New players make for frosty competition in the dessert market. Will Jackson got the scoop from the people who supply Phnom Penh’s restaurants with frozen dairy delights.
Five years ago, if you ordered ice cream at a restaurant in Phnom Penh, more than likely it would have had its origins at Eric Proye’s Karem ice creamery.
“Karem” means “ice cream” in Khmer and for a long time the company of the same name was practically the only local supplier of artisan ice cream to Phnom Penh’s restaurants, hotels and hotels.
How times have changed.
Ice creameries are popping up on every second street to cater for Phnom Penh’s growing number of middle class families and their children.
And three new ice cream makers – Blue Pumpkin, Bonbon and Lyly Cream – have shouldered their way into the wholesale market, all producing high-quality, home-made ice cream using simple, natural ingredients. And all are adamant that theirs is the best in town.
During an interview recently at his Phnom Penh Thmei home and ice creamery – a purpose-built villa with rooms for ice cream making and storage in the front and living areas out the back – Proye was subdued.
The 51-year-old – who was a pastry chef back in Belgium – came to Cambodia in 1999 with idea of making ice cream and sorbet. He brought with him some refurbished ice cream-making machines recovered from a Brussels cafe which had burned down.
“It was not easy when I arrived,” he said.
Finding a good location and reliable electricity was a struggle and certain ingredients such as vanilla were difficult to source. He also had to test all the local produce – like passionfruit and mango – because they were different from back home.
“At first everybody told me [my ice cream] was too sweet, so I must change all my recipes,” he said.
“I cannot use the recipes from Belgium, I have to change everything.”
Proye said there were two ice cream makers in Phnom Penh at the time – Vergers d’Angkor and Palais de Glace – but they didn’t last and for a while he had an effective monopoly.
That was until the new rivals arrived in 2011 and 2012.
Bakery and ice creamery Blue Pumpkin had been in Cambodia for about as long as Karem after being founded in Siem Reap by French pastry chef Arnaud Curtat.
But it was only after Curtat sold the company to restaurant mogul Alain Dupuis in 2012 that the chain expanded into the capital. Dupuis died in December last year but his family has continued to own the business.
Managing director Celine Serriere said Blue Pumpkin now had 10 retail outlets in Siem Reap and seven in Phnom Penh but wholesale ice cream was a big part of its business, supplying about 100 restaurants and hotels in Siem Reap and about 80 in Phnom Penh.
She said the company’s selling points were quality and reliability of service, diversity of flavours and price.
Asked what she thought about the level of competition in the sector, Serriere said some would be tempted to cut their quality in order to lower their prices.
However, she said Blue Pumpkin was determined not to take that route.
“We have to keep in mind that we have to provide good products and service,” Serriere said, adding that the chain was planning to expand into Battambang and Sihanoukville.
Arriving in Phnom Penh around the same time as Blue Pumpkin was Bonbon, run by French 29-year-old Antoine Crivelli, a graduate of Paris’ Lenotre cooking school.
Crivelli claims to produce the only French-style ice cream in Cambodia and has so far proven popular with the large French contingent in Phnom Penh.
“French ice cream uses more eggs [and is] less rich than American and Italian. We adapt the sweetness to the customer,” he said.
There is one Bonbon retail outlet on Street 63 near Central Market and Crivelli is planning to open another in Aeon Mall once the shopping centre opens later this year.
Crivelli said he had about 80 wholesale clients including Le Residence restaurant, La Creperie, the Cambodian Country Club, the French Embassy and Tepui at Chinese House.
When he arrived, he said he believed the sector had room for another player but with the arrival of a new player, Lyly Cream, it had become crowded.
“The Cambodian market is small,” he said. “We’ve reached the critical stage there won’t be enough customers for everyone.”
He said innovation and quality were the materials for success, citing his range of ice-cream macaroons as one of his key new products.
“Who is best will win,” he said.
The owners of Lyly Cream are Frederic Seynaeve, a Belgian who came to Cambodia four years ago initially to do humanitarian work in Kep, and his French-Cambodian wife Lisa Duong, a former photographer and fashion industry agent.
Back in Belgium, Seynaeve was a dental prosthetist and the first floor of their converted villa in Toul Kork where they make and store their ice cream is slightly reminiscent of a dental practice – stark white and excruciatingly clean.
Seynaeve said he had always wanted to sell ice cream and recalled one of his earliest memories running along a lane in the Belgian countryside, clutching his pocket money in his fist, chasing down an ice cream cart.
When he came to Cambodia he decided to finally make his dream a reality.
Duong said their aim was to make the very best ice cream and sorbet in Cambodia using only the best and freshest ingredients.
“We decided, OK, we’re going to make quality,” she said. “We don’t care about the price.”
The couple use high-tech, ultra-expensive commercial ice cream machines imported from Italy that can be hooked up to the internet so the manufacturer’s technicians can diagnose and resolve issues remotely.
They also have their own ice cream van in which to make deliveries.
Duong and Seynaeve enjoy getting a bit mad scientist with new and interesting flavours. Favourites so far include popcorn and honey, gin and tonic slush and an ice cream that replicates the flavour of a Bounty coconut and chocolate bar.
After only a few months of operation, Duong said Lyly already had a customer list of about 70 restaurants, bars, cafes and hotels.
“We touched a nice market, very fast,” Seynaeve said. “They said ‘wow’.
“Actually, they said we are the best in four months.”
Proye said he was on friendly terms with Blue Pumpkin and Bonbon but his relationship with Lyly Cream was frosty. “It’s a very bad story,” he said.
Not long after he started Karem, Proye took on as his apprentice a bright young Cambodian man named Savan No, who was already working for him as a security guard at the time.
No learned fast and was soon working alone in the ice creamery while Proye was involved with setting up and running a cafeteria at the Northbridge International school, gourmet cafe The Shop and its spinoff The Chocolate Shop.
“I teach No everything, because I don’t have the time,” Proye said.
“He’s in charge for Karem. He know the supplier, he order everything, he make the delivery, he make the ice cream. I teach him everything.”
When No quit last year – taking all his knowledge of Karem’s recipes, processes, suppliers and customers with him – Proye thought he was going to start his own ice creamery but instead he became the head ice cream maker for Karem’s new rival.
“I am very disappointed,” he said. “He is like family. We help help him a lot.”
At Lyly Cream, between making batches of vanilla and durian ice cream, No said he had already been planning to quit because he was simply was not happy working at Karem any more.
He said he worried the old machines were so noisy they were affecting his health and he didn’t enjoy working alone for so much of the time.
“I wanted a change,” he said,
He was introduced to Seynaeve and Duong by a relative and took a job with them because he still loved making ice cream.
He added he was also paid more and enjoyed a better a relationship with his bosses at Lyly.
When asked about No’s concerns, Proye declined to comment.
While the existing players are complaining that there’s not enough of the ice cream sector pie to go around, there are still other smaller operators looking to get a slice.
Mervin Chin opened Bubbles Tea Shop in Street 113 next to the Tuol Sleng genocide museum just over a month ago with his sister and brother-in-law.
Their ice creamery makes and sells small batches of “adventurous” flavours – such as blueberry cheesecake, salted caramel, green tea, early grey, chocolate brownie, french vanilla and saffron.
While currently a retail-only operation, Chin said they were already considering taking on some wholesale customers.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the demand we’ve seen for these sorts of flavours,” he said.
“I look around and I look at the market and it’s pretty much dominated by Blue Pumpkin and Karem,” he said. “We just have to find our niche ... what we do is we’re able to do more adventurous and foodie type of flavours that Blue Pumpkin and Karem don’t really do.
“I don’t even know if it’s occurred to them to push those type of boundaries.”
Likewise, Cambodian owned ice creamery ToTo – which already has three ice cream outlets and another one planned for Aeon Mall, along with barbecue and ramen restaurants – has a handful of wholesale customers and is also looking to take on more.
Spokeswoman Samol Sothyta said ToTo, which began operating in 2011, wanted to provide a “Cambodian taste ice cream and desserts using various fruits from Cambodia”.
“We cater all customers, from Cambodian to expats to tourist but 70 per cent of our customers are Cambodians,” she said in an email.
Not all of Phnom Penh’s restaurants and hotels buy their ice cream from the artisanal manufacturers. Some buy imported ice cream while others, such as the high end Deco and Van’s Restaurant, make their own in-house.
Deco’s co-owner Rob Ainge said the restaurant made its own for quality control and convenience.
“It’s the same reason we make everything at Deco really, we can maintain quality and offer choice, and we can experiment and try and do something different,” Ainge said.
“Generally in the restaurant trade, if you can make something yourself ultimately it’s better for everybody really. It’s better for the customers, better for you, better for the bottom line.”
Van Porleng, the owner of Van’s Restaurant and the Cambodian Country Club, said her restaurant made its own ice cream but she sourced the ice cream for the club from Bonbon.
“It’s more convenient for us to have this supplier [at CCC] because we have a lot of kids who really consume a lot,” Van said.
She said her choice of Bonbon was based purely on personal taste. “Personally I find it better because it’s less sweet,” she said.
However, the Foreign Correspondents Club’s group executive chef Bill Shaw said he had recently decided to switch suppliers from Karem to Lyly Cream for quality reasons.
“The quality that we were going to get from Lyly was what we were looking for and that’s it really. There’s no other reason,” Shaw said.
“It’s very very good. If you want my opinion it’s about the best on the market.”
Despite losing a customer here and there, Proye insists he is far from licked.
In his fridges is a secret weapon: a range of single-serve ice cream cakes created using his pastry skills which he hoped his rivals wouldn’t be able to imitate.
He said he was confident that by maintaining high standards and being creative his enterprise would continue to be successful.
He said he still had about 200 customers Cambodia-wide – more than any of the other manufacturers.
Many have stuck with Karem, such as Dana Langlois, the owner of Java Cafe.
“I stand by Karem because they make the best ice cream,” Langlois said.
And Proye said he was always finding new restaurants, bars and hotels that wanted to serve his ice cream.
“Every week we find new customers,” he said. “And we don’t even find them – they still come to us.”