Business Spotlight

Benny Santoso is a successful young foodpreneur who makes and sells tempeh at the organic markets in Ubud, Canggu and Sanur. A culinary school graduate, Benny turned away from a career as a chef to start his own small food business (IniTempe).


BA: How did you first get interested in tempeh?

BENNY: The idea of making tempeh [originally] came from my [high school] science teacher. My teacher fermented tempeh and put in chili flakes. I thought, ‘Oh that’s really cool.’ [Later] I was a culinary student at STP Hotel School in Nusa Dua. For graduation, my last project was making tempeh.


BA: What gave you the idea of possibly making a business from it?

BENNY: After graduating, I took some time off and went to Ubud. That’s when I saw the [organic] market. There’s a healthy market also here in the Sanur area and one in Canggu. So there is good opportunity, for [selling] tempeh.


BA: How did you start?

BENNY: I started making [tempeh] at Nusa Dua while working also in a restaurant, but I wasn’t happy. I felt like my heart was in Ubud. So I moved to Ubud, still making the tempeh. I got a new job but just worked for five days. I decided to resign and try to sell tempeh. But Sayan is not a good place for making tempeh because its too humid. So the fermentation sometimes failed.


BA: What conditions are best for tempeh making?

BENNY: The ideal is a temperature of 20 degree Celsius, but if you make tempeh in the rainy season, the fermentation will take a long time. I decided to move to the Denpasar area because it’s drier.


BA: Did you grow up in a household where you learned to cook?

BENNY: My family owns a small food [distribution] business in Solo, Central Java.


BA: So you basically grew up with the outlook that food can be a good business.

BENNY: Exactly. I was interested in culinary school because I liked to watch cooking demos on television – – shows like MasterChef. I asked my mother [permission] to go to culinary school in Bali, but at first she said, ‘No, it’s too far, you don’t have family in Bali and being a cook is a tough job. Not a good career.’ However, I believe that if we do our best and with a passion, I think we can go beyond the limits. So I started to think about different careers I could have with culinary school, maybe being a seller of my own foods.


BA: Why tempeh for you?

BENNY: Many Indonesians who go overseas make food that’s really Western not Indonesian. If you ask [most] Indonesians, they don’t know how how to make tempeh. My generation is encouraged to learn about new styles of cooking that are Western and we don’t care about the Indonesian stuff. A foreign chef said to me, ‘As an Indonesian, love your own cuisine, your own tradition, and after that you can go beyond it to try Western [cooking]. Because if you go overseas and foreigners ask you to cook Indonesian food and you cannot, you will feel really ashamed of yourself.’


BA: How did you start selling at the organic market?

BENNY: I was already selling to Alami [Japanese restaurant]. Then I met Ibu Caroline [who helps organise the Ubud organic market]. She was interested in my product and came to my place first to check out my production. She saw my production was clean and was interested in having me sell at the organic market. That was the starting point. Then I met a lady who said, ‘Why don’t you sell at Canggu? There’s a market at Canggu.’ So now I just sell at the Saturday and Sunday markets.


BA: How did your sambal and tempeh cookies come about [Benny’s newest products]?

BENNY: My market got bored with just tempeh; they wanted ready-to-eat products. Because of my market [mostly foreigners], I have to make my products gluten-free. I tried to make biscuits because my mother is a baker. I had to make them by trial and error. My first batch was bitter and then the second batch was quite okay. I gave samples to my neighbor and then to my customers. My neighbor tried the tempeh bisuits and said, ‘Wow, this is really interesting!’ and she wanted to order them.


BA: So you’re very responsive to your customers. Did they teach you this in culinary school or is this just your natural personality?

BENNY: Just my natural personality. Also, I got a lot of experience from the hotel industry [about customer service].


BA: So what are your plans for the future?

BENNY: I will be moving to Mambal soon – to get a bigger place and new machines for production. I want to empower the local community. So I hope I can teach them how to make tempe chips and help them with distribution.


BA: Isn’t this creating possible competitors?

BENNY: For me, they are not competitors, because I will help with distribution. Right now I have only 2 Balinese staff. Its quite tough sometimes, as Balinese staff have a lot of ceremony [so they can’t always work.] So I found that I have to help the local community and the local community will help me, so there is a win-win solution.


BA: Do you have like specific plans for growth or expansion, or other markets you want to tap into, say Jakarta?

BENNY: I want to expand within Indonesia first and hopefully someone wants to help me for export overseas. Step by step, but I believe if we try to do our best and with passion, I think we can go beyond limits.


BA: I know you use GMO-free soybeans. Is your production limited by supply?

BENNY: Not in Central Java but in Bali, supply is limited. Mostly, they grow rice here. Soy is a side crop. They only plant soy after they harvest rice to make the land fertile. They sell soy for steaming or seedlings. I have a connection with a teacher from the local agriculture college to get help asking local farmers to plant local soy beans [and bring back local soy production].


BA: So you may actually help expand the soy market here in Bali?

BENNY: Yes, because while the soy bean market isn’t big here in Bali, the soy market [tofu, tempeh, soy milk] is big in Indonesia. [He is also experimenting with heritage plants native to Bali to make new flavors of tempeh.]


BA: How did you get involved with the Ubud Writers and the Ubud Food Festival?

BENNY: I met [founder] Ibu Janet [DeNeefe] and she convinced me to give workshops on making tempeh. [Before they had a] tempeh maker [come] from Bogor but that is too far to come to Bali. And why not support the local community also, right?


BA: So what do you enjoy most about that?

BENNY: I enjoy it because I get to promote my country and especially my food heritage. Its about food diplomacy. I’m passionate about explaining to foreigners about our culture. It’s my heritage and and I’m really proud of it.


By Liz

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