Chan Uoy tells Alys Francis how his Cambodian restaurant found success at Docklands
He’s the restaurateur who turned down a shot at reality TV stardom and found success at Docklands – running Bhopa Devi for an impressive decade next toa revolving door of competition in the notoriously tricky location.
In business, Chan Uoy stands out from the rest. And he tells the Indian Sun a lot of it has to do with being the first to spot an opportunity and grab it.
As chance had it, Uoy’s family were also the first Cambodian refugees to arrive in Australia in 1976, fleeing the Khmer Rouge.
After studying accountancy in Australia he decided to move into hospitality and opened his first Bhopa Devi restaurant in Yarraville in 1998.
“We were the only Cambodian restaurant in the city of Melbourne,” he says. “That was a rare thing, it was like a hole in the food scene.”
Uoy was also an early mover in rejuvenating a part of Yarraville. “I was one of the first to come in and actually gut a building and make it fresh and current,” he says. “So that was one of the reasons why we caught attention.”
The business grew strong roots in the area and a solid clientele, partly Uoy says, because it was a friendly place with a community atmosphere. But also because Bhopa Devi, “was a family run business as well, so therefore people could tell you put love and your heart and soul into it”.
Uoy moved early again in 2005, buying into what was Melbourne’s first new suburb in decades, Docklands, to open a second Bhopa Devi. “I invested here because I believe in the 21st century Melbourne, I wanted to b a part of it,” he explains.
He says there were several reasons he’d managed to make it work when so many other restaurants and businesses had failed.
First off was already having an established business and loyal clientele in another suburb. “That sort of helped bring the awareness over to Docklands as opposed to just starting out cold, starting from scratch,” he says.
“And also the fact that we were the only Cambodian restaurant in the city of Melbourne sort of made us I guess the destination, as opposed to Docklands being the destination.”
Still, Uoy has high hopes that Docklands will one day flourish. “It will get there, but it’s just been a slow process because they’re still building it,” he says.
“People say ‘oh it’s got no soul, well hello, it’s being built!”
Uoy points out that many Melbourne suburbs took a long time to become popular, including much-loved favourites like Fitzroy and Brunswick Street. “When you look at the history of Melbourne, they all had their time,” he says. “It became popular, then it became a rough area and you don’t go there because it’s run down and druggy… then it became trendy again!”
Furthermore, Uoy says people from Docklands do really enjoy the place. “The people who live here actually like it, actually love it; it’s convenient,” he says. “But the people who don’t live here bag it, and that includes the media.”
“Look at Southbank,” he explains. “When that was being built, they bagged it. Now we can’t imagine Melbourne without Southbank. When Fed Square was being built they bagged it. Now we can’t imagine Melbourne without Fed Square, you see what I’m saying?”
But he does count being in an “evolving” suburb among the challenges of running his restaurant, on top of the generally unpredictable nature of the trade.
“Running you’re own business and especially a restaurant is challenging these days, trying to get the trade in so you can pay the bills,” he says. “You’re affected by the economy, peoples eating habits, seasonal holidays and trends.”
It seems these days people’s finicky dietary demands are becoming somewhat of a serious issue for the restaurant industry too.
As Uoy says, “When you have groups of people doing banquets and they’ve all got special needs, that’s become a big problem. When I first started it wasn’t an issue. Initially it was like, “I’m vegetarian, or vegan’ now it’s becoming more common to add onto that celiacs and onion family allergies, very specific types of allergies.”
And what about that recent shot at stardom on Channel Nine’s reality TV cooking show Hot Plate?
“I was sort of flattered, because I think Matt Preston suggested Bhopa Devi to the producers, but I just felt uncomfortable participating in that, sort of nasty reality TV element which becomes entertainment. I did decline even though it would have been a great opportunity, a great platform for the exposure,” he says.
Why create drama for the sake of ratings when life has enough as it is? That was his thinking. And Uoy says most of his customers were “very pleased” to hear he didn’t go ahead with it. And why wouldn’t they be? Who would want Dockland’s best kept secret spoiled by television producers?