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A recipe for surviving a pandemic: luck, timing and reinvention

When the coronavirus lockdown closed his beloved restaurant to diners, Michael Samsir had to use his ingenuity and build new connections to survive, writes Rosalee Kiely, continuing our special series Clayton 3168: Lockdown on the strip.

A recipe for surviving a pandemic: luck, timing and reinvention

For Michael Samsir's Clayton Road restaurant, the silver lining of the pivot to delivery that became imperative to lockdown survival is additional exposure and new customers ordering from across Melbourne. Photo: Rosalee Keily

Words and pictures by Rosalee Kiely
 

Michael Samsir is famous in Clayton’s vibrant foodie scene for his egg noodles – made just like they are back home in Jakarta. There, his mother’s family ran a small noodle restaurant in a Central Jakarta market. And here, in his Clayton Road restaurant, Samsir recreates many of those dishes and shares them with customers, along with the stories behind them.

In this way he connects places and people.

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But like most dining businesses on this bustling multicultural strip, Samsir’s Pandok Bamboe Koening has been running on survival mode since March 23 when cafes and restaurants were forced to close, except for takeaway, as part of the Federal Government’s coronavirus lockdown. Restaurants emptied as diners retreated to the relative safety and solitude of their own homes

While restrictions have been easing since June 1, the 70 days of lockdown and halting transition back to some sort of normality continue to take a toll on family restaurants such as Samsir’s.

“As soon as the Prime Minister said we are restricting dine-in, that’s when everything starts to fall apart,” Samsir says.

“When there is no dining in for a restaurant, it’s actually pretty much a death for it.”

Undeterred, Samsir set about reinventing his business, seizing whatever opportunities he could to make his own luck in the bleak pandemic moment.

In fact, he says, Pondok Bamboe Koening was born out of “luck” and “timing”.  In 2014, Samsir, then working at Telstra, found his team on the wrong side of a restructure. Asked to release his staff in Australia and manage a team offshore, he decided he didn’t want to do that, and quit.

Samsir set up the restaurant with help from his Indonesian mother-in-law, Suzanna Lai, who moved to Hong Kong several decades ago where she spent a couple of years working in restaurants before later immigrating to Australia.

Several of Suzanna’s recipes are on the Pondok Bamboe Koening menu alongside family favourites gifted from Samsir’s own mother, Eliana Widjaja (who still lives in Jakarta) that were served in the family noodle restaurant run by Samsir’s Uncle. For his Clayton menu, Samsir has drawn on his heritage and his imagination to develop several original recipes.

Samsir’s mother and mother-in-law are both Hakkas, a Chinese ethnic group with a long history of displacement, whose members immigrated to Indonesia in several waves, adapting their cuisine to an Indonesian climate.

“Instead of being one identity, we are actually many identities,” says Samsir.

Hakka food is “very rich and elaborate” to cook, he says, but looks deceptively simple on the plate. By sharing this culinary legacy, he hopes the cuisine can act as a unifying force not just within the far-flung Hakka community but also within the multicultural hub of Melbourne’s Clayton.

The name Bamboe Koening, or yellow bamboo, evokes attributes of the wheat noodles that are made on the premises and get their yellow hue through the addition of egg yolk. The dough is rolled and cut in a similar manner to spaghetti or linguine, to create a very springy, elastic noodle.

The most positive part of the pandemic lockdown has been the groundswell of support from his regular patrons, says Clayton Road restaurateur Michael Samir. “I can’t thank them enough.” Photo: Rosalee Kiely

The most positive part of the pandemic lockdown has been the groundswell of support from his regular patrons, says Clayton Road restaurateur Michael Samir. “I can’t thank them enough.” Photo: Rosalee Kiely

For Indonesian people “far away from home,” Samsir’s noodles provide the texture and taste of a popular staple that is eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Samsir believes that his restaurant is the only producer of noodles using these traditional techniques in Melbourne.

His wife, Verina, who works in superannuation, has been working from home during the lockdown while supervising online learning for the couple’s six-year-old son Devlin, with younger son Declan, three, also at home. Both children are big fans of their father’s noodles.

Until recently, delivery apps only accounted for a trickle of takeaway orders at Pondok Bamboe Koening. In the wake of the March lockdown and shift to takeaway, Samsir has tried where possible to do deliveries in-house.

“I’m the delivery driver, by the way,” he adds.

Before the coronavirus, Samsir oversaw operations, ordering stock and rostering staff. But the pandemic has left him with a skeleton staff, just one employee. It has forced him to “get back to work,” he says, preparing food for takeaway and delivery, and creating an iso-friendly menu that includes meal kits and frozen dinners. Making packaged noodles for supermarkets was already a small part of the business, but this has been expanded.

Social media plays a big part in the day to day operations. Harnessing Facebook and a very active WhatsApp group, Samsir now delivers meal packs as far afield as Point Cook and Caroline Springs. Members of the Indonesian community have volunteered their homes as pick-up hubs for orders.

The new customers and additional exposure have been welcome, he says, but today’s business is still a long way from what it was at the start of the year.

On a busy shift before the lockdown – say an evening towards the end of the working week – he says staff would have been run off their feet cooking meals and juggling takeaway orders for a clientele of Indonesian, South East Asian, Chinese Cantonese and “Aussie” diners until around 8.30 pm.

These days, lunch is busier than dinner. The evening rush is pretty much through by 6.30pm. And walk-in trade is almost non-existent. “I would be lucky if I get six to seven [takeaway] customers.”

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that, in current prices, the seasonally adjusted estimate of cafes, restaurants and takeaway food services fell almost 23 per cent in March 2020 when dining restrictions came into effect, however, as a subgroup, cafes, restaurants and catering fell by 30 per cent.

In a bid to save costs, Samsir has been restricting the use of utilities, using the small boiler instead of the big, the induction cooker instead of gas. The restaurant now trades five instead of the usual seven days a week – as much as anything so he can get some rest.

The pandemic has meant more to do behind the scenes, with Samsir and his lone chef cooking greater numbers of smaller batches, as well as preparing vegetables and wontons only as needed, to prevent wastage. Samsir is still coming in on his days off to prepare for the rest of the week. “It’s very tiring.”

The announcement by Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews that takeaway-only for restaurants would continue until the end of May provided much needed certainty, and cemented Samsir’s decision to continue his focus on deliveries for the time being. The restaurant has now reopened for small groups of in-house diners.

Despite finding his business in the cross hairs of the pandemic’s public health response, Samsir remains upbeat about the future.

His message for other small restaurateurs like him: “Hang in there, we’ll get through it. Just keep keeping ourselves persistent.”

He looks forward to reconnecting with customers in the dining room of Pondok Bamboe Koening and talking about the dishes that they enjoy.

The most positive part of the lockdown, Samsir says, has been the support of his regulars.

“I sometimes can’t thank them enough.”

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About The Citizen

THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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