This is part of my new series, ‘Mapping Warungs’ which sets out to document the food stalls and the economics of kampung life on my little street, Jl. Minggiran in the south of Yogyakarta.
I start with my neighbour who lives directly opposite my house, Bu Kris and her Lotek and Kupat Tahu stall.
Lotek is a fresh salad of blanched bayam (a type of sweet spinach), mung beans, green beans, cucumber, tomato, cabbage which is served with ketupat rice cut into quarters, and if you’re lucky, some corn fritters and krupuk (crackers). The Pièce de résistance is the peanut sauce made from fried peanuts, chilli and garlic. Ibu Kris grinds the peanut sauce for each order individually, rather than making up a whole batch and spooning it on. This is what sets Ibu Kris apart from her competitors. Kupat Tahu consists of a similar salad but with a soy and vinegar sauce.
All of the action happens on a little 1m sq table that sits to the right of Ibu Kris. It is not a big deal. Food is just made there. The warung has been in the family for two generations. Her mother started selling cooked food outside of their house when Ibu Kris was still a child. Bu Kris turned to the business of Lotek only upon moving to Minggiran in 1989 with her mother as assistant.
‘Why Lotek?’ I ask, there are at least 10 other stalls in a 1km radius. A crowded market means that the product is popular among consumers, she tells me. ALWAYS listen to your customers. Good point. ‘But how do you define yourself in a crowded market?’ ‘Quality’ Bu Kris replied. Make sure it is fresh and the people will come. She sells over 30 plates of lotek/tahu guling a day for Rp6,000 (60c) a plate and is ALWAYS sold out. If I don’t place my order by 10am, I’m stuffed. Yesterday, a couple had come from all the way over from the west of the city with their baby to order some of Ibu Kris’ Lotek. I think it is safe to say Bu Kris has cracked the market.
The economic logic of the crowded market perplexes international development agencies and their market intervention attempts. I recently saw a job advertisement for a ‘market expert’ in Timor-Leste specialising in market DIVERSIFICATION. Development hacks, take note: throughout the Indonesian archipelago (and I dare say throughout Asia), specialisation, rather than diversification is the operating economic logic. Areas of the city become known for the particular product they sell. For example, you have the broom street, where you can buy all manner of brooms; the plastic bucket street; the pillow cover street. Scaling up, in the south of Yogyakarta, for example you will find the area where ceramics are made. The concentration of one product in a small area would seem to defy neo-liberal notions of ‘exploiting windows of opportunity’. So do they?
You’d have to ask Ibu Kris. For her, being in close range to your competitors is all about getting to know thy competitor. But something other than competition is key to her specialisation approach that does not frequently wash-up in stark economic analyses. Bu Kris talks a lot of sharing knowledge and including as many people in your social circle as possible. Ibu Kris’ rates her best experiences in the past 25 odd years as the opportunity to build her community.Her business model has expanded and she now acts as a ‘jasa’ or type of ‘public agent’ for the area. She is a reservoir of information, from about anything from where to find a house, who the best bamboo fence maker is, to where to enrol in soccer classes. For Bu Kris, the economics of community have paid off.