breakfast menu (pancakes, eggs, bagels and more) as well as a newly developing bakery counter and an upstairs room available for private groups.
”People were asking for more than just salads,” said Rattana. “So we decided to branch out and offer something new. We don’t have meat on the menu and we’re always focusing on good, fresh, high quality ingredients for our restaurants since our emphasis is on healthy food”.
As for what’s next, the bakery counter might give it away. Rattana and Sophea have captured one of Cambodia’s leading pastry chefs to teach their team and the newly-added chocolate chip cookies and custard tarts are just a taste of things to come.
Watch that space.