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5 Bali restaurants popular with tourists and how they are faring during COVID-19

BALI: With a menu in her hand, a waitress sat idly at the main entrance of a restaurant in Ubud, a Balinese town famous for its thriving art scene and stunning landscapes. 

It was lunchtime and the street in front of her was quiet, as it has been since the pandemic began.

Along the once busy street, waiters and waitresses from other restaurants stood or sit in front of their establishments, trying to woo the handful of tourists.

Inside, the restaurants were completely vacant and for some, it would stay that way until they closed their doors for the day.

Tourism is the backbone of Bali’s economy and COVID-19 has devastated the livelihoods of residents on the Island of the Gods.

Bali, which recorded the first COVID-19 death in Indonesia in March, has a total of 7,380 cases so far, while the national tally now stands at over 225,000.

Cases in Bali has more than doubled since Jul 31, when the government eased restrictions for domestic tourists. On that day, the island’s total caseload was 3,407. 

Although Bali has never formally imposed a lockdown and continues to allow businesses to remain open, travel restrictions across the globe has reduced international tourist arrival to almost zero.

With Indonesia suspending its visa-free and visa-on-arrival policies for international travellers, tourists are effectively dissuaded from coming into the country. 

Last month, Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Binsar Panjaitan said the policy would likely remain in place until the end of the year, adding that the tourism industry would probably return to the way it was before the pandemic by the end of 2021.

READ: Jamu with a splash of soda – Making Indonesia’s traditional herbal brew popular again 

Meanwhile, domestic tourists are still nervous about travelling by air – the main way to get to Bali – choosing instead to vacation somewhere they can get to by car.

The dramatic drop in tourists has affected restaurants, big and small, all across Bali from the hilly towns of Ubud and Kintamani to the beaches of Kuta and Seminyak.

More than half of the restaurants on the resort island have to reduce their employees’ salaries and working hours by 75 per cent, while some have to downscale their operations, according to the business operators.

The rest chose to close their doors temporarily and put their staff on unpaid leave, including some well established and award-winning eateries.  

Here are five popular restaurants in Bali which have been struggling since the pandemic hit:

IBU OKA’S BABI GULING

Before the pandemic, tourists and locals would crowd all three outlets of Ibu Oka’s babi guling (spit-roasted pig) restaurant with queues snaking down the pavements of downtown Ubud. 

The restaurant, opened in 1979, has a reputation of being the place to savour Balinese-style suckling pig stuffed with a combination of spices like turmeric, lemongrass and coriander seeds and roasted until the skin is crispy. 

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Once bustling with customers, Ibu Oka babi guling restaurant in Ubud, Bali, has been largely quiet since the pandemic began. (Photo: Nivell Rayda) 

Ibu Oka’s babi guling is so famous it has attracted food writers, bloggers and television hosts from all over the world, including the late Anthony Bourdain. But the pandemic changed that almost overnight. 

“It has been very quiet,” one staffer told CNA as she cleaned rows of empty tables and chairs during what would otherwise be a bustling lunch hour.

It usually took just a few hours for the dish to be sold out after the outlets opened at 11am, but now they have to stay open until 6pm.

The original small shop in front of the Ubud Palace appeared deserted last week, with only a few waiters waiting for customers to come. 

It was the same for the outlet on Jalan Tegal Sari, tucked behind a crowded housing area just a few hundred meters away and Jalan Raya Mas on the edge of town.

The restaurants were deprived of its usual hustle and bustle, the chatter of hungry customers and the hurried scene of fire pit masters preparing the dish.

MADE’S WARUNG

With its signature nasi campur (rice with mixed meat and vegetables), Made’s Warung, established in 1969, was among the first eateries in Bali to put the island on the world’s culinary map.

The establishment has come a long way from its humble beginnings, a small shop made from wood and woven bamboo with no flooring near the popular Kuta Beach.

It has since become a restaurant chain with four restaurants in Bali – including one at the Ngurah Rai airport – and a franchised outlet in Jakarta.

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A section of Made’s Warung in Seminyak, Bali, Indonesia. Since the pandemic hit, the popular restaurant has seen more than 90 per cent drop in number of customers. (Photo: Nivell Rayda) 

But when the pandemic hit, Made’s Warung had to close all of its four restaurants in Bali for dine-in. 

“The number of tourists has dropped significantly,” I Ketut Triana, a member of the family which owns Made’s Warung told CNA, adding that the chain was seeing a 90 per cent reduction in the number of customers before they shut the doors on Mar 21.

Triana said for months, nearly all of their employees were put on unpaid leave.   

“In mid-April we decided to open our Seminyak outlet for deliveries and takeaways. We hoped that by doing so, we could at least cover our electricity and water bills which we have to pay whether we are open or closed,” he said.

READ: Family recipes the secret of Bali’s famous nasi campur warung

The family subsequently decided to reopen its Seminyak and Berawa outlets on Jun 24 since the two areas still have some tourists and die-hard surfers staying in cheap lodges and hotels.

But the restaurants are only making a fraction of what they used to make before the pandemic while its employees now only work seven days a month and earn one-fourth of their previous salaries. 

The employees at the other two smaller outlets are still forced to take unpaid leave.

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I Ketut Triana, a member of the family which owns Made’s Warung restaurant chain. (Photo: Nivell Rayda) 

At Seminyak, there could only be between 20 and 100 customers a day out of a seating capacity of 200, Triana said. 

Before the pandemic, the restaurants were so busy the staff always had a hard time finding seats for customers, he said, particularly during school holidays and around New Year.

“We are starting to see some income but it is only enough to cover for our operational expenses,” Triana said.

BEBEK BENGIL

Famed for its crispy duck, the 3,500 sq m Bebek Bengil restaurant in Ubud has been a favourite culinary destination for high ranking officials from Jakarta and international tourists arriving in big buses and minivans.

The 30-year-old establishment could attract so many customers that there would always be traffic in front of the restaurant, with cars and buses jostling for parking spaces.   

But now, it only serves 30 to 60 customers a day, a far cry from the usual 500 customers.  

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The exterior of Bebek Bengil restaurant in Ubud, Bali. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

Anak Agung Raka Sueni, who founded Bebek Bengil in 1990, said she had to close two outlets in Jimbaran and Nusa Dua in the southern part of Bali because of COVID-19.

She insisted on keeping the original Ubud restaurant open, even when customers dropped by more than 90 per cent.

READ: Bali prays as COVID-19 hits tourism on Island of the Gods

“Since COVID-19 hit Indonesia in March, we started to see less customers. We struggled to pay our employees,” Sueni told CNA.

Even as the Ubud restaurant began to see more deliveries and takeaways these days, the restaurant only saw an income of 3 million rupiah (US$202) a day, a significant drop from the usual 70 to 100 million rupiah a day.

The Ubud restaurant survived because many locals and expatriates frequented the establishment.

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Anak Agung Raka Sueni, the owner of Bebek Bengil restaurant chain. (Photo: Amilia Rosa) 

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Meanwhile, the Nusa Dua and Jimbaran outlets saw their income almost completely gone because of the declining number of tourists. The Nusa Dua outlet reopened on Jul 9, after the government relaxed restrictions on domestic travels.

Like Made’s Warung, Bebek Bengil made its 80 employees in Ubud and 50 employees in Nusa Dua work for seven days a month with a severe pay cut. “That is the only way everyone can keep their job and have an income,” Sueni said.

The restaurant is providing some financial aid for the 30 employees in Jimbaran who are now on unpaid leave.  

“We are still struggling financially. That affects our ability to help our workers. Because the situation has been going on for so long and we don’t know when this will end, we can’t keep providing them aid,” she said. 

INDUS

Located atop a picturesque hill in Ubud overlooking the Campuhan Valley and Bali’s sacred volcano Mount Agung, the Indus restaurant is on a hiatus. 

The restaurant, famous for being one of the venues for the Ubud Writers’ Festival, originally served an eclectic selection of Balinese, Indian and Western dishes, and has always appealed to international tourists.

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The exterior of Indus restaurant in Ubud, Bali. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

The owner’s son, Krishna Suardana, decided to open a wood-fire pizza place on Jun 22 at Indus to attract the local market.

“Indus is not originally a pizza place. For me, it’s just something to do during corona. I have been very interested in pizza making and it’s a good time to learn if I ever want to open my own pizzaria,” Suardana told CNA.

“(Pizza) is also perfect for takeaways, deliveries or dine in. It’s perfect for people who are still afraid of going out. It is something that is easy to cook, sell and deliver, and it is loved by everyone.”

READ: Commentary – Dear Indonesia, shaming the infected is a lousy COVID-19 plan

Originally, Indus only had three pizza variants on its menu, but Suardana expanded the pizza menu to eight. He even put a local twist to the Italian dish by creating pizza ayam kremes (crunchy chicken) and babi kecap (pork soy sauce).

“We try to sell affordable pizza, with prices starting at 50,000 rupiah (US$3.36). Right now we are enjoying a tiny bit of profit,” he said adding that for now, he is limiting his production to 30 pizzas a day because of unstable demand.

Demand was unstable that there were days when he would not sell a single pizza. To cope with this, he decided to only open Indus from Fridays through Sundays when demand is high.

The restaurant has been relying on donations from its former patrons to provide financial aid to its 40 workers. With Suardana’s pizza venture slowly taking off, he can start to rehire some of the employees.

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Krishna Suardana converts his parents’ restaurant Indus in Ubud, Bali into a pizza place after the restaurant had to close temporarily because of COVID-19. (Photo: Nivell Rayda) 

“First it was just me, the manager and a driver. We recently employed another helper. It’s expanding. But we might need to change the name because (Indus) is not supposed to be a pizza place.”

CASA LUNA

Janet De Neefe, the owner of Casa Luna in downtown Ubud is also thinking about deconstructing its menu.

Founded in 1992, Casa Luna has always been geared towards Western tourists and expatriates living in Ubud who see the restaurant as a key place to gather and socialise.

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Two customers sitting in the empty Casa Luna restaurant in Ubud, Bali. (Photo: Nivell Rayda) 

On a busy day, her 200-seat capacity restaurant could be completely full.  

But De Neefe said since the pandemic, many expatriates have returned home as encouraged by their respective governments.   

Those who stayed, she added, are only those who have lived in Bali for years and became quite attached to the island and its way of life.

Meanwhile, domestic tourists only come during long weekends and school holidays, and they typically prefer to eat somewhere more affordable.

“My demographics have always been Westerners. That is our challenge. We have to rethink our menu and pricing to target domestic tourists,” she told CNA.

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Janet De Neefe, the owner of Casa Luna in Ubud, Bali. (Photo: Amilia Rosa)

Casa Luna employs 60 people who now earn half of what they used to make.

“If we’re lucky we can get 2 million (rupiah) a day and for our operational costs we need about 5 million a day. We’re operating at a loss but we’re hanging in there. We’re losing thousands of dollars a month, for sure,” she said.

De Neefe said she will not give up on the restaurant. 

“We have to help everyone survive. We will never close and we never had. This is our community centre. This is where everyone gathers,” she said. 

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