Cambodian story of success comes home with Louisiana Chicken branch

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General manager Chan Katarina’s (inset) Louisiana Famous Fried Chicken in Phnom Penh offers warm customer service and varied menu options. Photo supplied

Louisiana Famous Fried Chicken came to the land of its owner’s birth last year with the opening of its first restaurant in Cambodia, in the capital’s Chip Mong Noro Mall.

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The history of LFFC is one dominated by the drive to succeed of Cambodians in the US, with one – Michael Eng – taking over the entire chain in 2009 after almost two decades of hard work.

And the arrival of the Cambodian-owned international fast food chain in the Kingdom brings full circle a remarkable story of resilience, one that has inspired the restaurant’s general manager, Chan Katarina.

“Michael Eng’s story is very inspirational. Every aspect of his hard work has inspired not just me but many Cambodian immigrants in the US. On top of working hard, he had the vision, commitment and strong will to take over the LFFC food chain brand.

“Additionally, his focus on opening up business ownership to Cambodian people complements his love for LFFC and his Cambodian heritage. It shows that through hard work and perseverance, one’s dreams can become reality. And I want to carry on the torch of LFFC and continue his legacy in our homeland Cambodia,” Katarina said.

Eng’s success story is one of hard work and determination. Having arrived in the US aged just 18 in 1992 after surviving the Khmer Rouge regime, he took a job mopping floors at an LFFC restaurant in LA, California.

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Michael Eng outside his Louisiana Chicken restaurant in LA. Wally Skalij/LA TIMES

Within two decades Eng would own the entire chain of the 100 or so restaurants, buying the Louisiana Famous Fried Chicken name from its founder Joe Dion in 2009.

And his influence on Katarina can be seen in her drive to succeed after her college education was curtailed due to financial constraints.

“I was born in Phnom Penh, and my family wasn’t well-off financially so I didn’t get to finish college. In hopes for a better future, my mother borrowed money to pay for my sister to move to the US.

“She started work at an LFFC restaurant in downtown LA as a cashier, working hard to earn enough money to be able to manage one of her own. I had the opportunity to visit her and help her with her business. It was at that restaurant where my passion for cooking was ignited.

“And I thought: why not open an LFFC restaurant in Phnom Penh? I wanted to introduce Cambodians to the unique, flavourful LFFC taste that I believe in.

“I also wanted to bring Southern-style cuisine to the Cambodian market and give other Cambodians the chance for success as business owners with franchising opportunities. And after getting approval from Michael Eng, this has become a reality with Cambodia’s first LFFC store at the Chip Mong Noro Mall,” Katarina said.

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LFFC founder Dion said in the 2017 Los Angeles Times article “How Cambodians became kings of beloved South LA fried chicken chain” that Cambodians are a big reason for the chain’s success.

By 2009, 90 per cent of the 100 or so restaurants were Cambodian-owned, and “today there are a total of 185 restaurants in the world”, Katarina said.

“We have restaurants in Bolivia and Vietnam, as well as Cambodia, with the majority in the US, while there are plans to franchise outlets in more Asean countries and China.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has stumbled many plans, ours included. But this year we are picking up again and planning to open more stores, along with promoting franchising opportunities to those interested in the food and beverage business.

“We also plan to branch out into major provinces such as Preah Sihanouk and Siem Reap in the near future,” Katarina said.

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Cambodia’s first outlet is located in the capital’s Chip Mong Noro Mall. Photo supplied

Dion opened the first LFFC restaurant in South LA in 1976. A Michigan native, he claims to have obtained the recipe from New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme.

And while the link to Louisiana’s famous city of jazz inspired the chain’s name, it is also key to its recipe, with the chicken coated in what the company describes as a “zesty Cajun batter fried to a soft crunch and finished with a slight, spicy heat”.

“Our well-balanced Cajun seasoning carefully hand-breaded with a special powder mix sets our fried chicken apart from the others. These combinations make our ‘Cajun Kick’n Chicken’ receive the highest compliments.

“Cambodian and foreign customers of all ages love our fried chicken, which makes me so happy. I take it as proof of how good our fried chicken is that customers keep coming back again and again.

“We have received many requests from customers to open more outlets, with some even asking for franchising opportunities from us. So I guess many people also really believe in our tasty fried chicken!” Katarina said.