ise-view-Article Detail Bottom List
Success built on jams and liqueurs
Source：Food Bev Asia
Date Published：11/27/2018 03:11:10 PM
SOMBAI’s fruit-infused liqueurs and alcoholic jams are creating a buzz in Cambodia’s Siem Reap. And why not? They are after all among products counted in the Kingdom’s high-end hotels and have been topping on TripAdvisor for four consecutive years now.
With 11 liqueurs and five alcoholic jams, Sombai is winning points from travelers to Siem Reap. But their fruit-infused products are not the only ones drawing interest in Temple Town. Even their production workshop, wine tasting and sustainability efforts are winning them clients.
Husband-and-wife team Lionel Maitrepierre and Joëlle Jean Louis tells Food Pacific Manufacturing Journal about their business venture.
From Singapore, Lionel Maitrepierre and Joelle Jean Louis chose to move to Cambodia and start a business.
What sparked the idea to start a business in Cambodia, and what was the business landscape like in Siem Reap back then?
Back in 2012, everything in Siem Reap was either very easy, or very difficult. In only six years, the city has developed a lot! We moved here from Singapore and we wanted to create something.
What does your brand name Sombai stand for?
We wanted to use a Khmer word that could be easily understood by Westerners. When we were young, my brother’s godmother (who is Khmer) often used a comment that sounded very English, and it started with “Som Bai…”. So, as “Bai” means “rice” in Khmer, we kept it.
What liqueur flavours did you first introduce to the market, and what did that entail?
We first came out with seven flavours: Anise & Coffee, Banana & Vanilla, Lime & Pineapple, Galangal & Tamarind, Ginger & Red Chili, Lemon & Lemongrass and Mango & Green Chili.
We had to adapt the recipes to products that were actually available on the market year-round. That is why we dropped the vanilla whose production remains low to this day and replaced it with cinnamon, which is produced locally and in large quantities. We also had to choose the “four-season” mango in order to keep the same quality of production throughout the year.
During the first six months, we did everything on our own. Cooking, finding production tools, dealing with the painters and handling the administrative work. Then we started to hire 1 staff then 2, 3 and now we have more than 20.
How did the rest of the flavours come about? What inspired them and how was the development experience for each one of them?
A few months later came the Green Tea & Orange. We eventually had to adapt two of our flavours (Banana & Vanilla and Lime & Pineapple) when we understood that we won’t be able to source enough vanilla locally to keep it and when we discovered the candied coconut. So those flavours were later changed into Banana & Cinnamon and Coconut & Pineapple, respectively.
A few years after that came the Joe’s Kampot Pepper line: Umami (tomato and black pepper), Abacaxi (pineapple and red pepper) and Moscati (raisin and white pepper). As Cambodia produces the best pepper in the world, Joëlle wanted to do something with it. So, she started her own combination.
Hand-painted bottles provide a unique selling point for Sombai’s liqueurs.
Was one trickier or more challenging to produce than the other? How so?
The trickiest flavour to produce is Green Tea & Orange. Firstly, because we cannot keep the green tea leaves in the bottle, so we have to filter them out. Secondly, the oranges need to be fully peeled in order to avoid the bitterness of the white skin.
Two of the ways you market your liqueurs is through wine tasting and workshop. Tell us more about these activities and what participants can expect from them.
We organise product tasting at our production workshop. When people come to our workshop, they have the chance to visit the production area, see the packaging in process and the painters in action. Then they can enjoy a tasting of the 11 liqueurs and the five alcoholic jams. Most of the time we have single travelers or couples who come to discover the place, but it can happen that large groups of 50 are sent by travel agencies.
This activity has been continuously ranked #1 or #2 on TripAdvisor for the past four years.
The alcoholic jams are your specialty products. What brought about the diversification?
Yes, our main specialty products are the alcoholic jams which come in five flavours; three are directly related to the Kampot pepper liqueurs: Boozy Abacaxi, Merry Moscati and Tipsy Umami. The other two are based on cocktail recipes: Piña Colada and Mango Daiquiri.
The idea of going into specialty products is that not everybody drinks alcohol. Some are also scared about travelling with a breakable bottle of liquid, so we needed to offer more options to them.
What setbacks did you encounter initially and how did you address them?
Since the beginning we use recycled bottles. Because there isn’t any glass industry in Cambodia, we had to source the bottles in Thailand, but we had no idea how to import them. We also didn’t know how to deal with the transport and the customs because of the language barrier. That is why we hired our very first staff.
Are there challenges inherent only to wine making or to specialty products?
It is always a challenge to go in the food industry. I used to produce gelato, which is one of the most challenging products in terms of the cold chain and sensitivity of dairy ingredients.
Luckily, using alcohol greatly reduces the risks during the production process. So, compared to what I did before, this is much less challenging actually.
Please tell us about sustainability efforts and best practices in your company.
As we use a lot of fruits on a daily basis, the peels kept aside are used to make compost, which is then used to fertilise our garden.
We also collect old magazines and transform them into fashionable, eco-friendly paper bags for our small- and medium-size bottles to avoid using non-biodegradable plastic bags.
We recycle bottles as much as possible, and several restaurants that we are working with are happy to participate in this recycling programme. The average sensibility to the environment in Siem Reap is quite high in general. We participate as often as possible in the Clean-Up Temple Town programme to keep our environment clean and to raise our staff’s awareness of environmental issues.
Our company vehicle is an electronic Tuktuk, called eTuk, which we use to pick up our visitors and deliver to our customers.
Also, for better hygiene we ask a high standard Integrated Pest Management service to protect our production site. This helps us limit the use of chemicals, and we apply HACCP procedure to protect our staff from health hazards.
We have also started hiring painters with disability (deaf and mute), which is very important as a way to give back to the community, as the local community cannot provide alternative jobs for them. Furthermore, we have created an internal social fund to cover the staff expense for health and education. This initiative is funded with the sales in the shop (5% goes to the social fund).
In what other ways do you market your products?
The particularity of our bottles is that they are hand-painted. This is very original and this gives much more value and attraction to the product.
Are your products available elsewhere in Cambodia?
We have a few products now available in Phnom Penh and Battambang.
What do you think is key to your flourishing business?
Word of mouth has helped a lot and also the fact that we first started to sell our products to very high-end hotels. After a few months we had our bottles at the Sofitel, Amansara (Aman Group) and Héritage Suites (Relais & Château). That really helped for the branding and to explain to less prestigious places that using our liqueurs makes sense.
We were fortunate to be featured on TripAdvisor and was rated #1 shopping in Siem Reap very fast. This is an excellent argument to attract more travelers, as well as travel agencies.
What’s next for your company?
The next step will be to export our products. For that we just need to find importers/distributors interested in marketing our liqueurs in their countries.
Lionel Maitrepierre and Joelle Jean Louis
Company: Sepakam Sombai
T: +855 0773 59713
A: 176 Sombai Road, Siem Reap, Cambodia