Tuesday 29 July 2014

Cuca turns one...

In August 2012 I started this blog with a post titled "DREAM" and with the hope of sharing with anyone who found me in the world wide web the ups and downs of our little adventure: opening Cuca, our restaurant. We had no idea back then if we were going to manage to actually open (so many businesses die before they even start!) or if we were going to miraculously attract any customers. Or even if our guests were going to like at all what we could offer…

If you have followed our journey, you are part of Cuca’s family already, but for those of you who just found out about us and are lazy to read all previous posts, I summarize them: after years in Singapore working way too much in separate jobs, Kevin (a Canadian) and I (a Spaniard) decided it was time to work even harder but together towards a common goal. We had the vision of building a restaurant where amazing food were affordable and served in a casual environment. The concept was simple: tapas, cocktails and desserts made with local ingredients and cooked in a western style.

We chose Bali because we believed an international clientele was our best bet and we jumped at the opportunity to star this adventure. We spent the first few weeks in the island settling in: finding a home, transport, learning the roads. We then started writing down all our ideas and trying to come out with a priority list, what to do first. And finally we hit the road and started looking for the people who could help us, one by one. Although we faced many more challenges than we could have thought of, every day we went to bed having ticked off one more task. There were many days when I felt disheartened and just wanted to give up and Kevin then promised me that everything would be ok. There were other days when Kevin felt frustrated and didn’t know how to move forward and it was then my turn to come up with a plan. Thankfully, we had each other. Cuca would not be here otherwise, although it has not been easy. If you want to test your marriage, go ahead and open a restaurant :)

On July 23rd 2013 Cuca opened its doors. Adrenaline and coffee saved most of our days back then. The challenge was no longer the building but its people: 60 employees from all over Indonesia, each with a different background and a unique set of beliefs and expectations. They only had in common the same enchanting smile that convinced us to hire them and although we have been greatly disappointed by some of those smiles, new ones have come to our rescue and every day make us better.

With $0 advertising investment since we opened, we have been relying exclusively on our product and your word for it. The first few weeks were scary and an empty Cuca is still a recurring nightmare in our short slept nights, but word of mouth is all the magic we needed. Even though and despite being quite busy most of the time, we still stand on our entrance welcoming new and returning guests as if each of you were our first. How could we take for granted the blessing of having all of you?

Well, Cuca is now turning 1 and this first year is being a roller coaster of events and emotions. Any regular day is loaded with tons of crisis, laughs, tears, surprises, encounters and goodbyes. We know this is only the beginning and that consistency is a critical test in the long term. We know we cannot lower our guard because a restaurant is as good as its last meal, but we also now know that Cuca´s miracle is possible and this is much more than we knew 2 years ago!

We dedicate Cuca’s anniversary, our little miracle, to each of you:

- to those of you who believed in us more than we believed in ourselves and to those who didn’t and pushed us to prove you wrong;
- to those who gave us ideas and helped us in thousand different ways and to those who refused to give us a hand and thus made us find an even better way;
- to those who broke our heart because we are not what you were looking for and to those who mercifully mended it by totally getting what we are;
- to those who can see we have put our life into this restaurant and encourage and congratulate us and to those who only see the faults and eagerly point at what we should do better;

We try to learn as much as we can from all of you while remaining true to ourselves.

Thank you for this year and let’s toast to many more to come!

Saturday 14 December 2013

Waves of faces

Cuca’s opening marketing strategy was to focus ourselves on every single guest, welcome them with open arms and make them feel taken care of, spoiled by the food and our sincere smiles. We were determined not to advertise anywhere, firstly because after building the entire restaurant we were seriously broke and secondly because our thinking is: who is going to believe an ad someone has paid for? People believe friends or acquaintances who have tried a place and eagerly recommend it.

Things could have turned sour and we may have failed badly as we knew nobody in Bali so not even friends or relatives could help us out to start spreading a good word about Cuca... However our humble strategy and very hard and long hours of work slowly started to pay themselves back.

It all started by Kevin himself in full uniform fishing for customers among the tourists at the nearby beach (“Come, I will cook for you!”). Once convinced, they would walk in, sit down and be in awe with our food. I guess it is not that hard to exceed low expectations :). Most of them would return the following night and then promise us to tell their friends back at home, write something nice about us on Internet or share their unexpected find with their fellow hotel guests.

It was shocking to start getting guests recommended by previous ones… It was working! Our strategy was working! Then the power of Internet multiplied exponentially the chain of recommendations and the word of mouth started to cross borders. Believe me, it is still truly magical to witness day by day and first hand this phenomenon.

While tourists came and left, we started to recognize faces that kept on coming, every time with different company to show new groups of friends their recent discovery. We know each other by name and they are now our regulars.

At the end of October the tourist season significantly slowed down and locals took over. Guests from Jakarta or Bali timidly walked in knowing exactly what to order. It seems they always watch out for reviews about new places and wait for the tourist wave to leave before trying them themselves.

We are now preparing ourselves for a new tourist peak season: our first Christmas. We don’t know exactly what is ahead of us but we are ready to embrace this new chapter with our eyes wide open, a well-laid table and a Cuca smile that will make you feel at home away from home.

Friday 20 September 2013

PART 2: religion reaches Cuca

The altar in our kitchen
Religion has also invaded Cuca’s life. As soon as the first employee walks in, the “canangs” are prepared and placed around the restaurant: on our cars, on the main entrance, staff area, in the office, on the reception counter, etc. Special attention is put on the main “pecati” in our kitchen, carefully decorated and daily taken care of. The ceremony of blessing all the key locations takes place at least twice a day and the Balinese masterfully organize themselves to take turns to carry out these intriguing tasks. 

Our priest 
For you to understand the degree of importance of the spirituality in Bali, let me tell you about our “Mlaspas”. Our initial plan was to open Cuca’s doors for the first time on July 20. However, a brief consultation with the priest revealed that we could only request permission from the Gods to open Cuca on July 22, a full moon day. Our staff explained to us that it was unquestionable to open Cuca without divine permission, so it was decided by the higher power to postpone our opening until July 23 and celebrate our Mlaspas on 22. 

The “Melaspas” is a traditional Balinese ceremony meant to cleanse and purify a new building after it has been completed and prior to its occupation. This ceremony is held by priests, relatives, neighbors, friends, etc.  for the people who will occupy the building to feel at ease and avoid undesirable tribulations (pain, frustration, conflict). During the day-long intricate ritual, we asked the spirits of our coconut grove to consent us to carry out our business in their land. We fed them with countless offerings so they leave us work in harmony and Kevin and I witnessed the endless series of rituals participating as we were told. 

Feeding the spirits with offerings
Cuca staff ready for the ceremony
Cuca's ladies discussing the ritual
Blessing Cuca
Blessing Cuca
The main ceremony
Taking the blessed water
On the way to the beach
The end of the ceremony: in the sea
A few weeks later, on August 10 we celebrated Saraswati Day. This is a very special celebration in which the Balinese give thanks for the gift of knowledge, for the ability to understand human nature, to write and to read. We got up that day leaving our bedroom to find incense burning on all our bookshelves at home. Cuca’s office was equally scented and we were recommended not to write by hand and seriously forbidden to erase anything written.  Schools are closed on that day and students pray for the success in their studies. 

On the morning of August 24 Cuca was a very busy restaurant. Our Balinese staff was waving dozens of beautiful offerings made of coconut leaves. We soon found out that we were celebrating "Tumpek Landep", or the Day of the Iron. Originally this day was about giving thanks for the swords but it has evolved to all things man-made from metal: computers, kitchen equipment, cars… That afternoon when we briefly left Cuca for a meeting we were amazed by the wonderful decoration on our cars and smiled every time we came across to other cars in the road similarly decorated. How nice look the streets of Bali with so many mobile decorations!

The front of our car

It is not easy to find out why you are supposed to do or not do certain things on certain days. Balinese take these beliefs in such a natural way that when you ask them why this or that they just look at you surprised at your question. Trust me, no matter how much you ask, you don’t get a straight answer, they simply tell you “don’t worry, just make sure you don’t erase anything today”, what leaves you with no option but to follow…  Life in Bali is a constant enigma.