This month we are focusing on F&B businesses that began in North Jakarta, and there’s no better way to kick things off than picking the brain of Ian Hendarto, the man behind Yamatoten Abura Soba Indonesia, Zenraku Dashi Chazuke, and PannacottaEtc. Yamatoten Abura Soba Indonesia started in PIK area before quickly making its way all across Jakarta, and Indonesia. After sitting down with him for forty five minutes, it’s clear that being strategic and fearless, although somewhat contradictory, are both necessary elements in growing a business.
Let’s start with something easy. What’s your official role at Abura Soba these days?
The title president director is on my name card. I’m in charge of controlling the quality of our products in the central kitchen, ideating new menus, and thinking about what’s next. I also visit our franchise outlets outside of Jakarta regularly every two months to check everything.
You and your family travel to Japan a lot. Two of your last establishments are Japanese food. What’s with you and Japan?
I first came there with my family in 2012. It was not a popular holiday destination for Indonesians yet, but my wife Ika wanted to go there. I wasn’t convinced at first, as other countries seemed like a better place. But once I got to Japan, I fell in love with the country—the cities are clean and the Japanese people are polite. I was also really excited about the food. Anytime you feel hungry, just drop by the nearest food stall or convenience market to find food. Everything is tasty. During all of my visits to Japan, I only manage to find one bad restaurant.
Was that how you got introduced to abura soba as well, during your travel in 2012?
Yes. An Indonesian student in Tokyo took us around and one day asked, “Would you like to try this new food? Only the locals currently know about it.” I did not hesitate to say yes, and what an experience it was. Ramen was pretty much the same everywhere, but this new noodle dish called abura soba was somehow very unique: dry, but then mixed with oil and sauce.
But what assured you to bring over abura soba to Indonesia?
I was convinced that the taste of abura soba would match Indonesians’ palate because of myself and my family. During our time in Tokyo, we came back for it three times. My kids and family wanted to come back again and again, even squeezing in one last visit before we continued our journey to Osaka. That was when the thought creeped in, “This could be a positive opportunity.”
The Japanese are known for their passion for craft and meticulousness. How does working with them transform the way you do business?
I’ve learned that consistency in product is everything. When Chef Yamamoto trained us, he gave us a detailed and precise recipe on how to make an element, whether it was for 500 gr, 1 kg, 2 kg, 4 kg, or 10kg in weight. Every step was written clearly down to the seemingly insignificant step such as “wash the radish” or “peel the skin carefully”. Up to this day, our kitchen only uses one measuring unit, gram, to avoid human error as much as possible. This procedure results in a uniform product. I believe this is why most restaurants in Japan can maintain the consistency of taste from today to tomorrow, two months from now, and even next year.
What else have you learned from them?
Hygiene, most definitely. We truly push ourselves to keep up with the high standard of hygiene of the Japanese. Every utensil, cupboard, chiller, and most importantly hands must be kept clean at all times. When kitchen staffs come out of the kitchen, even only for 30 seconds, they have to wash their hands first with the correct steps, then use a food-grade hand sanitizer. It took our staffs almost 6 months to get used to it.
Yamatoten first opened in 2015 in PIK. Why did you choose to open in PIK?
Since abura soba is first and foremost a noodle dish, I immediately tried to search for areas with a huge love for noodles. Where is it in Jakarta that people simply don’t get bored of noodles? The answer is West and North Jakarta. From there, I started to explore those two districts. In early 2014, PIK was just starting to become a hotspot for F&B. Everyone from all around Jakarta drove all the way from their homes to PIK just to find food. It was a no-brainer to pick PIK as a place to start for those two reasons.
Many people think that North Jakarta is price-sensitive. What kind of research did you do before deciding the price?
Of course we started from the cost of of production and operation. From there, we calculated everything and conducted a mini survey. I brought from samples from Japan and asked a lot of people to give it a try. Then I proposed the question whether one would be willing to pay such price for a bowl of noodles with that size plus toppings, and feel satisfied. Based on that, we decided for a price that is somewhere in the middle.
Do you think things would have turned out differently if Yamatoten first opened in another area, say, South or Central Jakarta?
I think so. People of North Jakarta love consuming noodles, thus North was the best place to start for Yamatoten. Once we hooked them, the word of mouth travelled and the ones living in South Jakarta also felt curious to try. It was about making the right entry point.
Within three years, there are six Yamatoten outlets in Jakarta and Tangerang, one in Cikarang, one in Bogor, and three in each Bandung, Surabaya, and Makassar. Many would say the progress is rapid. What do you think about this?
I actually don’t really feel that way. We have to keep on moving to avoid stagnancy. Maybe that’s the key after all, to just keep on moving.
What do you think is Yamatoten’s recipe for success?
Strong teamwork is crucial. The trust we have for each other was built from a long time ago, back when we first established PannacottaEtc. There were only three of us, but we divided the task evenly based on our strengths. No matter what we did, we had our business in our minds all the time. As the chef responsible for developing panna cotta flavors, I remember spending days thinking of the perfect flavor or the perfect sauce, only to be given an answer in the middle of the night during sleep. It was all consuming in the best way possible. Right now, I no longer can do things on my own and the team is growing. I’m prepping a group of people to help me take care of all the outlets, particularly ones outside of Jakarta. Regeneration is vital.
How about from the product side of things?
As I’ve mentioned before, consistency in quality is of the utmost importance. A lot of F&B business do well in the beginning, but they fail to maintain that standard. We also try to solve problems as quick as possible. Whenever there’s a negative feedback from the customer, whether directly on site or via social media, we try to clear it up within 24 hours. I’ve trained the team to work fast not only when it comes to customers, but also in every other aspect, including when working with third parties such as vendors, contractors, and venues.
What gave you the confidence to expand Yamatoten from PIK to other areas? Tell us what happened then.
The most eventful time was when we tried to expand from PIK to our second outlet in Grand Indonesia. PIK was doing extremely well and people were lining for our food. Five months in, I tried to approach a number of malls for our second place. There were a lot of “What brand are you again?” and “Oh, you’ve only opened one establishment before this.” The big bosses of the malls didn’t know who we were. That changed when we met Grand Indonesia, who was trying attract a younger crowd. Our brand fitted the bill. The problem with GI was it was at the peak; there was no shop losing money and no one wanted to let go of lease. GI finally offered us an area in East Mall near Ranch Market.
I went there to take a look at the place, and my heart sank because it was not a strategic location at all, especially at that time. Nevertheless, I went with my gut and took the space. Every day that I came there during the renovation period, no one walked farther than the supermarket. Sometimes some people went to the bread shop next door, but that was it. I reassured myself that everything would turn out all right, and what a relief when it indeed was. The welcome in GI was amazing, and up until now it is still our best-performing outlet. We also have a great relationship with GI from the whole experience, and this smooths out the process when we were about to open Zenraku Dashi Chazuke.
Speaking of Zenraku, why it did not follow the same footsteps with Yamatoten and opened in Central Jakarta instead of North?
Zenraku, despite having several noodle menus, mostly highlights rice as the main dish. While noodle is West and North Jakarta centric, rice is more universal. Rice is an integral part of Indonesians’ daily life, and rice eaten with soup exists everywhere. Think Soto Ambengan, Soto Ayam, Rawon, Coto Makassar, Nasi Bakmoy, and so on. Thus, Zenraku gets a little bit more leeway compared to Yamatoten—it can open anywhere. The reason why we ended up opening in Grand Indonesia first was because of that connection from Yamatoten. We did not have to wait long for a spot, while other malls put us in a waiting list. The rest is history.
How about expansion to other cities, how do you choose the partners?
I give priorities to those with a prior experience in the F&B business. All of our partners in Bandung, Surabaya, and Makassar have background in F&B. I also see whether we can click or not. A business arrangement is not unlike a marriage, it must has what it takes to survive for a long time. We also have to respect each other.
As an underdog (not a big group) in the F&B business, what have you learned?
Work hard, have endurance, and be relevant. As a matter of fact, those three points are not limited to being a non-big group in the F&B business. When I first entered F&B with PannacottaEtc, I had no experience. I was once a contractor, an electronic seller, and held a number of other odd job titles. I saw this as challenge. Because we were small, we had to stand out and do something different from the others, including the big groups. Otherwise we were just going to collapse. I had, and have until now, a passion to educate people to new things, particularly about food. It’s in my nature to explore something that is not mainstream. At that time, panna cotta was practically unheard of in Jakarta, and online business was just budding. So we sold panna cotta online. We did not know how it would be received, and worked extra hard to get the word out via family, friends, and acquaintances. That work ethic is what I and the whole team carry until now. Each of our product and brand is in our head from the moment we wake up until we sleep.
Endurance is just as pivotal as hard work. Any kind of business has its ups and downs, and it’s a requirement for us as business owners to endure any kind of hardship and persevere. When business is not doing well, you don’t give up. You think of ways that you can do to rise up. I’ve also learned that one needs to be relevant to survive. In the old days, our parents might be able to sustain with having one shop, but it is rarely the case these days. In 2015, when PannacottaEtc had two cafés in Senayan City and Pacific Place, I decided to cut things off because café and coffee culture was on the rise. In cafés, people eat sweets, drink coffee, then sit for a long time. We anticipated that it would be difficult to persist, let alone stand out, with the increasing number of competitors. I tried to be realistic, relevant, and find something else. The timing was right, and our focus shifted to Yamatoten.
If money is not an issue, what other opportunities you want to pursue?
I want to continue producing F&B products that are new to the Indonesian crowd. Not limited to Japanese food, but also venturing out to other cuisines. Italian, perhaps? American food? I believe this is my strong suit: Bringing unusual, exciting concepts. For instance, our catering line, Otts and Jill, is also not an ordinary fine food catering. We want to have the flexibility to adapt to any kind of request from our clients, whether it’s a wish for a specific kind of cuisine or something suitable for a particular holiday.
How big do you think Yamatoten can grow?
Very big, I hope. I’ve been thinking about what’s in store for Yamatoten in the next 5, 10, or even 30 years. In my head, I know where to go and have started to prepare strategies on how to grow further in Indonesia and Asia. My personal mantra is, “from nothing to something.” I believe nothing is impossible.