Indonesian chains eye S'pore diners
A BOWL of mee bakso - beef ball noodles - at Indonesian food chain Es Teler 77 in Singapore 10 years ago inspired Edy Ongkowijaya, a Nanyang Polytechnic graduate, to start his own food business in the Lion City.
"It was so hard to find any food that reminded me of home back then. It took me one hour by bus to get to a bowl of mee bakso at Es Teler 77 in Joo Chiat Road. This is a business opportunity, I told myself," said Mr Edy, an Indonesian who has lived in Singapore since the age of 16.
A year later, he and a business partner bought a franchise from Batam's Ayam Penyet Ria and opened an outlet in Lucky Plaza, where many Indonesians gathered on weekends, to sell ayam penyet, or flattened fried chicken.
Three years later, Mr Edy broke up with his partner and pulled out of the franchise contract to go it alone. He set up a new chain of foodcourt stalls called Dapur Penyet, opening outlets in heartland areas to target Singaporeans. Its first outlet was in Jurong Point, and there are now 10 others in places like Clementi Mall and Tiong Bahru.
He is considered by many as the first person to introduce ayam penyet to Singapore.
"I don't want to rely on just Indonesian customers," said the 37-year-old. "Indonesian and Singaporean customers have things in common - they love spicy food and they love chicken."
Singapore is also a stepping stone for the chain's expansion in the region: Dapur Penyet entered Malaysia in 2009 and Brunei earlier this year.
The success of ventures like Mr Edy's has inspired other Indonesian chains to follow suit over the years.
But it represents the other side of a trend that began a decade ago when Singapore bakery chain BreadTalk set foot in Indonesia in 2003, and rapidly expanded to over 90 outlets today. Old Chang Kee and others followed suit, tapping on growing demand and the familiarity of Indonesians - who make up the largest group of visitors to the city state - with Singapore food.
"Compared with Indonesia, competition in the food business is very tight in Singapore, but local residents have been receiving Indonesian food quite well," said Simon Soekarno, a counsellor at the Indonesian Embassy in Singapore.
In recent years, a wider range of Indonesian food chains have started branches or franchises in Singapore: Ny Nita pressure-cooked fried chicken, Sari Ratu nasi padang, Java Kitchen, Indonesian Delight and J.CO Donuts.
Indonesia's largest kebab chain, Baba Rafi, is also gearing up for its Singapore opening, slated for the middle of next year.
Doughnut and coffee chain J.CO has been using Singapore as a testbed for overseas expansion. It opened its first outlet here in 2007, before going to Malaysia in 2008 and the Philippines in 2012.
J.CO will open its fourth outlet in Singapore, at Suntec City mall, on Friday.
"J.CO seeks to be an international brand and Singapore is the perfect gateway to achieve that," said spokesman Gita Herdi Hastarani.
She lamented that doing business in Singapore can be challenging, with high rental and labour costs.
But she sees an upside to doing business in the city state.
"We really appreciate the Singapore Government being business-friendly, with transparent, systematic and responsive regulations," she said.