SPOONS Serves Up Opportunity and Experience in Siem Reap

Competitors and attendees pose for a photo at SPOONS latte art contest.

The innovative SPOONS program helps underprivileged adults in Cambodia learn new culinary and barista skills with hands-on training and more.


Photos by Jeff Spelman

The SPOONS Cambodia Organization enables underprivileged Cambodian young adults to become self-supporting through education, training, and employment opportunities in the hospitality industry. Seventy-five students have entered the 2024 training program in the largest class to date, and 58% are women. Participants come from 10 local provinces, and several indigenous communities are represented. SPOONS is an NGO and partners with many community-support organizations.

Tongoul poses in front of an espresso machine.
Tongoul serves as a captain of the food & beverage program at SPOONS after successfully completing the program herself.

Tongoul grew up in the Ratanakiri province of Cambodia in a poor family of rice farmers. She has three brothers and three sisters. She received education through grade nine, but she struggled to keep up and dropped out of school to give her brothers and sisters more opportunities. Then she applied and was accepted to the SPOONS program based in Siem Reap. She completed 12 months of intensive skills training and received a graduation certificate recognized by the Cambodian Ministry of Labor.

Tongoul now works as a captain of the food & beverage program at SPOONS Café & Restaurant and is a trained barista. Tongoul says in the beginning she was very nervous, but found SPOONS to foster a family-like experience that helped build her confidence. Now several years after graduation she is helping the new generation of students with hands-on training. 

SPOONS 2024 students smile and pose for the camera.
Some of the 75 students in the 2024 class at SPOONS.

Sophany Mao is the director of the SPOONS organization, supported by deputy director Dom Sambo. They oversee a team of dedicated educators and assistants. Extensive work goes into the recruitment of each class of students. Selected students receive free housing, six months of on-site training, five months of five-star hotel internships, and one month of job placement transition. They also receive insurance, transportation, and uniforms.

The students specialize in one of three areas—chef/cooking, general food & beverage, and coffee/pastry/entrepreneur. For the coffee students, in addition to general barista skills, the program teaches small-business management skills. This training enables students with interest to operate their own carts or progress to leadership levels in coffee shops. 

Students in a classroom take notes while a teachers writes on a white board.
Students at SPOONS learn skills to help them find jobs in hospitality, foodservice, and the coffee industry.

The SPOONS organization runs a restaurant in a beautiful open-air bamboo setting that is popular with international visitors, and students can practice their English-language skills while providing excellent service. They currently serve lunch, dinner, and coffee. Street-food favorites and classic Khmer cuisine are served. This year, they will build out a coffee shop to expand their offerings to include breakfast, so students can learn all aspects of running a business.

SPOONS recently received a generous grant and is currently outfitting a pastry kitchen for commercial baking. Currently the restaurant contributes 10% back to the cost of the training program. The goal is to gradually grow the restaurant and coffee shop to contribute up to 50% of the training costs so they can continue to expand the nonprofit educational program. The remaining funds come from individual contributions and grants.

SPOONS recently held Siem Reap’s first latte art competition with the goal to help build the local barista community. Over a dozen people competed and nearly 100 others (including many students) came to watch the fun. Siem Reap has a growing specialty-coffee industry (see the “Field Report“ in the December 2023 + January 2024 issue of Barista Magazine). There will be more and more opportunities for baristas and coffee professionals as tourism continues to return post COVID-19. 

Tongoul pours a latte while another competitor does the same in the background at SPOONS first latte art competition.
Tongoul pours against another competitor in the first SPOONS latte art competition.

Strategic goals of SPOONS include continuing to foster financial sustainability and stability. Hit hard by the impact of COVID, local Cambodian leaders took over the mission when the previous foreign charity entity (EGBOK) was forced to close down in early 2020. The team under Director Mao’s leadership was able to put together a newly designated local Board of Advisors made up of both Khmer and expat professionals, all leaders in their field and deeply invested in positive impact for disadvantaged youth in Cambodia. They have a holistic approach to student development with a focus on greater women’s programming. SPOONS actively engages with alumni to share their field knowledge with students, and encourages them to give back to SPOONS according to their ability. SPOONS focuses on the service of young people with the least opportunity, reaching out to those struggling with poverty and those with limited support through other channels.

Students at SPOON also have a soccer team and pose in their soccer uniforms.
A soccer club sponsored by The Coffee Box in Siem Reap, which also hosts some students from SPOONS after classes wrap up for the day.

With more than 500 graduates to date, the program has an excellent track record of helping each student achieve a job after completion. SPOONS has built strong relationships with hospitality businesses in the capital Phnom Penh and vacation destination Sihanoukville as part of their placement network.

For more information about the program or to make a charitable donation, visit their website here.


Jeff Spelman is the owner of The Coffee Box in Rahway, N.J. The shop supports SPOONS financially and also sponsors a local young adult soccer team in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

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