B2B Cambodia recently had a chance to sit down with Emma Fountain, the Founder of Backyard Cafe and VIBE Asia, to discuss her entrepreneurial journey as a vegan and health food pioneer in Cambodia and the shifting face of the local food and beverage (F&B) industry.
Cambodia’s culinary landscape has been going through a subtle transformation over the past decade, with Fountain playing a significant role in introducing innovative vegan and healthy food concepts to the nation.
Watch B2B Cambodia’s interview with Emma Fountain, Founder of Backyard Cafe and VIBE Asia:
When Fountain first moved to Cambodia in 2009, she observed a noticeable absence of fresh, organic, and health-conscious dining options in the local market, particularly for a Western audience. Motivated by the desire to address this gap, she conceived the idea of Backyard Cafe with the main aim of catering to the discerning expatriate community seeking healthier alternatives.
“At the beginning, we were really busy only with foreigner and expat customers, we didn’t have any of the local customer base,” shared Fountain. “It’s really taken quite a long time, but now I would say our customer base is probably nearly 50-50, so that’s a big change we’ve seen in the last ten years.”
While she believes the vegan and healthy food trend has really picked up in Cambodia, there are still certain challenges that will take time to address.
“One of the challenges in a place like Cambodia is the price of healthy food,” said Fountain. “Even in the US or the UK, organic food, superfoods and the health food market is normally more expensive than your regular everyday food, but this means it’s not that accessible to the whole of the Cambodian market. But hopefully over time we will see that start to change so that more people can have access.”
Impact Of The Pandemic On Cambodia’s F&B Industry
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a period of uncertainty, significantly affecting businesses, particularly in the F&B industry. However, despite formidable challenges, Backyard Cafe weathered the storm and managed to preserve its existing branches. VIBE Cafe, which offered a fully-vegan menu, did suspend its operations, however, its location was turned into a third branch for Backyard instead.
“We transitioned VIBE to become a Backyard… because of the lack of tourism in the country, and to be able to appeal to a wider market, because not all the people that already live in the country are strictly vegan, or don’t all eat 100% plant-based meals,” explained Fountain. “I could see us launching VIBE again when we see tourism increasing, if we don’t launch it in another country where they have a bigger variety of vegans already living there, which is also an option.”
Assessing the current global situation, Fountain suggested that it will still take some time before tourism levels are able to return to what they were before, meaning Cambodia’s F&B industry will need to continue adapting in these new conditions.
“I think we’re still going to see [tourism] being quite slow… because when we look at the global economy, we’re looking at increased interest rates, a cost of living crisis, wars that are happening around the world – they affect us all, even if they’re not in our home country.”
“I think we will still see that tourism will take some time to get back, but I think that’s a really good opportunity for us to build some new menu ideas, new product ideas, new locations, and continue training with our team, so I think it’s going to be a good year for us ahead,” she added.
Overall, Fountain said that she definitely sees more room for growth but is generally quite happy with the achievements Backyard has been able to make in light of the challenging circumstances.
Developing New Culinary Skills In Cambodia
As the founder of Backyard and VIBE, Fountain also acted as the head chef developing recipes for both restaurants’ menus. While she’s now currently based in the UK, she still continues to contribute to recipe development and staff training.
“I did my vegan chef training kind of around 2007-2008, way before people were talking about vegan, plant-based or healthy foods, so we were really ahead of the game in those terms,” said Fountain. “What I have seen in the market here is that it’s a little bit slower than the rest of the world, but I have seen in the last five, six, seven years that there’s been much more of an increase in understanding and education around healthy and organic food.”
Reflecting on the kitchen teams she’s worked with in Cambodia, Fountain noted that there are still some challenges due to an unfamiliarity with the types of ingredients and taste profiles being experimented with as they are not typical to the local cuisine, but an understanding of these products is definitely growing.
“We’re importing products like superfoods and doing unusual techniques with them, so [the teams] don’t really have a familiarity with the products, which is an ongoing challenge, but I think it’s improved,” she said.
Overall, she believes the development of the F&B industry has been quite strong and is growing to be more globally competitive.
“I think the standard of F&B and restaurants in Cambodia, compared to ten years ago, has definitely risen, there’s some really great places in the city making really good food that could compete with other cities in the world, so I do think overall it’s definitely improved,” she added.
Looking ahead, Fountain shared that she sees more paths for innovation and expansion, and has plans underway to introduce a range of new menu items at Backyard Cafe. The restaurant will also seek to extend the availability of its fitness-related snacks at supermarkets and various other locations across Phnom Penh.
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