Dendy Harjanto is riding the crest of a wave with the success of Din Tai Fung. With new Australian locations now in his sights, the restaurateur explains his plans for getting business expansion right. By John Burfitt
There is every chance at any of the six Din Tai Fung restaurants in Sydney in the coming months customers might bump into the business’s Australasian director, Dendy Harjanto, either at the front desk or strolling the floor.
Such is Harjanto’s committed resolve to finding out exactly what his customers want and how to better serve them into the future at this vibrant time in the company’s development, he intends spending more time dealing directly with his market.
Harjanto, aged 41, divides his time in running the Din Tai Fung business between Jakarta and Sydney. “The world has become smaller and I now spend every other month in Australia,” he says. “Australia is also almost in the same time zone, so it is easy for me to do business in both markets.
“I want to be in our restaurant to talk to the customers, to find out what they’re thinking and how they’re reacting to what we’re doing. But also to be sure that everything is running smoothly and in the way we intend to.
“That also comes down to a passion for the business, as I really do enjoy dealing with our customers and sharing stories about what is different about our food. By doing that, it makes me want to do things better into the future.”
As Harjanto elaborates about his approach to running his Din Tai Fung restaurants, it becomes obvious that attention to detail is paramount to the way this man does business.
For a restaurant enterprise that has enjoyed such momentum since opening the doors on its first Australian establishment at Sydney’s World Square six years ago, keeping his eye on every detail is what matters to the Indonesian banker turned restaurateur.
Harjanto’s committed focus could explain the reason why Din Tai Fung has not made one wrong move as it has expanded. The Central Park restaurant in the Broadway precinct is the newest, having opened in June, and other Australian cities are now in his sights.
It is not just the intricate details of the fresh quality, size dimensions and the taste of the soup within the dumplings that Din Tai Fung is now famous for that Harjanto can speak about in great measure. He also explains why the quality of the plates is important, how the investment in staff training needs to be thorough and shouldn’t be rushed, and the importance of price point when making an impact on a new market.
“Even though we are not a fine dining restaurant, in terms of providing a good and consistent quality of service, getting all of the details right is also an important part of our business model,” Harjanto says.
“When customers come in to any one of our stores, I want them to enjoy a high level of dining and service experience, and all for under $30.”
And then there are the views. Being so transparent as to allow customers to look into the inner workings of the restaurant kitchens is, Harjanto explains, just as important for the assurance that the food is freshly made as it is for the theatrical entertainment.
It also provides a vital point of market difference, and it seems that is one of the most important factors of all for Harjanto.
“When we opened, we showed this was a restaurant where you could have a full view of the kitchen, to see how freshly the food was made and it was at an affordable price. We had something new to offer,” Harjanto explains.
“We also wanted to break all those old myths of Chinese restaurants as bad dining environments. We wanted to break those bad old images people had of the old plates and yellow walls and being places of no service. Before we opened in Australia, I also spent a lot of time checking out the market and found a lot of people serving dumplings, but they were not necessarily fresh.
“So our challenge was to offer the real joy of what a dumpling is and that a Chinese restaurant can offer a contemporary dining environment and we will always supply the best quality to our customers.”
Keeping those customers happy and the ability to match the business offering to the demographic of the areas—the other restaurants are in the busiest areas of the city and North Sydney, as well as in suburban Chatswood, which has a large Chinese population—are among the keys to success. The same consideration was applied to the new Central Park location.
“This is a creative and unique area of Sydney, with the large number of students at the universities and also many people employed in creative industries,” Harjanto says. “We knew this one would have to be different and had to think of the best ways to attract the people of that demographic.
“Even though we are not a fine dining restaurant, in terms of providing a good and consistent quality of service, getting all of the details right is also an important part of our business model.” Dendy Harjanto, Australasian director, Din Tai Fung
“So we worked on the decorations, with interesting patterns on the pillars, the mood of the lighting and the general look of the place. There are also such amazing views down Broadway and over the new University of Technology facade. It is an amazing part of town and that view makes up so much of what we have to offer.”
Of other Australian markets, the next likely location is Melbourne. He estimates the move will be “some time within the next 18 months”.
Harjanto continues: “Sydney and Melbourne are international cities and it would be nice to expand beyond Sydney.
“Australians are very international and they travel a lot. They are open and willing to try new foods, and so that makes them very attractive. They also know good food, so we know we always need to aim for that.”
Letting the business grow at its own momentum and not being forced to follow a rigid growth plan seems to be the plan. Din Tai Fung started as a dumplings street stall in Taiwan in 1974, and today boasts over 100 restaurants in 10 markets. Harjanto began the Indonesian Din Tai Fung restaurants a decade ago.
On how to expand a successful business without ruining its integrity, Harjanto states, “It is just a matter of doing what we have always done to succeed and doing what we actually preach in terms of our principles.
“We don’t cut corners when it comes to ingredients and freshness and choosing the best we can get. It is about not losing sight of the principles that made us successful in the first place.
“You always need to think long-term of how you can keep your customers satisfied and walk the talk when it comes to service. We always want to create an experience that makes customers feel visiting us is worth it.”
That focus on the customer experience remains the core of the way Harjanto does business. It also stems from his childhood when he would help his mother Henny serving at the bakery cafe the family owned in Indonesia. He credits his mother as the best teacher he has ever had about food and hospitality.
“The thing I always recall is that she really enjoyed all the operations of the business,” he says. “I remember her satisfaction when people complimented the food and she got such enjoyment out of that as she put so much passion into it.
“I learnt from her an insistence on quality every time, and a striving to get it right. That held her well for the long-term business, which she still has and which she is still passionate about. She would far rather be working at it than sitting on the sofa!”
With a laugh, Harjanto adds, “I think I got that gene from her!”
Born in Indonesia, Harjanto has Chinese heritage from both sides of his family, which he attributes his taste for all aspects of Chinese cuisine and culture.
After completing schooling in Singapore, Harjanto moved to San Francisco to study engineering at Stanford University. He later worked in Hong Kong as a financial analyst at Merrill Lynch. However, he insists, food was always on his agenda. “Working in finance was an important part of my career development and was more part of my training ground rather than a career path for the long term. And I love dumplings so much,” he says with a laugh. “But I always knew I wanted to work with food and one day have my own business.”
The corporate experience did indeed instil valuable lessons about good business procedures he has continued to apply with the expansion of Din Tai Fung through both Australia and Indonesia. One point in particular, he says, stands above all.
“Integrity—you can’t do without it,” Harjanto says. “In banking, that means everything. If you have done something that is not right, then the whole thing will fall down and it will be known. You have to give the customers what they deserve and what they are worth.
“However, if you take a good look around right now, there are a lot of other dumpling restaurants opening around the country. So we need to be careful and be sure we are offering our customers a better dining experience. And that is what I never want to lose sight of.”