Surviving and thriving in Bali

As Indonesia's tourism and hospitality sectors slowly start up again, we check in on five local businesses to find out how they've kept their profits and passions alive.
Bali reopening 16x9 hero
1. The Arak innovator

Nyoman Sudiasa was practically jobless when the pandemic began to ravage his home island of Bali. The 40-year-old, better known as Sudi, had worked for decades in food and drink at bars and hotels across Bali. Although he wasn't a bartender, Sudi had developed a passion for creating his favorite drink. ‘I used to make pre-mixed cocktails,’ he says. ‘I learned from my bartender friends.’

When he lost his job in the early days of Covid, Sudi had the idea of innovating traditional Balinese arak, a spirit made from fermented coconut palm. ‘For decades, Balinese arak has had a negative image – a cheap alcohol for low-lifes,’ he explains. ‘I thought at the time: why can't it compete with international, established brands?’

After experimenting for six months, Sudi came up with a less bitter version of the spirit, infused with fruits, flowers and spices. He called the drink Three Brothers, as an homage to his three sons, and began to sell it door to door and in bazaars. ‘I prefer selling it the old way, because people can taste it on the spot. If they like it, I ask them to spread the word. We have social media accounts, but that's just for promotional purposes, not for [online] shopping,’ he says.

Sudi approaches his brand as a way to tell stories in a bottle. Since Three Brothers isn't mass produced, each batch is limited and customers may not find the same flavor for months. He cares deeply about how the ingredients are sourced. The coconut palm itself was sourced ethically from a coconut farmer in Karangasem Regency, some 95 kilometers from the capital city Denpasar. And the flowers and fruits came from a friend who happens to have a garden in his backyard, he says.

‘I try to help those who are affected by the pandemic – there's a story of struggle from people who helped create Three Brothers,’ he explains. ‘That's the best way for us to survive. We can't do this alone.’

2. The fashion designer

After law school in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, Astrid Soedjono moved to Bali in 2009 to work as a buyer – first for online boutique Bamboo Blonde, and then for Brazilian flip-flop giant Havaianas. But when it came to deciding what to wear – particularly traveling back and forth to Jakarta – the island wasn't as easy as she thought.

‘I found it difficult to find clothing items that are compatible for both,’ says Astrid. ‘Bali is a tropical island and you can't wear that stuff in Jakarta unless you want people to give you strange looks. And vice versa: you can't dress like you're going to a serious business meeting when you spend more time in the sun in Bali.’

That's when the idea of starting her own brand was born. Astrid launched Saint x Sinner in 2016 with just 10 million IDR (£500), with four friends as a combo of ‘city style and tropical vacation essentials’.

Astrid attended a six-month fashion course in Australia, but ‘didn't really learn anything’, she recalls. ‘I still don’t know how to make patterns, but I think I have a good eye in styling. Now we have our own design team.’

The brand quickly became known for its functional yet playful design, coupled with social media campaigns and spot-on styling advice. Saint x Sinner opened its first store in 2019.

Then came the pandemic. The shop closed down for good in 2020, almost pushing the brand to the point of bankruptcy. ‘We learned a lot,’ Astrid says. All of the resources she amassed were put into opening the store, and it took some time to find an exit strategy.

Astrid realized people wouldn't buy the brand's past collection because no one was going outside. So she launched the Love Lockdown ready-to-wear collection for people to wear at home, consisting of tank tops, cardigans and loungewear. The Nouveau Freja tank, made from knitted cotton, for example, was a big success; it sold out immediately. The brand managed to recoup its pandemic losses since launching the collection.

The pandemic has forced Saint x Sinner to continuously adapt. ‘You have to have an emergency fund, that's the first lesson,’ Astrid says. ‘Second, we became more aware of the situation. We can't launch a collection that no one would wear. So we have to project what will be relatable next. We do everything at Saint x Sinner one day at a time.'

3. The furniture maker

In 2017, Ayu Conroy, along with her husband Christopher and their daughter Alexa, started the furniture emporium Canggu & Co in their kitchen – with just a computer and a desk. ‘It's a close-knit, family-owned small company,’ Ayu says. ‘Most people think it's hard to separate business and family life, but we think it's a lot of fun and we make an efficient team.’

Canggu & Co began as a product buying and sourcing agent for international clients wishing to wholesale quality Balinese traditional furniture. Ayu came to the role with more than two decades' experience in the furniture industry. She learned the ropes during her university years, when she worked part-time at a furniture exporter. The job took her around Java and Bali, where she began to build close relationships with sawmills and traditional manufacturers. 

After launching Canggu & Co, the opportunity to set up an intimate furniture shop soon emerged. ‘We started mainly online, long before the boom [of online sales],’ says Ayu. ‘We set up a website, where we meet most of our clients… The idea of setting up a furniture shop makes sense as we want to present our products so that customers can experience the quality first hand.’

Today, Ayu prides herself on empowering the local workforce. Apart from the usual furniture and home products, Canggu & Co also sells tasseled cushions, which ‘are made by my mother, my aunts and women in my neighborhood,’ she says. ‘It's about giving back to the community.’

Yet, after enjoying a few good years, the pandemic shook Canggu & Co to its core. ‘There are simply some unforeseen factors that are out of our hands. Container shipping rates have risen up by more than 100%, leading to clients canceling their orders. Our shop was shut down due to the lockdown. Profit decreased, but we managed to stay afloat,’ Ayu says.

The key to survival so far? Posting on social media, along with targeted marketing campaigns. But nothing too expensive or fancy – ‘just ordinary photo shoots using modest equipment and natural lighting’, Ayu says. The strategy has worked well. ‘As people stay at home, they feel bored and start to do their own interior design to liven up their place. We fill that work-from-home culture and market,’ she explains.

But even if it's easy to connect with customers on social media, it's not simply about posting your products on Instagram and waiting for customers. ‘It's not gonna work that way,’ Ayu says. ‘You have to know who your customers are and their behaviors, and you have to reach out to them. We also run a newsletter to keep updating them.’

4. The next-gen artist

Ask young Indonesians about iconic local artists and you'll most likely hear the name Ican Harem. Yet it's hard to squeeze Ican's work into a single category, as he pushes the boundaries of art, music and fashion.

Born and raised in a strict Muslim family in West Sumatra, Ican spent most of his childhood at an all-male Islamic boarding school, before studying art at the Indonesian Institute of the Arts in Yogyakarta. Fueled by the spirit of early-eighties punk, Ican began producing artworks for bands and clothing brands while also being a vocalist for Cangkang Serigala, a black metal musical act he founded with two of his friends.

Ican dropped out in the early 2010s and moved to Bali to pursue his passions, spending most of his time at a studio above a KFC restaurant in the tourist hotspot near Sanur Beach. With two sewing machines in tow, he began making band shirts and bondage punk-style cargo pants, which eventually caught enough attention that he founded his own clothing line called Harem. The brand now sells one-of-a-kind products that Ican makes one stitch at a time. ‘I never called myself a fashion designer, but I like making my own clothes,’ he says.

His punk and Muslim upbringing heavily influence his body of work. Take his latest collection, featuring upcycled pieces – an Islamic prayer mat turned into a biker jacket or trousers, or a keffiyeh scarf spliced onto a PayPal logo shirt. He sources the material from thrift stores, before deconstructing them and creating new items. No two are alike.

Ican says he doesn't see Harem or his other passions as a business, but simply a way to unleash his creativity. It's this vision, he adds, rather than profits, that's made him thrive over the years. In his words, art goes beyond any crises known to humans, including the coronavirus pandemic. ‘The pandemic has forced me to be more creative – in an isolated way,’ he says.

5. The expat entrepreneurs 

Founded in 2018, Spanish restaurant Pescado is the brainchild of friends Jose Carlos Torres Maydana and Ruben Sanchez, who recently opened their second outlet in Sanur, Denpasar, after years of success in the tourist hotspot of Canggu. 

For Jose, it's the culmination of a two-decade-long dream. Back in 2001, he moved from his home country of Brazil to Spain, to study law. To pay the bills, he worked as a waiter in restaurants. Though the law career didn't pan out, the restaurant path did – after moving to Australia for more food gigs, and then to Bali, he realized he wanted to be his own boss, throwing his life savings into opening a restaurant.

‘Up until [then], I didn't know how to cook,’ he says, laughing. ‘So I called my friend Ruben to come over to Bali to help me as a chef. We've been partners ever since.’ In 2018, the two founded Pescado, serving Spanish heritage food. ‘You can see so many cafes here. We try to bring something different. You have to be unique,’ he says.

Moving to Bali was a big challenge for Jose and Ruben. Neither were familiar with the culture or language, so they approached a business agent to help them set up. ‘It's not that difficult because our agent has been very helpful, but we learn a lot to respect the Balinese culture and we've learnt to speak Indonesian,’ says Jose.

In terms of staple foods, Spaniards and Indonesians are quite similar: they eat a lot of rice. So the two founders agreed to develop paellas as a core part of their menu. Their most famous dish is black paella, a mix of rice, prawns, clams, squid ink and calamari.

In Indonesia, where people usually have rice for breakfast, and for those who are bored of Indonesian rice dishes, paella fits in nicely. Jose says his paella isn't spicy so that everyone can enjoy it. But if customers prefer their paella to be hot, Pescado can make it happen.

Opening a second restaurant when the economy hasn't fully recovered from the shock of Covid may seem like a bold move, but Jose says that, although dine-in has decreased significantly due to lockdowns and travel restrictions (their profits plummeted more than 60% and they've yet to reach pre-pandemic profits), demand for paella is still quite high, thanks to online food ordering. ‘For now, we just focus on how to remain stable,’ he says. 

This article was first published in Courier issue 45, February/March 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

You might like these, too