Getting a new restaurant off the ground is always a challenge.
Those who have done it in Indonesia will normally tell you that it’s even tougher here. Doing it in the middle of a pandemic? Well, that takes a lot of guts indeed.
It may seem like the worst time in the world to start any business, especially one that relies on a steady flow of tourists. When restrictions have allowed, Yogyakarta has had its fair share of tourists pass through, but any new restaurant in the city is reliant on locals falling in love with the food.
Three foreigners have taken the plunge during the pandemic and numerous lockdowns, and are aiming to do just that. We sat down with the people behind Warung Toscana, Chicken Shack, and Aroma Italia to see how things have been in these most trying of times.
Warung Toscana, Jl. Prawirotaman No. 29
“It was open for two weeks, then lockdown came!” recalls Stefano, husband of Sara, the owner of Warung Toscana. She’s also the creator of her own line of handbags, which you can buy in the restaurant too.
It had taken a long time and a little heartache to get the Italian restaurant off the ground. Originally from Siena, Italy, Stefano has been exporting high-end recycled wood from Indonesia for 16 years. In that time, one of his best friends from Italy, Adelio, moved to Jogja to work as a chef in another new Italian restaurant.
“He trained the staff in the restaurant, but things went wrong and the restaurant closed,” he explains. “We decided that my wife could open an Italian restaurant and take advantage of Adelio and the team he taught.”
Whilst putting together the project, his friend sadly died, but they pushed on. Then, along came the pandemic. After being closed for weeks during the initial lockdown in the city, they reopened but something was still missing – the tourists.
“People from Bandung and Jakarta, they really understand great tasting Italian food, but they can’t come here, so we’re connecting with the people of Jogja,” he explains.
Great tasting? That’s no brag. The sauce used for the pizza is naturally sweet, made from tomatoes imported from Italy. Handmade tortellini are filled and cooked to al dente perfection, and the authentic carbonara sauce – there’s no cream used here – is rich and delicious.
After being open again following the easing of lockdown restrictions, the pair received an offer to buy out the place. “It’s been tough with the pandemic, but this has been a dream for so long that we want to keep at it. We owe it to our team as well,” he explains, as bottles of imported extra virgin olive oil arrive to drizzle over the fresh pizza.
Chicken Shack, Jl. Tirtodipuran No. 56
Inspired by Chicken Run in Bali, which Michael’s friend runs, Chicken Shack is the first rotisserie chicken restaurant with European flavours in Jogja. He’s used his Belgian roots to train and provide inspiration to his wife who owns and runs the place.
“We signed the contract on the place in June 2020 and our first day opened was 8th December that year,” remembers Michael.
The former tattoo shop – don’t worry, local artist Heru only moved next door – was renovated by Michael and his wife pretty much by themselves. During the refit, they were presented with the chance to use the yard out back, which is now a cute space for al fresco dining.
“The pandemic gave us the time to do things ourselves and get things right, no tourists walking past wishing we were getting their business,” he explains. Having always wanted a becak, Michael saw this as his chance and placed one in the restaurant. On the roof. It’s Instagrammable, for sure.
As much as opening a new restaurant during a pandemic was a challenge, there have been some unexpected benefits. “Everything had to go online, my wife could do all the applications for licences and other paperwork from her phone so it was easier than we’d expected!”
How about the food? The chickens, which rotate in the oven out front all day with scents wafting down the street, are delicious. Stuffed with thyme and garlic, the flavours are a comforting taste of home for the foreigners still in the city. Belgian dishes like the meatballs go down and treat with the locals, who have been the main customers since things opened.
“We’ve even had the Sultan order takeaway from us!”
Facebook: Chicken Shack
Aroma Italia, Jl Kaliurang No. 5
Years of chef experience in Italy, Australia, and most recently in Bali, inspired Alberto to support his wife in creating Aroma Italia.
“I’d always dreamed of opening my own restaurant, but life managing two restaurants in Bali was easy so I didn’t get round to it. Then, the pandemic came and the place I worked at closed; we needed to find a new project quick,” Alberto explains.
He and his wife had been to Jogja many times – she’s a Magelang native – and saw the potential in the city. Finding the location for the restaurant was made easier with the pandemic; everyone was keen to rent their place.
“If you’ve ever tried to open a restaurant in Italy, you know that doing it in Indonesia isn’t too hard!” he jokes.
About one-third of the business has been takeaway, an unexpected consequence of the pandemic. Being in the north of Jogja, away from the typical tourist areas, also means the customer base is primarily Indonesian, with the expats in the city having a strong affection for the place, too.
The food has been a long experiment. They’ve created a pizza dough using a mix of four different flours to get the perfect consistency, for example. Creamy lasagne is a favourite, as are the meat lover and quattro formaggio pizzas.
“Pizza is all about the details,” he enthuses, and him and his wife have got it spot on.