Sitting in his new office adorned with a green statuette of the character Yoda from Star Wars, Christian Rijanto, one of the three founders of the Ismaya Group, recounted the unglamorous labor that begot the food and beverage company, now synonymous with dapper restaurants, lounges and clubs.
“When we started, we rented a storage room on the second floor of a parking lot as our office. So, whenever we opened the door, we were enveloped with steam from the building’s exhaust pipe,” he said.
He added that in those early days, the Western-educated trio rolled up their sleeves to wash dishes and hand menus to patrons at Blowfish, Ismaya’s first establishment that has become a staple venue for the city’s social darlings. “We had a six-month waiting list,” he said, adding that people were initially drawn to the Japanese-fusion menu that the establishment popularized.
Yet, Ismaya did not rest on its laurels. Entering its 10th year in the industry, Ismaya now runs 32 establishments under 14 different brands, which includes their latest high-end hangout, Skye.
Ismaya, whose two other founders are Brian Sutanto and Bram Hendrata, also runs the Kitchenette, Tokyo Belly, Magnum Cafe and Ismaya Catering Cafe. Their establishments can be found at some of the chicest malls in the city, including Plaza Indonesia and Grand Indonesia, both in Jakarta. The group has also branched out into the concert promotion business with Ismaya Live, which brought worldwide star Katy Perry to Indonesia.
“There are moments when we feel this is it, but it is precisely those moments that make us hungry for more,” Christian said.
He added that the group “always wants to be bigger and better, to make our brand number one in Indonesia and abroad”.
Ismaya has indeed set sail to new shores in recent years, with Dubai, United Arab Emirates, being its latest port of call. In that city, which is frequented by oil barons, Ismaya has opened a franchise outlet of the Social House, the group’s restaurant, bar and wine post.
According to Christian, Social House Dubai, from which patrons can catch a good view of the Burj Khalifa, currently garners the second-highest revenue per square meter for a restaurant in the area.
“Social House Dubai is actually doing very well,” he told The Jakarta Post.
He added that the éclat of the Social House’s flagship in Dubai has emboldened the group to open five new establishments in the Middle East by next year.
Besides Dubai, the group has conducted discussions to open Pizza e Birra, which started the lychee beer trend, in Singapore.
He added that the Southeast Asia region, notably China and Thailand, offered “vast opportunities” because, like Indonesia, these markets were growing and as such, the residents were “acquiring new lifestyles”.
“We have received inquiries from Australia and London, but those countries are too far away. We want to be strong in one region so we can continue to manage our operations,” said Christian, who believes that “a good businessman chooses his fights well”.
Picking the right franchise partner to share the load of managing a restaurant, Christian added, was essential, too. “Many wealthy people jump into the food and beverage business thinking of the glamour. But in reality, the business is rough, tiring, meticulous and time-consuming,” he said.
In addition, “customizing” certain aspects of the restaurant to meet local cultures and regulations was a must, he added.
“Our Social House in Dubai does not sell alcohol and the menu is less Asian,” he said.
He added that its franchise strategy — which works on a build-operate-transfer (BOT) model — was borne out of the lessons learned from the lackluster performance of one of the group’s earliest franchise outlets, SushiGroove, in Malaysia.
“When we got our first opportunity to franchise SushiGroove, we were so excited that we did not conduct due diligence. Every business has its learning curve and SushiGroove was ours,” he said.
The charm of the overseas market, however, has not blinded Ismaya from the allure of the home market.
“Thanks to the middle class, the Indonesian food and beverage industry is growing rapidly and if foreign franchises think that this is a great market, so do we,” he said,referring to the influx of foreign franchises into the country.
To square up to competition, he added, the company would expand by opening 15 new outlets and launching new brands, such as coffee shop Djournal Coffee and patisserie Colette and Lola in 2013 — a year in which Ismaya seeks to grow by approximately 30 percent.
“We hope to open eight coffee shops in prime locations this year because we want local coffee beans, which we use heavily at Djournal, to be as competitive as international ones,” he said.
However, Christian noted that securing food supplies domestically had indeed been the biggest challenge for the food and beverage business.
“Food supplies are very expensive but we cannot charge our patrons high prices because, although spending power has grown, it has not hit that [high] level yet,” he said.
Maintaining a balance between price and quality, he added, required Ismaya to be creative with its menus.
“As a middle-segment sushi restaurant, SushiGroove serves maki rolls to cut the use of expensive products,” he said.
But it is not only menus with which Ismaya gets creative. Christian pointed out that Ismaya channeled its “playfulness” to all aspects of its business, from their establishments’ names and interior design to marketing communications.
After all, one of its newest establishments is called Fook Yew, a Shanghai-style bistro whose name translates into “Fortune and Friendship”.
“We feel that everything that touches our customers is an important point of contact,” he said.
Christian credits the Ismaya team, which includes around 1,700 employees, with being a creative powerhouse.
“We are lucky because we have people who are passionate about their jobs. They work hard and spend a lot of time on what’s going on at our establishments,” he said.
And the passion has spread beyond Ismaya’s doors, which naysayers had doubted would stay open.
“We started this business out of belief and love, although many doubted us. We have proved them wrong and now, our friends’ children say they want to be chefs and open restaurants like us, which makes us thrilled,” he said.