Hailing from humble beginnings, the seed for The Shop was planted cooking healthy lunches at Northbridge School. It has since grown into one of Phnom Penh’s most popular eateries,bakeries and producers of gourmet chocolates. As The Shop celebrates its 15th birthday, editor Marissa Carruthers talks to founder Griet Lorre. Photography by Enric Català.

How was The Shop born?

It was an extension of a business I was running at Northbridge School. I enrolled my kids there in 1998 and started The Lunchbox cooking for students. I hired two people and for the first year we cooked for 50 kids together. In 2000, I opened poolside restaurant, The Club, at the school’s new sports club and swimming pool. By that time, I was frustrated with the quality of bread in town; it was all sweet and mushy, not for me.I started training the staff on how to make good quality bread and by luck came across a Belgian baker who helped develop our breads and baked products. Restaurants became interested in buying from us but delivering by tuk tuk or motodop in those days was a big challenge. I needed a place in town to distribute from. When I saw the location on Street 240, I knew we could distribute from there. I liked the building and thought, “I can also sell coffee and make sandwiches”, and in 2001 The Shop 240 opened. It was all by accident really, I never intentionally came here to open The Shop.

What was Phnom Penh’s coffee shop and bakery scene like then?

On Street 240, Bliss and Tamarind had just opened before us but that was it. There was not one coffee shop in the city, I don’t think. In terms of baking, there was Comme a la Maison. Everything has changed since then; the whole coffee culture. Back then, there wasn’t one. It’s only been in the last five or six years it has really exploded.

How was The Shop welcomed by expats?

You could only see smiling faces and surprise, it was incredible. That was one of the reasons that since the beginning, we have changed the menu weekly. It’s a small space and we want people to come back. I never intended The Shop to be for tourists. I wanted to create a community and provide good food and good fresh drinks. The switch when locals started coming was when we opened in Toul Kork. It suddenly became more accessible to Cambodians and seemed less foreign, I think. 

When did you start expanding?

In 2009, I stopped at Northbridge – by then we were doing 500 meals compared with 50. I came to the Tuol Kork location, mainly for production that year. We installed the production line, made sure quality was consistent and then we opened The Shop Tuol Kork there as well in 2010. In 2013, we opened The Shop 102 at Central Mansions. 

Tell us about The Chocolate Shop.

I bought the house where The Chocolate Shop is on Street 240 and downstairs had a retail area, which I put up for rent. After one day, I said it’s maybe better we do something ourselves. What does Phnom Penh need? A flower shop, a chocolate shop? Together with the baker, we thought let’s cook chocolate. We’re Belgian; we have it in our blood.It took six very adventurous months. We travelled to Belgium on a research trip, to source ingredients and materials and learn more. Then we spent months experimenting until we knew we were ready. Because it is almost next door to The Shop 240, I’d go in almost every day with a tray of chocolates saying, “Come on, tell me what you think”. People would come in and sit there waiting for the chocolate. We opened in 2007 with production at the back. Again, there were only smiling faces. In 2013, we opened another outlet on Street 63 and moved production there. That’s why the quality is so good because it is made and sold on site, and isn’t transported.

How have you retained your top spot among the growing crowd of competitors?

The quality of products and service we deliver have definitely helped. We have a real dedication to quality and take pride in that. We smoke our own salmon, make our own quark cheese, dry our own tomatoes; we do as much ourselves as possible. It’s also for sure because of the staff and their loyalty and hard work. We have gone from two to 120 employees, and those first two still work with us.

What has been your biggest achievement in the last 15 years?

Probably creating a sense of community. For sure for the first 10 years that was my biggest satisfaction. The team is a great accomplishment because all our managers now in production are former street kids. But that took time. It took eight years before I could leave the production by itself and wasn’t in there every day. Another big achievement is the chocolate because the bakery and coffee, there are a lot of people doing that but chocolate, we’re still the only ones. Our quality is really, really good and we offer 32 different types of chocolate. I am extremely proud to have overcome so many challenges in order to deliver consistency in the quality of our products.

What are your plans for the future?

We now have five locations plus two other activities with catering and B2B. The future is to expand when and where is possible but most likely not in Phnom Penh. Because we’re already spread out well across the city.

The Shop is marking its 15th anniversary with a series of events and special offers this month. Follow them on Facebook for details.