“Gado-gado” vendor strives to survive economic crisis
Santo Koesoebjono *
“Since the economic recession my daily gross earnings have dropped by almost 60 percent,” related Soekardjo, a 79-year-old seller of gado-gado, the popular dish of vegetables in a peanut sauce. He and his wife live in a tiny wooden house in the Poncol area, a stone’s throw from the glitters of Senen plaza. They share their house with their two youngest sons from their six children. His roadside stall is located in a posh area of Kebayoran Baru, South Jakarta. Customers vary from schoolchildren and policemen to the wealthy, who order gado-gado while they wait in their car or send their servant to purchase it to go. But the monetary crisis has eaten away at business. “We are happy we can make ends meet but we cannot save money for emergencies,” said Soekardjo.
He employs four family members. An additional burden to his ever increasing spending is expensive medication for his heart problem. Soekardjo is a third generation gado-gado seller. The business was started by his grandfather and continued by his father. With strong support from his wife, he took up the enterprise in 1963 after trying his luck at various odd jobs. He developed his own recipe.
“I started it in Jl. Lembang, Central Jakarta. At the time the price of my gado-gado was about Rp. 35 per portion.” In early 1970s he moved to different places in Kebayoran Baru before settling at Jl. Panglima Polim, opposite the Wijaya Centre, beginning in the mid 1970s. The location suits him well as cars can park nearby. His stall usually opens at 10 a.m. Before the crisis, clients would have to queue up and Soekardjo and his eldest son worked nonstop until they closed the stall at about 3 p.m. Things have changed. Although he has met customers’requests to open at 8 a.m., few people come. With falling customer numbers and orders from businesses, he is now forced to close at about 1 p.m.
Due to his poor health, his business is experiencing drastic changes. Following doctors’ advice, he has to restrict himself only to taking orders, checking the quality of the gado-gado and supervising his assistants, cleanliness of the stall and its surroundings. After more than 35 years of hard work, he now has to hand over the preparation of the dish to his eldest son, who is assisted by a younger brother. Soekardjo is happy to give work to his children, and in return the children take care of him. Soekardjo has long passed retirement age, but still has to work for his living. Still, he looks very young for his age.
Four people have to live from the food sales. Another member of the team is his wife. She helps Soekardjo do the shopping and cooking, and gets paid for her contribution. His poor health forces him to take a taxi from Senen to the location of his stall in Kebayoran Baru, which costs him around Rp. 15,000 per trip. He goes home by bus. In the past he was strong enough to go to and from work by bus. He is grateful that someone living in the neighborhood of his stall is willing to keep his cart at night and to provide him with clean water every day.
Mrs. Soekardjo buys vegetables in Pasar Nangka in the evening and them. At about 5 a.m. she buys the tofu and lontong (rice cooked in banana leaves). Then she goes out again to buy ingredients for the sauce. Her husband insists on buying the ingredients form particular shops because he trusts the quality of the goods. “But the prices of these basic materials have skyrocketed now”, sighed Mrs. Soekardjo. She normally paid Rp. 3,500 for one kilogram of sauce but it now costs Rp. 8,500. The same goes for prices of other ingredients for the gado-gado due to the more than 77% inflation rate in the past year. Her complaint is understandable considering the drastic decline in their daily income. Nowadays, fewer schoolchildren buy gado-gado for their lunch. “Some of my customers apologized and said that now bring their lunch from home,” she said.
Despite the price increases Soekardjo has not raised his gado-gado price. It should in fact be raised from Rp. 3,500 to Rp. 4,500 rupiah per portion, which is still lower than the price of gado-gado in a restaurant. “Prices keep rising and I do not know how high it will become when we start business again after Idul Fitri,” she said. Soekardjo closes his stall during the Ramadhan fasting although other people open food stalls in the second week of this fasting period, especially in the afternoon and at night, when people go out to buy sweets and food to break the fast.
Soekardjo and his wife were born in Kuningan, West Java, but had lived in the Poncol area even before they married 47 years ago. They live in a wooden house with a door and two windows. It has two rooms measuring two meters by three meters each and a space of about 1 square meter used as a kitchen. The youngest of their two sons attends a technical high school.
Mrs. Soekardjo said heavy rain causes the black smelly water from the gutter running along the lane to enter their house. Then retreat to the small loft upstairs where they stack their belongings. Family members sit on a mat on the floor with their only luxuries being a fan and a television set. “We have to bathe and wash our clothes in the public bathing area next to the house,” she said. Drinking water is brought in a tank from public water tap in Poncol, which is notorious for crime.
“You know, although there are many thieves and crooks living in this area, we feel safe. We need not to lock our door at night. It is safe to walk in our quarter even at night,” said Soekardjo. In the shadow of gleaming plaza and modern shops in the Senen area, the Soekardjos’neigborhood cannot be called modest. It is much poorer than that.
People’s income here is just sufficient to keep their heads above water. The physical environment confronts them daily with piles of waste, a small creek without running water and open gutter, regularly flooded with polluted water.
Asked whether the number of roadside vendors is declining as a result of the economic crisis, Soekardjo said people tried to keep their stalls running despite the drop in earnings. Others have even joined the business by setting up stalls selling food and other goods because it is their last resort. It is their only safety net because they are ineligible for the government’s social safety net program.
Testimony to the fact that even the wealthy are watching their food expenses is the mushrooming of a large number of sidewalk restaurants, sometimes called cafes, in and around Jakarta parks, each selling different foods and drinks. Many of the tents are run by celebrities and other people new to the business. However their presence ups the competition for regular street vendors. The competition is actually unfair. The new cafes attract customers, many of whom want to meet their favorite celebrities, whereas the street vendors who sell food as their sole means of income are losing their clients. For these real vendors, life means an endless fight to just get by.
* The writer is an economist-demographer based in the Netherlands
Published in The Jakarta Post, January 31,1999