From a pushcart in the streets of Surabaya to the helm of 'Kebab' business - story of Hendy Setiono

From a pushcart in the streets of Surabaya to the helm of 'Kebab' business - story of Hendy Setiono

Thursday October 03, 2013,

8 min Read

One night while searching for the best places in Bangalore to order in chicken kebabs to satiate my craving, serendipity surprised me in one of the best ways possible. The restaurant I ordered kebabs from did a decent enough job to fill me up but it didn’t feel anything extraordinary in my palate. The disappointment lingered and I could not help but search “best kebab chains” for the next time. The 4th result showed me “Kebab Turki Baba Rafi – The World’s Biggest Kebab Chain” and I opened it curiously.

I did not find any outlet in India but I stumbled upon an amazing entrepreneur – Hendy Setiono, founder of this kebab chain. I was genuinely intrigued by his Kebab business by now and Hendy definitely had an impressive profile. 10 minutes later, I was already writing an e-mail to this 30-year-old entrepreneur from Indonesia, who was named ‘Asia’s Best Entrepreneur Under 25’ by International Business Week magazine, half a decade back. Hendy surprised me with his quick revert. There was something different in him and it was proven right in the coming couple of days when we interacted more.


Making an extra buck from his hobbiesHendy was born in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city, and he spent the majority of his life there. He had a very happy childhood, during when playing Mortal Kombat and curiosity for audio systems were the highlights. Generally, kids would just play around and have fun, but Hendy thought of adding an extra element to his interests. Hendy says, “I was not the same as friends in the same age group as me, I was already thinking ‘how to make money’. I knew I could make money from my hobbies.” He started selling tricks to clear different levels of Mortal Kombat and in high school he started repairing and installing audio systems in cars to make some extra pocket money.

Hendy was always a curious boy while growing up, trying out different things he could get his hand at and looking for a business opportunity in however big or small the ideas he had. Hendy had his small little ventures making an extra buck for him throughout his school days. After high school, he enrolled in Sepuluh November Technology Institute, majoring in Engineering and Informatics. Even being in IT major, he was thinking more of business and less of computers.

Pushing a cart to heading world’s biggest kebab chain

During his college holidays, Hendy visited his father who was working in Qatar. While roaming on the streets of Qatar markets, the foodie inside Hendy skipped a heart beat when he tasted the local delicacy of the Middle East - the kebabs. Hendy fell in love with the taste of this different looking sandwich right away. He wanted to take this taste and these amazing kebabs back to Indonesia, a market completely averse to kebabs. A new idea struck Hendy; he wanted to run his own kebab shop in Indonesia. Hendy took a class in Qatar and learnt how to make kebabs to make sure he knows how to do it absolutely right.

Back from holidays, Hendy was continuously thinking how to start his kebab shop, what challenges would the Indonesian market present him with and how will he deal with them. He loaned some money, employed one person, taught him how to cook kebabs and got himself a pushcart. He set up his small stall outside his University and started selling in the after- hours of college.

But things didn’t fall in place. He didn’t make money, people he used to employee would suddenly quit leaving him alone to take care of his stall and to push his cart in bad weather. Kebabs were not received very well and selling on the streets of Surabaya was not as romantic as Hendy thought it to be. He still believed in his idea and he believed in his kebabs. In second year of college, Hendy decided to drop out and devote all his time to kick start and grow his business.

hendy setiono
image courtesy : businessweek

“My parents felt disappointed at first. They were startled when I dropped out of college. But I convinced them and showed them that I can work it out. I was more enthusiastic about the kebabs rather than computers,” shares Hendy.

What he started in 2003 on a pushcart is World's Biggest Kebab Chain today - Kebab Turki Baba Rafi, with over 1,000 outlets and over 1,900 employees in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. And it happened because of Hendy’s hard work, optimism and readiness to take on any challenge that came his way.

A decade of challenges, perseverance and the will to make it work

Hendy started up with a new zeal and determination to make his kebab business work and grow fast. His fiancé (he is married to her now) fully supported him at that time and Hendy along with her and one more employee started on his relentless journey to make it work.

“At first it was not easy to introduce kebabs to our people. But I was optimistic, that they will be well received. So I created kebabs that are more suited to local tastes,” says Hendy. He did not have a degree or experience in the culinary or business field but he was full of belief, determination and ready to experiment & take on whatever came his way. His sales started going up and he opened his second stall very soon. After that day, Hendy never looked back. He went on to open stores outside of Surabaya and slowly started giving franchises too and became the biggest Kebab chain in the world.

Hendy tried small things on his way to make it this big today. To make his cart/stall more attractive, he painted it with bright colors, he taught his employees how to cook to maintain the taste and he always kept one small thing in place – his positive thoughts. One can sense and feel the positivity and enthusiasm which Hendy has for his business from his simple and plain words.

“Not many entrepreneurs reach their goals in the first time. But I kept my thoughts positive that my business will grow bigger and I worked harder to make it bigger and bigger. I trained my employees how to make kebabs, taught them how to interact and serve the customers. And now I’m blessed to employ more than 1900 people. The low moment for me was when few of my key team members resigned and we had to recruit the new team again. But this is normal in business. Challenges never stop coming, competitors came up too. But I have no worry.”

E&Y Entrepreneur of the year 2009

In the last decade Hendy has won ‘Indonesian Small and Medium Business Entrepreneur Award’ by Ministry for Cooperation &SME of Indonesia, ‘Asia Pasific Entrepreneurship Awards 2008’, Most Promising Category – by Enterprise Asia from Malaysia in 2008, Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year in 2009 and the list goes on. Hendy says, “I feel I enjoy doing this business because of many of my friends’ complete support and this business was essentially a part of my hobby of trying out different food.”

Hendy is a hard working entrepreneur and an inspiration to many but he is inspired by Tony Fernandez, the Malaysian entrepreneur who is the founder of Tune Air and who introduced the first budget no-frills airline AirAsia to Malaysians. Hendy says, “He inspired me about the business world, I want to be like him. One of the reasons that I joined The Apprentice Asia’s first session, was to be able to learn a lot from him.”

What Hendy learnt on the way from his mistakes

“I have made some mistakes trying out new things, but I am sure it is the part of the process. Entrepreneurs shall never stop trying to produce the best in order to succeed,” says Hendy. He shared some of the common mistakes experienced by entrepreneurs and why it becomes difficult for people when they take up entrepreneurship.

- Hoping to do it all by yourself - there are some jobs that you may not be good at, everything can’t be combined. IT experts may not be good in accounting.

- Assuming your product or services will get sold by itself – without any promotion consumers may not know what your business is and will not want to buy it

- Not understanding finance - entrepreneurs should be close to numbers, because the business will eventually culminate in the financial statements, profit or loss

- Ignoring most beneficial aspects - good business is doing what is considered the best and still staying focused on your plan. Determine your focus, run for it and you'll find a way to succeed

- Trying to run a business without enough capital - it is very important to start a business with enough capital to get through the early days and the early fall. Calculate how much production costs, operational costs etc are needed and determine the margin

Hendy has mostly grown his business organically, always staying the bootstrap way. Hendy signs off by saying, “In the beginning, don't put too much hope on other people, you will have to do it yourself. If you want to create the business you have to know your passion first and also you have to be patient when starting it.”

Checkout Kebab Turki Baba Rafi here

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