How Asia’s kebab queen built her empire
"As women we can do more for our society. Business is not always about us, but about how we give impact to others."
Nilamsari Setiono is the poster girl for small business in Indonesia. From selling kebabs from a push cart to opening and operating 1,200 food outlets across Asia, this is a story about how one woman expanded her empire with a $400 loan and a whole lot of love for the humble kebab.
It all began with burgers
Nilam’s first business venture was a burger shop, opened with her husband. While the business was easy to get going, she quickly learned the hard way about competition when a large burger chain popped up next door, taking away 80% of her business.
During this time, a trip to Doha, Qatar, introduced the food lover to kebabs, and Nilam quickly “fell in love with the uniqueness” of the skewered Turkish meat. Fueled by the fire to succeed, she built the first Kebab Turki Baba Rafi push cart in Surabaya with just $400 (USD) borrowed from her sister in-law.
Nilam knew her main hurdle to introduce this new concept would be finding the right recipe to suit the local palate. So she swapped the exotic Middle Eastern spices for more localised Indonesian ones. It didn’t take long for word to spread—customers were hooked.
As the brand gathered recognition, Nilam continued to open new carts, stands and storefronts, putting her efforts into both offline and online marketing to spread the Baba Rafi name. She is now the proud owner of 1,200 outlets across Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, China and Sri Lanka.
To help her business grow fast and steady, Nilam opted for a franchise model and worked tirelessly to attract investors at exhibitions and industry fairs.
But as most entrepreneurs know, initial success doesn’t mean smooth sailing. Nilam understands the food and beverage business is “always a race”. Her focus is now on increasing the speed of innovation to help Baba Rafi introduce new products quickly, while also being able to manage customers’ growing expectations.
“As women, we can do more for our society”
Nilam is a strong believer in “being the social change”. For her, business isn’t just about making money, but “also about how we give impact to others”.
To do this, Nilam makes an effort to speak at workshops and seminars, to help more women lead in developing economies. The Baba Rafi Academy was also established to groom the next generation of socially and environmentally responsible small business owners.
Her tips for success are humble – start small, manage risk; take things one step at a time; and never stop doing whatever it takes to make things happen. Her philosophy is “profit, people and planet”.
“I want to ensure all new entrepreneurs adopt the importance of ‘net help’ versus ‘net profit’ to generate goodwill in the community,” she says. “It is an enormous leap for young people who are barely financially surviving to learn about lasting and responsible entrepreneurship”.
From Asia to the world
While Nilam is currently focused on Baba Rafi’s expansion across Asia, she has big plans to open several outlets across Europe in the future, where she already has a small presence. She has also received several enquiries about expansion in other continents, and Nilam – ever the businesswoman—is taking her time to carefully analyse each and every opportunity.