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Dining for a good cause in Phnom Penh

Luc Citrinot, eTN  Jan 18, 2011

With Phnom Penh playing host to the ASEAN Travel Forum, Southeast Asia's largest international tourism event, eTurboNews Asia Senior Editor Luc Citrinot takes a look at the latest changes in the Cambodian capital in a series of articles.

PHNOM PENH (eTN) - Romdeng restaurant is rapidly becoming a favorite among travelers. Located on a quiet street of Phnom Penh, the restaurant is earning positive reviews for the quality of its food, its charming colonial-style atmosphere, and for its attentive staff. But above all, Romdeng restaurant is part of Mith Samlanh ("Friends" in the Cambodian language), an NGO which provides support to street children and youth, their families, and communities. In 2011, Cambodia – and especially in Phnom Penh - thousands of children and young people are left on their own, “not only because they are orphans, but also because they come from families stricken by social problems or poverty, or because they are recent migrants with no connection in the capital,” explained Sebastien Marot, Executive Director of Mith Samlanh/Friends International.

On average, Mith Samlanh provides support every day to 500 children and youth living in the streets, 300 of them find a place to stay, 700 of them receive education or professional training, while another 22 are treated for drug addiction. However, for travelers to Phnom Penh, the most enjoyable and the best way to contribute to the NGO program is to go their restaurants. “We opened ‘Friends - the Restaurant' in 2000 with a clear objective. By helping youth to learn cooking or becoming waiters, we hope to build their future and turn them into responsible active adults of the Cambodian society. Our aim is rather to develop a future than looking at charity,” added Mr. Marot. The NGO received first grants from Australia’s Ausaid but today gets funds from large private companies such as banks. According to the NGO, revenues from its commercial ventures contribute to fund on average of up to 44% of Friends International's own financial needs.

Today, Friends International runs three restaurants in Phnom Penh: "Friends - the Restaurant" is a casual place near the National Museum which targets mostly tourists; "Romdeng," located in a splendid colonial villa which previously served as the residence to the European Union Respresentative, is the most stylish, serving regional specialties from all Khmer provinces; and the latest addition is "le Café du Centre," an eatery located within the premises of the French Cultural Center. “Some 75 students work permanently in the three restaurants and learn cooking but also the service. Most of them will then find a job in restaurants and some in hotels,” told Sébastin Marot.

The concept is so successful and has been widely acknowledged by both foreign and local communities. “Our restaurants are vocational to provide training for street children with the vision to build their future. We do not see ourselves as a competition to other places in Phnom Penh. In fact, our prices are higher than the average in Phnom Penh to be sure that we do not encroach into other F&B business. And also because it is far costlier to run such a facility: we have to hire teachers and have to train continuously new staff. The best ones leave for real job positions,” explained Mr. Marot. All the money provided to the restaurant is reinvested into Mith Samlanh programs with total transparency on spending.

Friends International success is reflected in the expansion of its activities. In Phnom Penh, the NGO also runs a shop and a beauty center called “Nailbar.” “We are also seriously exploring the idea of having a guest house. The project has been delayed due to the economic crisis,” said Sébastien Marot. A restaurant and a shop recently opened in Vientiane (Laos), while Bangkok and Banda Aceh (Indonesia) will also have their own restaurant from this year. “These restaurants will work on the same concept of training street youngsters,” added Mr. Marot.

In 2012, Mith Samlanh will also open a restaurant in Siem Reap as "demand remains high for qualified skilled staff due to a busy tourism industry," according to the NGO Executive Director. More franchises around Southeast Asia could take place, copied on Romdeng restaurant’s model. The first one is due to open in Cambodia’s resort city of Sihanoukville under the name "Mlop Tapang" ("Under the tree’s shadow"). "Franchising will help us to remain small, as we do not want to lose our main task: helping street children and youth,” said Mr. Marot. or

Dining for a good cause in Phnom Penh
Sébastien Marot, Executive Director of Mith Samlanh in "Friends the Restaurant"

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