Lying in the embrace of the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, the popular island of Bali has always been something of an anomaly with its four million Hindu adherents and an annual influx of four million scantily-clad foreign tourists.
Now for one more irony: Bali is also home to the first Indonesian restaurant chain to venture into the outside world. And what’s the signature dish for this new region-wide franchise? Why, succulent barbecued pork ribs, of course.
Welcome to Naughty Nuri’s, launched in 1995 as a small roadside warung in Ubud, the artist retreat in the hilly center of the island, and now with 14 outlets as far afield as Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Johor Bahru, Macau and Melbourne, Australia.
A new US$2 million, 520-seat franchise called Nuri’s in the Forest is ready to launch on Phuket’s Patong Beach, and another is close to opening its doors in Manila, home of lechon, the Spanish-inspired roast suckling pig.
Plans are also well advanced for new outlets elsewhere across Thailand, as well as in Vietnam and Taiwan, with franchise holders required to pay a five-yearly royalty fee and 5% of gross sales.
Started by American Brian Aldinger and his Javanese wife Isnuri Suryatmi, the business has been run since Aldinger’s death in 2012 by his widow and her friend Nari.
It may not be so in Muslim majority Indonesia, but pork is still the world’s most widely-consumed meat, ahead of poultry and beef, with China leading the way at 90.1lbs consumed per capita per year, followed by the European Union, Montenegro and Taiwan.
Little wonder then that the three Naughty Nuri outlets in Bali are benefiting from a big increase in Mainland Chinese travelers, who this year will overtake the Australians as new leaders of the resort island’s foreign tourist market.
Like the Philippines, Bali has its own suckling pig delicacy known as babi guling, as well as several meat-processing plants producing quality ham and other pork-based goods that find their way onto supermarket shelves in Jakarta.
Officially, Indonesia has about 8.2 million head of pigs, trailing goats, beef and sheep by a substantial margin. But government livestock figures, particularly in the case of cattle, are often badly skewed for political reasons.
Most of the pig-raising goes on in the Christian-minority enclaves of East Nusa Tenggara, Bali, North Sumatra, North Sulawesi and Papua, with Muslim-dominated South Sulawesi an interesting exception to the rule in fourth place.
When Aldinger, a former Peace Corps worker, and Nuri opened the Ubud warung, only rice and noodles were on the menu. A year later they were encouraged to install a barbeque, which quickly became a hit with tourists and residents alike.
In those early days, Aldinger – a larger-than-life figure with a bushy grey beard — would accost the few tourists walking past his modest eatery, and roar in his broad New Jersey accent: “Where do you think you’re going, buddy, there’s nothing down there.”
It wasn’t fancy, but the price was good and the food and ambience were even better. A growing number of domestic tourists soon joined the clientele, no questions asked, forcing Aldinger to open a second place further down the street.
Even celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain dropped in one night. After sharing several of Aldinger’s renowned martinis at the bar he set aside for regulars and special guests, Bourdain declared them to be the best he had tippled outside New York City.
Actress Julia Roberts, in Bali to film “Eat, Pray, Love,” wasn’t so fortunate. When she showed up alone with her two children, the warung was so full she was turned away by the staff who failed to recognize her.
Aldinger wasn’t initially keen on expansion, but he did agree to licensing Nuri’s first franchise in Seminyak, at the northern end of Baii’s Kuta tourist belt in 2010. That branch thrived, too, but difficulties with the owners brought an end to the contract four years later, though the restaurant, renamed Hog Wild, survives.
After Aldinger’s death in 2012, Nari became much more involved in the business, overseeing the opening of two more new franchises, one on the same street as Bali’s notorious Kerobakan prison and the other in North Jakarta.
She also played the leading role in taking the brand offshore, linking up with two groups of Malaysian investors who both came to her with the idea of overseas expansion in 2012, convinced that name recognition would make it a success.
“We came up with the licensing concept because we didn’t want to do a lot of the work,” says Nari, a former language teacher with a degree in literature. “We also didn’t want a lot of partners. Those we have now are almost like family.”
Nari had three main demands: they had to have a business plan that would allow them to stand on their own, use Naughty Nuri’s exclusive mixture of Indonesian spices and, just as importantly, create an atmosphere of fun, family-orientated dining.
The only failure has been the Massive Group’s Singapore outlet, which closed several days ago after only two years in operation. A lesson learned: wrong location, wrong atmosphere, wrong everything, by most accounts.
Neither did entry into Malaysia come easy. Authorities there objected to Nuri, a Malay word for a species of bird, to advertise a restaurant selling pork. In the end, the owners agreed to put up a large “Non-Halal” sign and post a pink plastic pig at the entrance.
Impressed by their Naughty Nuri’s experience while holidaying in Bali, Penang partners Sean Lim and Mike Teoh opened a franchise in Penang in 2014, subsequently adding two new restaurants in Johor Bahru that have both been equally successful.
The other Malaysian franchise holder, Ribs Affair managing director Peter Khor, now runs four outlets across Greater Kuala Lumpur, raking in annual revenues of up to US$10 million and selling 15 tons of imported Spanish ribs a month.
An energetic go-getter, Khor has become the brand’s master franchise-holder, responsible for recruiting the partners in Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam and looking ahead to planned franchises in several regions around China.
In Thailand, Phuket partner Chanintat Pachantabutr already oversees an island-wide business empire, which includes Chalong Bay’s renowned Kan Eang@Pier seafood restaurant, the popular Hanuman World Adventure Park and the Flying Hanuman zip-line.
Chanintat’s business had the same modest beginnings as Naughty Nuri’s. His father, Chamnan Pachantabutr, was a small-time fisherman who started barbequing fish on the roadside and selling it to passers-by in the early 1970s — long before the island was welcoming seven million foreign tourists a year.