From Zero to Hero: Story of Jakarta's Tongseng Legend

Senen Riyanto sits at his legendary tongseng and satay restaurant in Duren Sawit, East Jakarta, on Friday (09/02). (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

By : Diella Yasmine | on 3:28 PM February 13, 2018
Category : Life & Style, Food & Drink

Jakarta. Senen Riyanto decided to move to Jakarta from Solo in Central Java in 1981 because he believed a new life and great opportunities awaited him in the capital city.

The move to the big smoke was part of his quest to fulfill his dream to become a restaurant owner.

Growing up in a family who ran a satay and tongseng stall in Solo, Senen said he wanted to introduce the family’s recipe to the capital and no one else was going to do it except for himself.

But like many other newcomers to the capital, Senen had to start off from scratch to realize his dream.

He worked in a satay restaurant in Kalibata, South Jakarta, for four years before gathering up enough courage — and capital — to open his own street stall, "Warung Sederhana Pak Budi," (Pak Budi's Simple Stall) in 1985.

Senen set up his hawker-style cart right in front of Gedung Pola in Menteng, Central Jakarta, a historical building from the Revolutionary War era.

He manned the stall with his wife for years while saving money to make his dream of eventually owning his own brick and mortar restaurant come true.

It was only in 1997 that Senen finally had enough money to buy a small shop in Pondok Bambu, East Jakarta, and opened his first proper restaurant.

Senen's original restaurant in East Jakarta exudes a genuine Javanese atmosphere, including waiters who often speak the language. (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro) Senen's original restaurant in East Jakarta exudes a genuine Javanese atmosphere, including waiters who often speak the language. (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

Senen said for him success doesn’t come in the blink of an eye. He told the story of how he had to start very small in the early days of the restaurant.

"When we started off, I used to buy only 1.5 kilograms of goat meat to make 115 satay skewers per day and just one bottle of sweet soy sauce. Now, we go through 50 kg of goat meat, 25 kg of beef and 15 kg of chicken per day," he said.

The now fancy Warung Sederhana Pak Budi has earned a legendary reputation for its authentic taste thanks to his grandmother’s recipe, according to Senen.

"My family recipe sets me apart from other satay and tongseng restaurants. I never change the recipe, never add or subtract anything from the original list of ingredients my grandma passed down to me. I also cook my food the traditional way. It adds more authenticity and flavor to the dish," he said.

Senen said using an electric stove or grill will ruin the flavor of the food. He also said satay should be grilled on charcoal and that tongseng should never be cooked in anything but an iron pot.

Senen's staff stick meat to bamboo skewers by hand at his restaurant in Duren Sawit, East Jakarta, on Friday (09/02). (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro) Senen's staff stick meat to bamboo skewers by hand at his restaurant in Duren Sawit, East Jakarta, on Friday (09/02). (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

Trust is Key

Senen said a successful restaurant owner has to do more than just sell delicious food. In his experience, maintaining exclusive relationships based on trust with his customers has been the key to growing his business.

One of the payoffs for his hard work is that Senen is now the exclusive caterer for important state events, including at Jakarta's presidential palace and state secretariat.

He has also served his tongseng and satay to Indonesian presidents from Soeharto to Jokowi, as well as rich businessmen and famous celebrities.

"Who would have thought I would become a successful restaurant owner? I started this business from zero and I will never forget the struggles I had to go through. If it wasn’t for my family, I would not be in this position," Senen said.

"They are my source of strength and the secret of my success," he said.

After 21 years, Senen's original restaurant now has two branches in Bekasi and Bintaro with a total of 50 staff.

Despite his success, Senen said he still manages all his restaurants on his own.

"My children are office workers, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know how to run this business. When I'm gone, I will hand over the restaurants to them."

Now Senen's dream is that one of his three children will continue what he started.

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