Sunday, September 23, 2007

Jetstar magazine article on Bloom (click on image to read)

Friday, September 21, 2007

Cafe growing pains

I wish there was someone I could talk to about the growing pains in running a cafe. One of the hardest things I've found is settling on the appropriate number of staff. At Bloom, we can go without customers for five days in a row and then on the sixth day, we'd have eight people turn up at the same time. How do I get the balance right? If I hire too many people, they'd be sitting around most of the time, bored out of their brains (although we do try to create new recipes when the cafe is quiet). If I hire too few people, we cannot cope with a sudden surge in customers. I guess this is what they mean by "scalability". How can I strike the right balance and ensure we are scalable?

Currently, Bloom has three cooks and two waiters (me included). I am lucky I also have Srey Roth, who used to be a co-manager at Sisters' cafe at the Russian Market. Roth works at the Bloom Bags shop at the Russian Market but she helps out at the cafe whenever I need her.

The cafe had its best and worst day yesterday. We were really lucky and had 20 people come in for lunch. We were all so excited as we were informed of their pending arrival the day before. They would also place their orders in the morning which would leave us enough time to prepare the food before their arrival. I had checked with the Bloom team that the six of us would be enough to cope with the numbers and they replied confidently, yes.

Unfortunately, a combination of factors led to a very unhappy situation--food was served very late, customers were not pleased, staff were harassed and tempers were fraying all around. I was very fortunate that most customers were very understanding and forgiving, but I felt like I had let them all down. I let the stress get to me and started bubbling when I had to apologise for the umpteenth time. Not good. I was told by a customer who returned today for lunch (yay! we didn't lose them all!), "We were all talking about you yesterday." I'm sure they were thinking, what's up with this woman? It's such a small matter, especially in a country like Cambodia, where there are many other things to be crying over.

I felt upset because we had let customers down and left them unhappy. Customers are everything to a business, especially a new one. We so desperately need good reviews and for customers to spread the word about Bloom. I keep thinking, we only have one chance, we can't screw it up. And yesterday I was convinced we did. It was very discouraging, and I kept wondering, when will we ever get things right?

The good thing is that most of the customers were really, really sweet about the whole thing. Twelve of them even returned today! I was very, very touched and really appreciated that they gave us an opportunity to try again. I cannot explain how much this means to Bloom--we hardly ever get the opportunity to practice serving a large number of customers at the same time. And this group of kind souls were willing to give us a second chance. They believed in us, and thankfully, things went much smoother today. We didn't let them down.

To the team from Peace Bridges, the Mennonite Central Committee and KHANA, thank you again from all of us at Bloom.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Dealing with Cambodian Police (or how a Singaporean’s understanding of authority is screwed up)

Yesterday the fire police came again. I had already bought a fire extinguisher from them a few months ago. This happened after eight of them stood at my door the second day after I opened Bloom café. Sometimes I think the police are the most efficient people in Cambodia. They had asked that I buy four fire extinguishers for the café at USD45 each. At that time, I had called the landlord who told the police to return the next day so we can discuss. Back then, I had explained that we’re new and only just opened, so I don’t have money. In the end, I agreed to purchase only one extinguisher at USD35 (apparently you can buy a new one at the market for USD20).

After that purchase, a man from the fire police would visit once a month, always a different bloke, always with some excuse to get money from us. One time, one of the men stuck a piece of paper on the extinguisher, to certify it is safe or some other trivial reason and asked for money. I gave him a buck just so he would go away.

It’s not a good idea, because if they know you’re an easy hit, they’ll keep coming back for more. Perhaps it is the Singaporean in me. I am so trusting and naïve. My instinct is to assume policemen are policemen and what they say is always legit (more of how screwed up my thinking is below). And I seem to become worse as time goes by here. In the beginning I was more careful and suspicious and not give in, calling the landlord or some savvy Khmer friend, but I think I am worn down. I am also embarassed at always having to call people for help. I hate being like this, just wanting to throw money at the problem, just wanting to pay them off so they will leave me alone. But somedays I just feel I have no energy to argue and argue with them.

Anyway, sometime in the last week, two men on separate motobikes came to the house. They claimed to be from the immigration department of the city police and asked that I pay USD50 for an annual licence from them. I told them I had already paid the sangkat (local police) for the business licence, and as far as I am aware, there are no other business licences to pay for. One of the men said, “Yes, yes, sangkat I know, but we are city police!” and showed me his papers (written in Khmer and in a plastic sheet). He also showed me a stack of papers with other cafés with photographs and namecards of their respective owners attached.” I recognised one woman who runs a Malaysian restaurant. The policeman said, “She has a good heart, she gave me USD80.”

I told him, her business is good, she is established, she can afford it. We are new, we have few customers and I asked him to verify this with Sina, one of Bloom cafe’s more senior member of staff. (Sina was beside me throughout this, as I wanted him to translate, just in case). So I offered USD15. The boss if the two said USD25, and I told him if the business picks up next year, no problem, but help me out here. Plus, I am helping Khmers, by giving poor women jobs. That really seemed to affect him somehow and in the end we agreed on USD20.

But I only had USD10 and had to borrow the rest from Sipha, Bloom bags’ trainer. That raised her suspicions, but by the time she appeared to see what was going on, the men were on their way out. They told her rudely, “No need to stare, we are the police”. They also told me they would be back at 3pm to get copies of my licence and my passport and photo.

Sipha told me to call the sangkat but my phone was spoilt (another story, but the point is that I have lost all my contacts since I didn’t save the numbers in my SIM card—moral of the story: always save your contacts in your SIM card!). We took a moto to visit the police station instead. Our man was not there but we managed to get his number and he agreed to come to Bloom café within half an hour.

Sipha explained what had happened and the local policeman got very angry. I think he was angry with me as well as the scam artists, as he was convinced they were. I was still convinced the two were real policemen from their behaviour and was sure they would come back for my papers. The sangkat looked at me like I was stupid. He said, “They’re not coming back! They’re thieves!”

He said next time when this happens, send them along to him. He is the only one who is authorised to get money for my business licence. As the sangkat said, the men failed to return that day. I was so angry with myself for giving the men money I could not sleep that night. I was just so angry with myself for being so stupid. I am not normally such an idiot, and have seldom been scammed, because I am too much of a cynic to believe people easily.

The next morning, while I was out, the two men returned! I have no idea how she did it, but Sipha got back my twenty bucks! Everyone is always telling me how Sipha is bossy and rubs people the wrong way, but I have to say, it pays to be bossy in Cambodia. Since the rule of law does not mean much here, Cambodia is the sort of country where any display of power lets you get away with a lot.

I was so happy to get back the money. But then, the very next day, a man claiming to be from the fire department came and asked for five dollars. If I do not pay the money, if there is a fire, he said, the fire brigade will not come to my rescue. I will have to deal with a fire myself. I was so furious, I refused to pay. Five bucks is pittance, obviously. But it was no longer about the money. I was furious at the fireman and at the fire department for behaving like this. So poor people who cannot afford five dollars will not get served by the fire police? Of course. You know these things happen in Cambodia, but I was shocked at how blatant it is. The police don’t even bother to pretend they exist to serve the people.

And here’s another thing: when the electricity department found out this house was rented to foreigners, they fined my landlord USD250, and increased our electricity bill. We now have to pay foreigner rate for electricity, which is about 10 per cent more. How can the electricity department fine people, Alan pointed out.

Being Singaporean, I know how public utilities are linked to the government, so I had a hard time understanding what Alan meant. He finds it bizarre that I think it is perfectly normal for the utilities board to fine customers. When I was growing up, public services in Singapore were monopolies, just like in Cambodia now. So to me, it is normal to see how you can get fined by the public services company. Pay the fine, or you don’t get the service. It’s not like any old shop, because in a monopoly, we cannot take our business elsewhere.

(Privatisation is only a recent thing in Singapore. But now in the telecom sector, for instance, Singaporeans now have Singtel (formerly a monopoly and incumbent), M1 and Starhub competing for our business.)

Alan points out that even in Singapore, the public services company do not, and cannot, fine customers. All they can do is cut you off until you pay your arrears, or take you to court. Only the courts have the authority to impose a fine. And if the utilties company were to say, “Pay the fine, or you get cut off,” in a civilised country, you can sue the company for extortion.

I have to admit I find it hard to understand what Alan is saying, which he says is bizzare, because I am supposed to come from a developed country. Bizzare to him, but disturbing to me. How did I come to understand that it is perfectly normal and acceptable for a public utilities company to fine the citizens of a country? This can only happen if the state and the company are one and the same and that the tools available to the state to enforce compliance are similarly available to the company. It is really creepy to me that it took me a while to see what Alan was saying. I wonder what other aspects of my view of the state is screwed up. Although I am supposed to come from a developed country, it is obvious that much of my thinking, as a Singaporean, is still third world. I suppose that is why Singaporeans put up with so much: because we don’t know any better.

What really worries me is that I am very sure I am not alone, among Singaporeans, in my thinking. I am educated, have a Masters in Political Philosophy, widely travelled, worked in a multinational corporation. Of course I do not think I'm super-smart (on the contrary, I have just demonstrated how unsophisticated my understanding of politics is), but I am supposed to be educated. It just goes to show the big gap between knowledge and practical wisdom. It just goes to show how important it is to be exposed to other ways of life. As my example shows, if you only know one way, you'll find it hard to understand how there can be another, possibly better, way.


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