Siem Reap Restaurant Endures Repercussions of COVID-19
Oliver Smith, owner of POMME, shares the impact of COVID-19 on business establishments in Cambodia’s tourist hotspot.
Amid the loud establishments and discos once frequented by bar-hoppers and partygoers in Siem Reap, there are laidback destinations that offer a relaxing atmosphere and various activities for backpackers seeking a quainter experience.
One of these places is POMME, a resto-bar and hostel run by Oliver Smith. Having opened in October 2019, the brand was “set for a very good year,” only to face the economic dive and other impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
POMME has another branch in Battambang, a province in northwestern Cambodia about three hours from Siem Reap. It is being run by Smith’s longtime friend and business partner, Jonathan Free.
“[COVID-19] has affected the business extremely drastically,” said Smith. “We’ve seen a huge loss in people coming, a huge loss in trade, and a huge loss in revenue.”
After the initial decrease in international tourism at the onset of the pandemic, even local tourism took a blow following the February 20 community event which led to provincial lockdowns and eventually curfews and alcohol bans.
“People are a lot less likely to come for food if they’re unable to have a glass of wine or a nice beer,” Smith explained, adding that the domino effect of minimal tourism, the lockdown, and then the alcohol ban had made it a struggle to remain open in the past year-and-a-half.
While plenty of restaurants and bars coped early on by shifting to delivery platforms like Foodpanda and Nham24, it was not ideal for POMME, particularly the Siem Reap branch.
“I really wanted to try – as long as I was allowed to – to keep everything dining in-house, because that’s part of the experience of going to a restaurant or a bar: being able to appreciate the space,” said Smith.
POMME Siem Reap features a garden lounge with a lawn, plenty of trees, and a wooden deck. There are also more indoor-centric areas, with a classic bar setup and billiards area. Meanwhile the hostel’s main offering is dorm-type rooms with double-decker beds and common bathrooms.
“If people aren’t coming in to eat, they don’t really know what we’re about,” Smith added, “It’s a lot more personal when people come in and we can provide whatever meal they want.”
He explained that were they to depend on food deliveries, they would not be able to service customers in the best way possible, such as with customization of dishes to suit individual tastes.
Business are also being affected by the extensive roadwork in Siem Reap under the 38-Road Renovation Project. For several months, the road outside POMME had been inaccessible, making it impossible for would-be customers to physically go into the restaurant.
In addition, Smith wanted to provide continuous labor for POMME employees instead of partnering with large delivery companies already profiting from the situation.
Neither Siem Reap nor Battambang branch dismissed any staff, choosing instead to adjust work hours. Nevertheless, management made it clear to employees that they were free to pursue better opportunities elsewhere.
“If we’re not providing an income for them, there’s no support,” said Smith.
When they did accommodate deliveries, POMME connected directly with tuk-tuk (auto rickshaw) drivers. They would wait in front of the restaurant and take food to customers, collecting the full fare.
“We didn’t take anything from the drivers. It was more about supporting the local community and seeing what we could do to help them out,” Smith emphasized.
Community resilience breeds sustainability
That statement perhaps encapsulates the Siem Reap business community who now weather the unpredictable restrictions and other effects of COVID-19 in what was once one of the most bustling, lively, and tourist-dense cities in the Indochinese region.
Smith believes that the best thing for business owners to do is to support and promote one another.
“Being innovative and trying new things is what gets people coming back and what keeps people interested,” he said, criticizing the tendency of some to undercut prices and drag down the competition.
Thus, POMME throughout the pandemic has been opening itself as a venue for other business and organizations. Yoga classes, music shows, and even teachers in need of a space to conduct virtual meetings have been welcomed into the restaurant rent-free.
They also have no qualms about promoting their suppliers or advertising tie-in events to help gather support.
“It needs to be a community,” Smith said. He also encourages little actions like purchasing from small drink shops instead of large supermarkets, saying that the families running these shops need the additional income.
It’s apparent that for Smith, POMME is not a mere profitable venture. Rather, he considers it a personal responsibility to support the economy.
“We’re gonna be here because we have to be, and we’re trying to provide a service for all of the staff who work here and all of the suppliers we buy from.”
“Hang in, Siem Reap”
These efforts and principles do not spell the absence of struggle and frustration for POMME. Smith described the overall situation as getting knocked down and then back up, repeatedly.
“Just when you feel like you’re getting your footing, something just smacks you down again… and you just have to get up and keep going until you get knocked down again.”
Nevertheless, he encourages his fellow business owners to do what they can to help the community sustain itself – otherwise, there may not be a community for people to return to when the COVID-19 crisis is alleviated.
“Hang in, Siem Reap. It’s been tough, and it just keeps getting harder and harder, but it will eventually get better,” Smith rallied, “Make sure you’re still here when it does.”