Walking through the doors, the savory smells of a home-cooked Indonesian meal immediately welcomes customers. The soft lights and beautiful artwork covering the walls make the restaurant feel as though this was someone’s home. As customers open the door, they’re immediately given a sense of comfort that’s only increased the longer they stay.
This is the kind of care Hotiman Ridwan, co-owner and head chef of BoBoKo Indonesian Café, puts into his restaurant located in Ice House downtown.
He and his co-owner, Mark Mitchell, are continuously trying to build a community around food with their restaurant. They purposefully designed its location to be small to create a more welcoming feeling. Customers can see directly into the kitchen and watch as they prepare food as they eat, breaking the barrier between consumer and chef presented in many other restaurants.
“This is our concept, because this is small, I would like to have an intimate setting so people can talk to each other,” Ridwan said. “Sometimes I walk around to make sure everyone is OK and take some like advice, you know, suggestions or something.”
Growing up in Bando, Indonesia, Ridwan’s dream of combining a small business with food started with watching his parents. His father was a produce seller and his mother sold all types of Indonesian food. After attending school for hospitality and working a few jobs—from the Hilton to Toyota—he decided it was time for him to begin working toward that dream.
Ridwan moved to Harrisonburg 18 years ago and worked in a restaurant while trying to take time to learn about the area. He got to know the city and its people in an attempt to better know what kind of restaurant they’d like.
“It seems like small city, but it’s very diverse,” Ridwan said. “And at the time, I first found if they like Vietnamese food, or Thai … hey why not Indonesian?”
He had the dream, now all he needed was the business plan. This is where Mitchell came into the picture. Mitchell, who has lived in Harrisonburg for over 40 years now, met Ridwan at a friend’s dinner party back in 2002. They both wanted to open their own small business, but Mitchell wasn’t as particular about what his would be, so he joined in with Ridwan to help realize his restaurant dream.
They got their business started in 2016 through a competition hosted by the Shenandoah Valley Small Business Development Center called “What’s Cooking.” It allowed aspiring business owners to come and pitch their idea to a panel of judges. The winner received funding and help with starting the business.
“We wanted to build a community around food: keep it small, have an open kitchen,” Mitchell said. “We presented that concept, with the small space, open kitchen and menu, the number of employees, and we actually won. So, that kind of gave us the confidence to go ahead and take the next step.”
Ridwan gets his ingredients from Dayton Wayside Produce and occasionally from a farmers market in Downtown Harrisonburg in the summer. Any other small things he needs he gets from the grocery store.
Despite their success in the industry, Ridwan expressed that he and Mitchell have no interest in expanding.
“It’s not about that, it’s about doing what I love to do,” Ridwan said. “I’m not planning to expand or open somewhere else. This is good enough for me. It’s small and manageable. Besides, I’ve worked in bigger restaurants before and this is kind of like what I wanted,”
To Ridwan, the success of his restaurant is based on the customer experience; to try to make people happy with his food. He has many loyal customers and some even come in once or twice a week. One customer in particular, Amy Dahan, comes all the way up from Stewart, Florida two to three times a year. She always makes it a priority to visit BoBoKo.
“Well, I’m looking for a second home, and as we’re looking in the Shenandoah Valley, the restaurant scene is really important and BoBoKo is one of the best places,” Dahan said. “So, when I look at real estate on realtor.com, I say, ‘How far is it from BoBoKo? Can I walk?’”
Ridwan’s love for his job and his customers makes even the longest days a joy. He and Mitchell imagined this restaurant 10 years ago, and now it’s finally a reality.
“Some of [the customers] have actually become [my] friend outside of the job,” Ridwan said. “And that’s [a] nice thing: add more people into my life. I do love just working with the food, and [making] people happy and the most rewarding things, like when people dine with us and just pop up their head [and say] thank you so much, it was good ... I feel happy about it.”
Contact Tristan Lorei at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.