Successful entrepreneurs are often seen as individuals with the ability to do extraordinary things, and most of the time we are reminded of their achievements and success. However, not many are aware of the struggles they face in going through that journey to the top. Edy Ongkowijaya, founder of Dapur Penyet, knows all about struggles and how tough the going can get. It was certainly not an easy path to success for him, as he had to wrestle unimaginable hardships along the way. Top 10 of Asia’s quest to feature a rising young food entrepreneur in this issue, sees Edy sharing his inspiring story on overcoming those obstacles – the sacrifices he made, the lessons he learned, how life took an unexpected turn for him and how Dapur Penyet, a food enterprise that serves true and original Indonesian cuisine, became the phenomenon it is today.
Many businessmen were born into entrepreneurial families. Edy Ongkowijaya, however, is different. He was born in Indonesia to a family that lived comfortably and had everything they needed. A major unexpected turn came about during the economic crisis in 1995. His father went bankrupt and that was when Edy’s life turned topsy-turvy. “I experienced the transition from having a luxurious life to having nothing at all but I knew I had to take over my dad’s role as the breadwinner in the family,” he says. He was schooling in Singapore at that point in time but refused to go back to Jakarta because he knew it would not be practical as there was nothing left for him there. He worked tirelessly day after day juggling 4 jobs, which were coaching badminton, providing tuition, washing dishes and waiting on tables. Meanwhile his family had to slog it out to the extent of having to borrow sugar, salt and other ingredients just to put some food on the table and Edy tried his best to send over money regularly. Throughout those difficult times, he still had the good values in him and always told himself to always do good to others no matter what he was going through. That was when the idea of venturing into food business came to him.
Asian people are spoilt for choice when it comes to food. It is certain that many of them would have tried the popular Indonesian dish called ‘ayam penyet’ before. That is the signature dish of Edy’s brainchild, Dapur Penyet. He pioneered the ‘ayam penyet’ dish in 2005, and it became a huge success. Since then, the dish has appeared in many neighbouring countries, including the roadside food stalls. The concept for the business was simple. He was an ordinary Indonesian living in Singapore for almost a quarter of a century – an Indonesian with a craving for the authentic food of his home country, of course.
Indonesian food was not all that popular in Singapore despite the love the locals have for spicy food. ‘Ayam penyet’, which translates ‘smashed chicken’, was a unique dish that is accompanied by special sambal, tauhu and tempe. Edy knew that it would somehow be a hit with locals considering the fact that Indonesian cuisine was not widely available. That was how it all started for him. However, the story wasn’t that simple. It surely was no walk in the park for Edy to make it to the top.
He initially started off with a different brand, Ayam Penyet Ria, which was a huge success in Singapore. However, he split with his investors only after a year due to management differences. “Franchising is great but in my case, the brand did not enable me to expand my creativity. Due to poor support, I decided to pursue other ventures on my own so that others will not be involved in the same fate as I once was.”
He then started a new brand called Waroeng Penyet based on the previous concept with some of his schoolmates. However, after almost 2 years, no financial report from the accounting side was forthcoming. All Edy received were countless excuses from his partner and this led to a split. “I only received the final report after the split and was shocked to see that I suffered a massive loss. I was only given a cheque for $600 for all my hard work. The numbers just did not add up.” It was heartbreaking for Edy at that moment and he was at the lowest point of his life. “I was at ground zero and had absolutely nothing. I fell into depression. I was in utter despair and didn’t even want to live anymore,” reveals Edy. Thankfully, he found solace when he met Morin Ng, a Chinese Indonesian from Medan. “She saw the hidden fighting fire and potential in me. There was a power in me that just needed to be unleashed.” Due to massive stress after partnership failures, he was in a very bad state. It was up to a point where he locked himself in his room for weeks. Morin ended up being his savior by bringing him meals and convincing him to restart his life. She helped him get up on his feet and from then on, he gathered up the courage to start seeing things in a positive manner.
Edy then went on to set up a stall at a humble food court in a suburban shopping mall at Jurong Point, Singapore in west-central part of Singapore and it flourished. However, one fine day, his lady chef (whom Edy regarded as his ‘second’ mother) had to leave the country within 3 days due to unforeseen circumstances. “In those 3 days, I maximized the time I had with ‘Ibu’ and worked day and night to learn all the secrets of the recipes.”
Shortly after that, a friend convinced Edy to start franchising his brand as it is a good way to grow the business. He was enthusiastic about it but it was a daunting task for him. His reputation had somewhat been tarnished due to his previous endeavours regarding Ayam Penyet Ria and Waroeng Penyet. There was no taker for his franchise offer. Edy’s breakthrough finally came when a friend of his from Malacca who loved the ayam penyet dish trusted him and bought the franchise. It was then in 2011 when the first Dapur Penyet outlet was opened in Malaysia.
Edy has certainly learned a lot of hard lessons along the way. “Learn as much as you can. Everyone is your teacher. There’s only so much you can learn at school but it’s in the real world where you will learn the true trials and tribulations. School doesn’t teach you about betrayals and living through poverty,” he emphasizes.
When asked about what he would have done differently if he had the chance to restart his career, Edy says that he would have instilled more self-confidence in himself. “I always had the fear of failure in me. However, I realized that it is better if we execute a plan into action and make mistakes rather than not attempt anything at all due to the constant fear of making mistakes. Life is about challenges and facing them. We will grow from them,” he says.
Today, Dapur Penyet has opened in 5 countries with a total of almost 98 outlets but Edy is not stopping there. He plans to expand his business to an even wider region. He is currently sealing the deal for a franchise to be opened in the the Philippines, which will be the 6th country for his franchise business and is in talks for expanding to Australia. He is hopeful to target the Middle East and China by year 2021. Another brand of his, D’Cendol, has already been up and running in Indonesia but he wants to bring that to Malaysia and Singapore as well. He sees himself settling down in Canada someday because of his love for greenery and nature.
“I want to preserve the authenticity of Indonesian cuisine. The youth nowadays are immersed in other different cultures that they tend to overlook the beauty of their own. That is the reason why its influence has been diminishing throughout the years. I want to change that.” Edy is planning to share more of his inspiring stories in his biography that will be out sometime next year.