When it comes to coffee shops, perhaps there is no more fascinating story than Jason Leo and Ombe Kofie’s. What began as a homey and humble coffee shop in Pluit, North Jakarta, three years ago has evolved into a household name in Jakarta’s coffee scene. It’s a case of seizing the right opportunity, trusting the right timing, and adapting as time goes by. Although one hour was too short to fully grasp everything about Ombe, one thing was clear: Ombe Pluit is Jason Leo. Seeing the way Om Jason occupies the space behind the bar and interacts with all of the regulars, it’s no surprise that his image currently sticks to Ombe’s brand like a glue.
Good morning Om Jason! First thing first: What is the story behind the birth of Ombe Kofie?
Believe it or not, I did not like coffee at first, but it was in my blood. My father’s first job in Indonesia after immigrating from China was roasting coffee. For me, coffee was bitter and I couldn’t sleep every time I had a cup. I only drank coffee whenever I woke up early in the morning to bike for a long time, say, to Puncak. Even at that time, my coffee was Starbucks-bought, tall-sized, with loads of sugar.
The initiation started in 2011 when I and my wife, known by many as Tante Wiwid, went to the US to accompany my son Jordy. As Tante was a coffee drinker, we cafe-hopped there. Fast forward to March 2014, Tante told me to enroll in a barista class for two days in Hang Tuah with Aji Darius at Kopiku, to which I replied, “I don’t even like coffee.” But Tante insisted, so of course I went to the class. It was a revealing moment for me, as I didn’t know that coffee is complicated. I was hooked, because I like complicated things that can make me learn a lot. So I bought some coffee beans, manual coffee grinders, googled everything, and took a lot of notes. I started brewing coffee every morning, and my wife was the judge.
Five months later, we decided to open a coffee shop. Tante said that coffee was booming; I have a lot of free time since quitting my job in 2012; and after searching for the perfect location, it happened to be near our home. Ombe Kofie Pluit finally opened in March 12, 2015. Thankfully, from the first day we open until this very day, it stays packed every single day.
What was Ombe’s initial goal?
From the get-go, we knew what kind of coffee we wanted to serve and the target market. The purpose was very clear: Stopping residents of Pluit, PIK, and Muara Karang from going to South whenever they want to drink coffee. That’s my purpose. If I could serve you a very good cup of coffee, why would you have to go to South?
At first, did you envision Ombe Kofie to become this massive?
No, most definitely not. I couldn’t have imagined that one Ombe Pluit would grow into more than 5 outlets. People have been asking me what’s the formula, the secret. Honestly? To this very day, I don’t know for sure. But I believe in the quality of our coffee. Or maybe people are just curious why an old man, not some youngster, wants to open a coffee shop where he is also the barista. I also remember most of our regulars—his or her name and what they prefer to drink. In Ombe Pluit, 80% of the control is in my hands, thus there is less room for error. Perhaps that plays a part as well.
Tell us more about your coffee. We know how Ombe tried to use local beans, but it turns out that imported beans are more accepted by your customers. Why is that?
In this case, I think people are simply strange sometimes. When Ombe first opened, we had two grinders, one is used for coffee beans from a Singaporean roaster, the other from an Indonesian roaster. Let’s say we sold 100 cups that day. Only 20 cups chosen were from the Indonesian roaster. Does the Indonesian one taste bad? No, most definitely not. Are my customers anti local beans? I don’t think so. Maybe they are used to drinking Java or Sumatran coffee that they want to try something else in Ombe. That happened for 2 weeks, 3 weeks, then I just decided that more imported beans are what works in this place.
With that being said, yes, 85% of our beans are imported from Latin America and Africa. The rest, the 15%, are a mix of Indonesian beans and other exotic places like Yemen. I also like to bring guest beans from roasters in America, Australia, Norway, Sweden, Hong Kong, etc. This is the model that we apply not only in Pluit, but also in other Ombe outlets.
There must be a lot of people who have offered help to make Ombe even bigger. What made you decide to say yes?
Yes, even from the first couple of months, a lot of people already proposed a joint venture. To be honest, it was quite scary at first, having bombarded by all of those people. Therefore, we waited. My friends told me, “Just wait for 3 months first. If Ombe is still packed, then you might just survive in the long run.” After those 3 months, we waited for another 3 before making any big decision. From there, the ball keeps on rolling. People offer us places; we calculate; and when all fits, a new outlet is born. What began as a matter of using the right opportunity and stopping North Jakartans from going to the South for coffee is now something bigger. It’s all about pushing through and following instincts. You just can’t stop.
When Ombe first ventured out of Pluit, it did not use the name Ombe (Djule, Maarkeze). But newer outlets in Kelapa Gading, Bekasi, and the upcoming Cikajang are back with Ombe name. What’s the thinking behind this?
When we first started to expand, there was a doubt whether the new spots could live up to people’s expectation about Ombe or not. But our friends said that the Ombe brand is very good, then why the differentiation? People know Djule and Maarkeze are run by Ombe anyway. They’ve also mentioned that Heru, who runs Maarkeze in Grand Indonesia, makes a similar coffee profile to me. This must means we’re doing something right. As a result, when offers came for MKG, Bekasi, and Cikajang, we decided to continue using the Ombe name.
How do you make each outlet feel different?
Djule used to have a similar vibe to Pluit. It’s rustic, but with a touch of sophistication because the place is bigger. I was also still involved in the design of Maarkeze, which incorporated old-style Manhattan atmosphere. After those two, I left it to Jordy and Aji to take care of MKG, Bekasi, and Cikajang. Those two arranged MKG to be a mix of simple, rustic, and modern. Meanwhile, Bekasi was designed to feel clean, as the area is populated with young families. For Cikajang, people have been asking us to come back to the roots. Thus, we’re trying our best to channel the original Pluit feel and achieve a homey space in Cikajang. I’m not sure whether we can accomplish that, but we’ll see.
Besides the ambience, does each outlet receive a different treatment?
Yes, particularly when it comes to food. MKG has a full kitchen, while Bekasi and Cikajang have a small kitchen. It depends on the target audience. As for Pluit, from the beginning, it has never crossed my mind to offer a full meal. I remember the first day we opened, Tante Wiwid purchased a lot of pisang goreng for the customers. Everybody got free snacks alongside their coffee. Until this day, Pluit only stocks limited amount of pastries or cakes daily. When it’s finished, that’s it. Pluit also has less drink varieties compared to the others. We don’t serve frappuccino, green tea, caramel, and the likes.
Is there anything different between taking care of one versus a lot of coffee shops?
No, I don’t think so. But here’s the deal. Ombe Pluit has regulars from all over Jakarta, and I know most of them personally. Often times I receive a text, “Jason, I’m in MKG right now. Where are you? When are you coming here?” but when I’m around the area, that person is already somewhere else. That’s the tricky part, I think. As for maintaining the quality of coffee in each place, technology takes care of that. I can send over instructions, including which beans to use or how to pull the machine, via text or video. We also have standard operating procedures firmly placed at each outlet. What else, hmm? Human resource is always an issue, as we have to be consistent in providing good service and quality. But the team we currently have is solid.
People closely associate Ombe Pluit with Om Jason. How do you “replicate” your presence in the other outlets?
Just like it’s almost impossible to replicate Ombe Pluit, I don’t think I can replicate myself, or my presence. There’s only one me that can’t be cloned. Again, this is connected to the reason why we were hesitant to use the Ombe name for Djule and Maarkeze.
We think one of the strong suits of Ombe Pluit is its strong sense of community. How did you build this?
Ever since I was little, I love everything related to the outdoors, such as bicycles, motorcycles, and cars. When Ombe first opened, I invited a lot of my biking friends. They visited, but only a few managed to become regulars. However, a lot of the new people who came—be it because of Instagram or word by mouth—apparently had a similar interest with me. We chatted, bonded over that, and clicked. Those people became People of Ombe. It reminds me of how encek encek befriend each other over a mutual subject. In a way, the community presented itself.
Does this sense of community translate from Pluit to other outlets?
Yes, in a sense that People of Ombe from Pluit travel all over the city and have coffee at other Ombe outlets as well. But if you’re asking whether there’s People of Ombe MKG, the answer is no. Copying what Ombe Pluit has is not easy.
What do you think would have happened if Ombe opened in the South first?
Frankly, I’m not sure. To be honest, we had plans to open in South Jakarta at first. We simply wanted to open a coffee shop and were looking for a spot in Senopati and Pejaten, but nothing fitted. But after deciding on the Pluit location, everything became clearer. We found a purpose and changed the concept.
Compared to other coffee shops, Ombe has a higher price point. Is this indeed your strategy?
At first, we calculated everything and searched for price reference from both coffee shops in Jakarta and overseas. The determined price was slightly above other local coffee shops. Slightly, not much. Then a close friend told me, “Jason, you must not sell your coffee at this price. It’s too cheap.” Was he crazy? I was just starting out in the coffee business and had limited knowledge of the Pluit market. “Raise your price by IDR 5,000. If it doesn’t work out up until the point Ombe goes bankrupt, I’ll buy all of your machines,” he said. So I did. Everything still went well. Then I raised the price again by IDR 5,000. Still great. I was, and am, encouraged by the fact that people said my coffee tasted good, different. The realization hit me that these people, who are willing to pay more for quality, are my main market.
Are there people complaining about Ombe’s price?
Yes, mostly people my age or older. They are used to getting cheaper coffees with bigger cup sizes. On the other hand, Ombe used to sell the premium Panama Geisha for IDR 75,000 a cup. Did anybody order it? Absolutely. A lot, in fact. Now that everyone is selling Geisha, I’ve eliminated that from the menu. In exchange, I offer other unique beans that you can’t find at other places. Try to Google and look up the beans I’m selling, all of them are scored 90 or above. We excel at extracting flavors from those beans too. What you get at Ombe is worth the price.
Who are people behind the scene of Ombe who play a big part in Ombe’s success?
Tante Wiwid, without a doubt. During Ombe’s baby stage, she used to come almost every day after getting off work. I’m not actually the type of person who’s good in serving people. You like our coffee? Great. You don’t like it? Okay. Meanwhile, Tante is the one doing the serving. She will sit, talk, and even feed the customers with food. Then, my kids Jordy and Jojo. Om Johny, who used to work here and help a lot, plus Aji Darius, who is now a part of Ombe. Besides that, there are also a lot of people, including a number of influencers and past crews, that play a big role in Ombe’s success.
We believe that Ombe will only continue to grow. What’s next for Ombe?
I wish, if possible, Ombe Pluit could eventually operate only until 1 or 3 PM and I would be the only one making the coffee. Not that I don’t need the revenue, but I want Ombe Pluit to be as personal as possible. If you want your coffee to be made by me, then you know you have to come sometime between 8 AM and 1 PM. This concept won’t work at other outlets as the crowd is different. I also hope that the Ombe brand can grow even bigger. Will wee se 10 or 15 Ombe? I’m keeping my fingers crossed. The team has decided that we’ll focus on Jakarta and do franchise if the interest shows up from outside the city.
I also have dreams of opening a small BBQ stall on the corner of the parking area of Ombe Pluit. This stall will only open on Fridays and Saturdays with limited quantity. One-price only, no order by phone, and first come first serve basis. Something more personal. For me, that’s the kind of food that can survive. It’s how intense you do something and how you serve it, then people will appreciate it more.