TINI Cafe + Bar's name is not a reference to its size—in fact, it was a surprise to the owners to hear native English speakers comment to that effect after opening their space this past September. “It really is tiny,” they’d say. But TINI (pronounced tee-nee) was never intended to be small. In Khmer, Cambodia’s native language, the word simply means “here.”
Sothea Thang and Daniel Mattes sat down with me at one of the two-floor cafe’s upstairs tables recently. They’re two of TINI's four owners, and responsible for the majority of the day-to-day operations of the space (in addition to being its de facto visionaries). Their business partners mostly contribute to the financial side, while Thang and Mattes have the first and final say on menu and design.
Thang’s been working as a freelance architect in Phnom Penh for years. After graduating from a local university, he started to renovate buildings, taking dilapidated apartments and houses and not so much remaking them as reacting to what they already were, then building them out to what he imagined they might be. His work on the structure of TINI, which had a long stint as an overpriced bamboo-themed bar before the pair found it, was informed by the pre-existing wood rafters and the light filtering through its opaque-with-grime floor-to-ceiling windows. When he saw it, something about the space just felt right. His paintings and sculptures, which he creates in the time he’s not designing buildings or running a business, hang from the walls and peer out from pedestals.
“I follow the existing form of a building and then transform it from there,” he says. “It’s important to work with the space, not on it. With TINI, I tried to lend it more openness, more light. It is something very simple—respecting what has already been here and working with that, new and old, is what I focused on.”
Mattes first came to Phnom Penh a few years ago as an intern with an NGO; about a year after that initial seven-month stint ended, he was back in the city working with the group full-time. His organization monitors court proceedings in post-conflict societies, making sure trials like those conducted by the UN of former Khmer Rouge officials are held to international standards. At 25, the Stanford and London School of Economics graduate had never worked in coffee, let alone owned a business, before TINI. When I ask about the specific challenges of running a shop in Phnom Penh, he admits the first few months were a learning process, and points primarily to a problem with their business plan.
“It’s like, our goals are fundamentally incompatible with making money,” he says. “We want this to be a quiet space where people can meet with each other or read something. A thoughtful, detailed space.”
According to Mattes, the reigning cafes in Phnom Penh are large places, where more seats than you could imagine filling up are nonetheless always full. The coffee takeaway business in the city is booming, too, with orders being filled in thin plastic cups that are then bagged in still more plastic (before being bagged in still more plastic) before being whisked into the street, where delivery guys hang them from their moto handlebars before driving off for delivery.
TINI is not like this. In fact, it isn't really even a coffee shop.
“TINI is here to be used as a space for whatever people are interested in,” Mattes says. “I know some people see it as a cafe and bar, but that’s not really my intention. It’s to be used however people want to use it.”
“I don’t know about coffee, drinks,” Thang echoes. “For me, TINI is a place for artwork.”
The actual building is set in the facade of an otherwise relatively residential side street roughly a block away from Phnom Penh’s open-air Russian Market, a few square blocks of stalls selling mostly knockoff name brands of clothing and knickknacks, named for the community of Russian expats who lived in the area in the 1980s. Now as then, the neighborhood surrounding the Russian Market is known for being a kind of expat enclave, where rents are higher and many apartment buildings come replete with Western fixtures (like stoves and free-standing showers).
Accordingly, a host of restaurants, bars, and cafes catering primarily to expats have sprung up in the area over the past few years. But Mattes insists TINI isn’t meant to be only for Westerners—and it isn’t. During my first visit, the entire first floor was occupied by a group of Snapchatting Cambodian kids, with large piles of textbooks featuring as prominently in their pictures as their cups of coffee and bowls of ice cream—a few flavors of which TINI offers everyday alongside an extensive menu of house-made cakes and cookies. The next time I was in, the script had flipped, and a vaguely European-looking couple was meeting over espressos.
As for the coffee, TINI gets its beans from nearby Feel Good Coffee, a roaster/cafe about a mile to the north. The espresso drinks are made with a 50-50 blend of Vietnamese and Lao coffees, roasted just past medium to suit Mattes' taste for Italian-style drinks. They're also trying out a few other roasters from around the region, including Rumblefish Specialty Roasters in Kampot and Akha Ama Coffee beans from Maejantai, roasted in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Still, there are certain things on TINI’s menu, like cocktails featuring Cambodian palm-sugar syrup (when the cafe transitions into a bar) or “Coffee Jelly,” that I can’t imagine anywhere else. The latter is a gelatin made from coffee and sugar that’s blended with ice and served with frothed milk and syrup, the result being sort of like an iced cappuccino getting mugged by a boba tea.
It's not my drink of choice, and seems aimed more toward the younger crowd, but that’s okay. TINI wasn’t designed to be the home of the Coffee Jelly, or a place to have street food ordered into (though you can), or even necessarily a place to just grab a coffee. It’s not any of those things specifically. Following on from Mattes's intentions, and its name, it’s a welcoming place that is just here. And in a busy capital city, that’s plenty.