We’re profiling female cafe and restaurant owners over the next few months, thanks to the support of Uber Eats. These women are running incredible and innovative food businesses all over Australia, but many have been doing it tough due to the pandemic and in some areas the bushfires.
Here, we meet Michelle Widjaja, owner of IIKO Mazesoba in Sydney, who opened her first restaurant in Indonesia and has launched her second restaurant in Sydney sharing a Japanese specialty.
Near the heart of Sydney’s Chinatown is a vibrant restaurant serving one of the city’s favourite dishes with a unique twist.
Inspired by Tokyo’s iconic noodle shops, restaurateur Michelle Widjaja wanted to give Sydneysiders another way to enjoy ramen.
IIKO Mazesoba opened near the end of 2019 offering chewy noodles made in-house with an umami soy based sauce and no broth.
A variety of toppings such as sous vide egg, nori, chilli oil and kombu vinegar are offered instead.
“In Japan, there are actually so many different types of ramen restaurants and I know that Sydney has a lot of really good ramen already,” she said.
“I wanted to do something different.
“I had travelled a lot to Japan to get inspiration or attend food trade shows so I would have this kind of food for lunch.
“It’s very popular in Japan but they have to specialise because it’s really expensive and everyone has little, little shops so menus have to be really concise.”
She researched the concept and discovered it was working around the world from Canada to New York.
“I’m like okay, this concept works in other places, why can’t it work in Sydney?” she said.
Michelle decided to test it and opened IIKO Mazesoba, her second restaurant.
Her first one in Indonesia which started back in 2014 has now been taken over by her brother.
“I moved back and forth because I’m Australian but my family’s Indonesian,” she said.
“That was a Japanese dessert cafe and that’s still running now.
“I’ve always liked the food industry. I’m a foodie. I wasn’t cut for an office job.”
Once a foodie, always a foodie
Michelle’s love of food started an early age with her making and selling chocolate chip cookies around the age of ten.
However, pursuing this passion would take many years of patience and dedication because Michelle’s family had other hopes for her future.
“My parents have always had this mindset that when you go to university you have to do commerce and I actually really wanted to go to Cordon Bleu,” she said.
“I wanted to do a degree in cuisine or patisserie.
“I ended up having to do a marketing and finance degree first, then do my masters and then after that, I finally went to Cordon Blue.”
In the years leading up to her dream career, Michelle never stopped working on her passion.
While studying her obligated university degree, she took food courses on the side and worked part-time at a cafe so she could learn how to roast coffee and continue baking.
“I’ve always liked making things and making people happy through this,” she said.
“There’s a sense of satisfaction when you see someone enjoy what you’ve created.”
Pressure builds on Chinatown
Before 2020, Michelle’s biggest challenge was educating customers about their unique take on ramen noodles.
When they opened, she said customers would walk out the door when they realised the noodles were not served with broth.
Having just moved back to Australia after a few years of living in Indonesia, she was also trying to rebuild a network to help spread the word about IIKO Mazesoba.
“I had to build that network again, reconnecting with old friends in the industry, making new friends, getting to know people in the media, connecting with food bloggers, because that all helps,” she said.
About three months after opening, the restaurant was finally starting to build momentum with excitement around its noodles sizzling up.
Then, China made global headlines.
A virus had forced Wuhan into lockdown and long before it even touched Australia’s borders, Sydney’s Chinatown started losing customers.
“I guess people started getting scared of coming in early February,” she said.
“We were one of the first areas to be really affected because of the stigma.
“Suddenly, things were dropping again.
“There was so much uncertainty and other friends in the area were also feeling very anxious not really knowing what to do.
“But it still seemed like something that was far away so we just kept on going and managed the decline in customers by always telling the team it doesn’t matter how many customers we have, we just have to make sure that whoever’s already in the door, that they leave happy.
“At the end of the day, it’s going to spread through word of mouth.”
Then, came another blow.
The government ordered all restaurants to switch to takeaway only.
Michelle had to act fast.
She let customers know on social media that their delicious meals could be delivered home through Uber Eats.
She also began offering family-sized packs with refrigerated noodles and toppings that could be prepared at home.
“The first time we had to do home delivery, we just added a really simple page on our website, posted it on Instagram and that’s all,” she said.
“The take-home packs would feed six people for $40.
“We got orders straight away.”
The restaurant’s size and agile menu made it easier for Michelle to adapt quickly to the rapid changes.
“We basically had to start a new business in a day,” she said.
Her only hope now has been that the love for food won’t disappear because of coronavirus.
“You can’t worry about things that you have no control of,” she said.
“It’s something that everyone knows but in this sort of situation it’s a good reminder because you can’t control how long this is going to go.
“You can’t control what the government wants you to do or how people feel about going out.
“The only thing that you can do is how you react.
“Sydney loves to eat and we’re hoping this does not discourage our love for food, local businesses and local entrepreneurs.”
Check out stories from more female restaurant owners in this Uber Eats supported series here.