'Starbikes': the poor Indonesian's Starbucks

'Starbikes': the poor Indonesian's Starbucks

JAKARTA - Agence France-Presse
Starbikes: the poor Indonesians Starbucks

An Indonesian "Starbikes" vendor prepares coffee on November 9, 2011 from his bicycle on the sidewalk outside a Starbucks coffee shop in Jakarta. AFP photo

As well-heeled Indonesians sip lattes in the air conditioned comfort of Starbucks, outside on the bustling, traffic-jammed streets of Jakarta the myriad poor turn to "Starbikes" for their fix.

In every large city the ubiquitous coffee vendors on wheels ride the streets or cluster around human traffic, dispensing cups of instant java from hot water flasks strapped behind their bicycle seats.

In a country where the $3 price of a small caffe latte at an international coffee chain like Starbucks equals more than a day's wages for the majority of Indonesia's 240-million population, these vendors sell their brew for about a tenth of that price, catering to a much larger client base.

Regarded as unlicensed peddlers and frequently locked in a cat-and-mouse game with police, the bikers are businessmen on the low rung of Southeast Asia's largest and fastest growing major economy, trying to pedal their way out of poverty by buying into an informal poor man's franchise.

Sambang, a 28-year-old farmer who came to the big city a year ago to seek his fortune, paid a "start-up" fee of about $150 to one of many independent agents for a bicycle and flask.

Soon he was riding the streets of Jakarta with long strips of coffee sachets -- offering the 'Kapal Api' black coffee most popular with Indonesians and cappuccino for more sophisticated palates -- swaying over his handlebars.

Sambang, who like many Indonesians uses a single name, also pays $30 monthly for supplies of hot water, coffee packets and plastic cups to his agent, on average earning around $100 a month.

At that rate, he said, vendors like him typically take about six months to pay off borrowed money to the agents who frequently work out of their homes, some even providing cramped and basic lodging to vendors, many who come from the villages.

International chains like Starbucks or The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf abound in Indonesia's bigger cities, in Jakarta ensconced in glitzy malls alongside Louis Vuitton or Tiffany's boutiques or stores selling $15,000 wristwatches.

Sambang, dressed in a worn-out T-shirt and flip-flops like many other vendors, caters to a different crowd.

"Rich people go to Starbucks, poor people like me go to 'Starbikes'," quipped Indonesian cabbie Junarsah, hopping out of his Mercedes limousine taxi and stopping a pedaler.

"Cheap, fast and good. I'm a happy man," the 44-year-old grinned, paying 3,000 (30 cents) for his streetside purchase of a cup of coffee and two cigarettes.

Cups and Puffs

The bikers may not offer the fancy blends and rich desserts of the upmarket coffee chains. But their winning combo, in a country where the World Health Organisation says smoking rates have risen six-fold over the last 40 years, is marrying cups with puffs.

"What is coffee without cigarettes? Just like a husband and wife you cannot separate them," said Supriyanto, a 36-year-old bike vendor.

"You can sell cigarettes without coffee but not the other way, trust me on this," he advised.

But with hundreds of bike vendors on the streets, competition is stiff and staying ahead means doing whatever it takes for more business.

"I give my cell number to regular customers so they can call me anytime," Sambang said, flashing his latest-model Nokia. "I also deliver free to their offices. Anything for more business." Most of his clients are low-level office workers, students, taxi drivers and the armies of workers who clean, guard and look after Indonesia's growing middle class and the mega-rich whose wealth was made in palm oil, timber or other lucrative sectors.

Despite the competition, the pedalers are friendly with one another and have common meeting points around the city, where they take smoke breaks and eat together, warning each other of any police presence. Before the bikers began to appear two years ago, foot vendors dispensed brew in the land of Java, Indonesia's largest island which gave coffee its nickname after the Javanese blend gained global popularity in the 19th century.

The pedalers try not to take business away from coffee vendors on foot by not parking too close to them.

Merlyn Suciati, a manager at one of the many Starbucks outlets in Jakarta, said the company offers "variety and comfort to our customers who converse over coffee at our cafe. It may not be so comfortable in the sun".

But most Indonesians, in the world's largest Muslim country, can sip a caffe latte or macchiatto only in the imagination.

"Of course I'd love to have those nice, expensive cups of coffee at a mall, but the price of a cup is enough to feed me for a week!" exclaimed Haryono, who drives an "ojek," or motorcycle taxi, steering passengers through Jakarta's choc-a-bloc traffic.