Northern Star: Shirokuma’s Michelle Widjaja

Northern Star Michelle Widjaja by Wanderbites

When Shirokuma first opened its door in PIK in 2014, the cafe quickly triggered a city-wide infatuation for matcha, soft serve ice cream, and dessert. While the trend eventually cools down, Shirokuma remains a prominent figure in the F&B business for everything sweet with six outlets all across Jabodetabek. The secret: Michelle Widjaja, sharp-witted lady boss extraordinaire with fondness for creating colorful yet scrumptious dishes and keen business instincts. We recently sat down with Michelle to talk more about Shirokuma and the current food industry.

The company’s name is PT Beruang Laris Manis. Shirokuma’s logo is a white bear, and laris manis means success. But is there any other story behind the name?
I really like puns! Beruang in Bahasa Indonesia does not only mean bear, but also ber-uang (have money). And yes true, laris manis equals to success, but manis also means sweet—and we’re selling something sweet.

But did the logo come out before or after the company name was chosen?
Before. Well, actually, when I was growing up people used to call me polar bear because I’m really pale. When I was younger, I used to be a bit chubbier as well, thus the nick name.

Besides graduating from Le Cordon Bleu in pastry, you have a degree in finance. What have you learned from it?
Yes, my bachelor was in marketing and finance. I did not really enjoy the finance part, to be honest with you, but it has helped in how to handle money in the company. The marketing part was really what contributed a lot. For Shirokuma, marketing is the game changer. At the end of the day, ice cream is ice cream. It’s how you package yourself that’s different.

You also have a degree in fashion. Is there anything in fashion that also work in F&B?
I feel like food and fashion are very interlinked, right? Because with fashion, what you wear portrays who you are as a person. With food, it’s also similar. Some people buy the product because it looks nice, especially in Indonesia. We try to make our food esthetically appealing, but we also need to make sure that the brand is something people would want to associate with, because it’s somehow linked to their identity.

How about your dad? He’s a successful entrepreneur in garments. Any lesson or guidance from him when Shirokuma first started?
A lot! My dad started his own thing too, so I learned a lot from him in the way how to make deals. One of the most valuable things that he taught me is… He always advises us to make win-win deals. A deal has to benefit both parties, otherwise don’t do the deal. Say, when we buy ingredients from suppliers, we have to find a price that enables them to make profit. Focusing on long-term partnership is important.

Do you still seek advice from him?
Yes, I live at home with my family. Sometimes there is a blurred line between what’s work and not. For example, when we’re at home having breakfast, he’ll start talking about work *laughs* He’s a shareholder too, so it’s like shareholder meeting meets family time. But it’s better that way than not having a mentor at all.

When Shirokuma first opened in June 2014, have you always had the vision that it would be this big?
Not at all. Honestly, I was working with my dad at that time. I was handling the marketing for Poshboy. Then I felt like, “Oh, maybe I should do something on my own.” When the first Shirokuma opened, I only had that one outlet in my head. If you saw my forecast in the beginning, I didn’t dream it to be this big. It was just something to do as a hobby, a passion project. But it turns out that a lot of people like Shirokuma.

Why did you choose PIK to be the location of Shirokuma’s first outlet?
Well, I live around the area. It was my first proper business, so vicinity-wise it had to be close. Apart from that, PIK was up and coming. There were a lot of people living here who have had the exposure to international markets. Either they go to school overseas or travel a lot. So I thought it would be the perfect place to introduce matcha soft-serve ice cream. Perhaps those people had one when they were abroad and missed it. Then they would know what matcha soft serve is without me having to educate too much. Matcha was also something new-ish in Jakarta’s market.

And why is there no Shirokuma outlet at PIK at the moment?
Because… This is actually a sad story. PIK was Shirokuma’s first location and I’m obviously emotionally attached to it. It seemed that the landlord did not want us to continue and we were offered a deal that wasn’t fair. Like I said before, any deal has to be fair. I want an equal partnership—it’s not just a business exchange.

Do you think things would have turned out differently if Shirokuma had opened at another location at first?
Yes. Because, first of all, I wouldn’t be able to control it as much. In the beginning of the business, I was very, very hands-on, sometimes to the point where I didn’t go home until 3 AM. If I hadn’t done so, perhaps Shirokuma wouldn’t have been as successful. Plus, the fact that a lot of people in PIK were already exposed to matcha soft serve played a part as well.

Shirokuma started the matcha and soft-serve trend in Jakarta. Then a lot of people copied the idea. How was it like?
Yes, there were a lot. It was really stressful in the beginning. Why are they copying our idea? But at the same time, you can’t stop people from doing it. If anything, this amplified the trend, causing people from all over Jakarta to be aware of matcha soft-serve. In the end, it opened the doors for us too.

Back then, what made you decide that it was time to branch out of PIK?
We were getting a lot of requests from customers. People were commenting on our Instagram, “Please open in the South!” and such. Usually they even mentioned the mall where they wanted us to open. When that happened—and the mall was already offering us a place anyway—we did our visibility study. If everything made sense, then we proceeded.

Is there any difference between the market in North Jakarta & the rest of the city?
Yes, it’s different. Even the favorites are different. And sometimes what incentivize them to purchase is different. I think in places like PIK, GI, and AEON, people are a little bit more price-sensitive. The way you market to them has to be different. Not necessarily cheaper is better, but they need to know that they’re getting a good value for money. People in the South, for example, don’t really mind. As long as it looks nice, it’s good, then they’ll buy it. The average bill size is different too.

In your opinion, how is the current state of F&B business in Jakarta? Are there too many cafes already?
No, I wouldn’t say so. I think it’s good that people are trying. There’s nothing wrong with that. I used to live in Sydney, and cafes were lining up in every street. But they all survive. Why? Because they have a relationship with their customers. That can’t be replicated. Customers have different preferences as well. At the end of the day, everybody has their own market. It’s good, actually. Customers have more variety, more things to try.

Tell us a bit about Shirokuma’s pop up store with Cosmonaut. What’s the idea behind that?
The pop up is funky and cool, not as cutesy as Shirokuma. Hopefully there will be a new market that comes in, because our customers are predominantly female. Through this collaboration with Cosmonaut, which mostly offers men’s wear, we’re tapping into their market. We’re also talking to Sanrio for a collaboration with them in all of our stores. Shirokuma has done one before in December 2017, but only in AEON.

It has been almost 4 years after Shirokuma first opened. What are your strategies to stay relevant?
A lot of innovation, a lot of collaboration. That pop up with Cosmonaut is a good example. So we try to make things that people will talk about. It’s about reaching out to another market that previously was not into us. Apart from that, we work with malls sometimes. Malls have things they need from their tenants, especially during events. But yes, you need to have a good relationship with them, in a sense that both parties need to communicate, “Hey, we need this!” or asking “Is there anything we can collaborate in?” We’re going to work with Gandaria City in running the Barbie cafe in their month-long Barbie event starting this month. To sum it up, taking different projects on top of innovating the menu is crucial.

We see that Shirokuma still occasionally joins bazaars and pop-up markets. Is that part of the strategy?
Yes, particularly for things that we experiment on. Because it’s a bit costly to experiment in our stores. So when we join a bazaar, either we’re not in that mall, or we’re trying a new menu not yet available in stores. If it’s good, then we can put it on the menu.

Back then inviting bloggers is a very effective method of F&B marketing. What about now?
I think bloggers are still very relevant. What changes is Instagram’s tactics. As you know, the algorithm has changed, and the way people consume it is different as well. Instead of focusing too much on our feed, we have to pay attention to our stories. They way that we use Instagram has to adapt, that’s all. In terms of bloggers, the same applies to them.

We’ve heard that expansion to other cities has been under Shirokuma’s radar for a while. What are the challenges to reach that point?
A lot of Shirokuma’s stuffs are home made. Because our desserts are very cute, it requires a lot of training and supervision. It’s not impossible, but I need to make sure that our team is ready. Last August ’til this April I was in a mentorship program through an organization called Endeavor. Endeavor and Idea Fest collaborated to make an event called Scale Up, and in there a program for F&B entrepreneurs called Spice Up. My mentors were Steven from Boga Group and Anthony, the COO of MAP. He was handling brands like Starbucks and Coldstone. I learned a lot from them, because they mostly take care of franchises. They were telling me, “Why don’t you focus on Jakarta first? Do you know that expanding to another city is a bigger task that you think?” And it’s shown that a lot of people who are too aggressive in expansion end up closing. It’s quite risky because you don’t have too much control, and if your franchise holder don’t really take care of it, the whole brand suffers. So it’s not that I don’t want to, I think it’s a matter of the right timing. Look at your backbone first. When it’s strong enough, you can start expanding.

What is the most important thing that you’ve learned from running Shirokuma?
Mostly how to handle stress and how to manage people. I think F&B is a very high-stress environment. People from the outside maybe only sees the fun, that the work is not from 9-5. Yes, it’s true, but it also means that when you’re off, you’re also thinking about it. One of F&B’s peak moments is during the holiday, which means you can’t have holiday during the holiday. Meanwhile, managing people is a huge task. Putting the right people in the right place is very important. Everybody has their own talent and strength. If you put them in the wrong place, they become frustrated because they can’t perform. So, it’s a lot of doing 1 on 1 meeting, being transparent of what we’re doing. Honesty on both sides.

Let’s talk a little bit about Milkbar, your other establishment. What’s the inspiration behind this one and how is it going compared to Shirokuma?
Milkbar is a little bit different because unlike Shirokuma, I didn’t branch out. What we’re focusing on mostly is wholesale customers. As for the name, yes, I do really like Christina Tosi (founder of Milk Bar in NYC), but the term milk bar itself actually has a more universal meaning, kinda like a burger joint or diner? But I choose the name Milkbar because the product is mostly milk-based.

Any advice for anyone who wants to open his or her own F&B place?
As long as you have the passion and have a unique angle on whatever concept you’re opening, go for it.


Written By

Alexandra Karman

Coffee-induced chatterbox and lemon pie devotee. Associate writer at Wanderbites.com. Find my visual musings by clicking the icon below.

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