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Around The Sun: The Kebab Guy

Steve Harrison tells of an ill-fated kebab business in Phnom Penh.

George was originally from the Lebanon, but had migrated to Australia. He was a nice guy who, when he came into the Temple Bar and the Bourbon And Beef, would tell us how we ought to be running things.

He intended to open his own bar and make kebabs and doughnuts. George's Kebab Bar and Restaurant, it would be called. Over a period of months we watched the bar being built. He sank some serious money into the project. This was going to be the best bar in town. He imported a kebab-making machine from Australia, one of those double burner deals. This cost him US$12,000. Only the best for George. He bought an automatic doughnut making machine for another US$12,000. Then he’d build a proper wood fired pizza oven. "Don’t worry,'' he said. "I'll probably recoup my investment by the end of the first year.''

Construction work proceeded slowly. When after months the bar was in a state to be locked up he bought state-of-the-art refrigerators and pie heaters, along with a stainless steel bar top. It was all very flash. George got the very best equipment he couold lay his hands on. I suspect that he spent more than US$200,000.

On opening night he put on quite a show, the bar was packed, girls everywhere, drinks flowing and plenty of snacks to nibble at. But no kebabs and no pizza. Apparently the new fittings were incompatible with the local gas supply. New parts for the equipment were coming from Australia.

The slow season, all eight months of it, kicked in. His bar was empty. I went by there from time to time offer moral support, but I never saw George. The bar was always quiet. No staff member offered to serve me. They were asleep on chairs, or the dance floor.

Dr Gloria told me she had seen George a number of times. His business was not doing well. He was losing weight and suffering from depression.

And still no kebabs. George had been open for business about four months and the word around town was there were no kebabs to be had.

I had booked a ticket and was within two weeks of leaving Cambodia when I got a call from Dr Gloria inviting me to her birthday party. She was 50 years young and wanted to celebrate. Her party was to be at George's kebab bar. Rossi and Graham were also invited. We were determined to have a great time.

Beer and liquor flowed freely. There were plenty of snacks and finger food. When I saw George he was thin and pale, looking decidedly unhealthy. He was behind the bar giving directions, flying this way and that in a frenzy. His staff tagged behind him as he chastised them. He prodded and poked them, trying to get them to serve. He was fighting a loosing battle.

He brightened when he saw me, engaging in a heart to heart conversation. His staff were useless, needing constant supervision. He had no customers. His debts were mounting.

I tried to cheer him up, suggesting he would be OK when the tourist season began. Even though there was free finger food I ordered some food to pay for, a couple of his special tostados. He assured me it would only take a minute and a half to heat up in the pizza oven. He directed one of his staff to put two in the oven to heat. Several minutes later whilst I still lent him my shoulder to cry on I was presented with two tostados which were burnt almost to a crisp.

“No, no, no,” he screamed at the staff. Two more were placed in the oven. “How am I ever going to train these people,” he groaned before shooting across the bar to sort out another problem.

When he returned two more over-crisp tostados were presented to me on a plate. "No just one and a half minutes,” he screamed at the poor waiter. I watched him, groaning inside. I told him I had had the same problem with bar staff. He confided that it would now take him at least ten years to recoup his investment. At that moment some more blackened tostados were handed to me on a plate.

Anyway we had a great night. The finger food and snacks were great. So was the free beer.

Dr Gloria had a good birthday and I had a good departure celebration.

Next day I drove past the bar. As usual it was deserted with no sign of a kebab.


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