Sun, 01 Jun 2003

Ragusa still offering a scoop or two 70 years on

Primastuti Handayani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The more things change, the more they stay the same for Ragusa Es Italia.

Seven decades have passed since it began operations, five presidents have led the country but Ragusa is still dishing up its homemade ice cream.

Located on Jl. Veteran no. 10 in Central Jakarta, the ice cream parlor has changed little since it opened its doors in 1947.

Still on the menu are the same seven basic flavors -- chocolate, vanilla, mocca, strawberry, nougat, durian and rum raisin -- served by white-uniformed waiters to patrons seated on rattan chairs under old ceiling fans. There is also the unusual sound of the original cash register.

"Keeping true to the very same taste for decades makes people from all ages and social status come back to Ragusa," said Buntoro Kurniawan, who now manages the business.

"Some of our customers even come back to Jl. Veteran just to remember their good old days when they were first dating."

He counts a couple of former presidents among regulars.

"Pak Harto (Soeharto) and Pak Habibie used to order chocolate and vanilla flavors," Buntoro said.

Ragusa's long history began when Italian immigrants Luigi and Vincenzo Ragusa opened an ice cream stand in 1932 during Pasar Gambir, a month-long annual night market held in conjunction with the Jakarta Fair.

Four years later, they began selling their ice cream from a cart on Jl. Pos in Bandung.

In 1947, the two Ragusa brothers, with the help of their three other brothers, opened the Jl. Veteran parlor.

One of the five Ragusas, Francisco, married Buntoro's older sister, Liliana, who had worked as the cashier at the cafe.

In 1970s, the Ragusa clan, including Liliana, moved to Grottaglie in Taranto province in southern Italy, handing over the business to Buntoro.

Buntoro, a former teacher, branched out with the first Ragusa restaurant in 1978 at the Duta Merlin shopping complex on Jl. Gajah Mada, Central Jakarta.

"My wife, Sias Mawarni, had an idea to open a restaurant instead of only having an ice cream parlor. Ice cream sells like hotcakes during the dry season but in the rainy season, business gets very slow," he said.

With the success of the restaurant, Buntoro expanded the business and opened four other restaurants, including two in Bogor and Cipanas, both in West Java.

But the business' flagship remains the ice cream parlor.

"I manage the business by myself. I don't need to advertise Ragusa, it's widely known based on word of mouth promotion. Besides, if there are too many ice cream parlors, people will be confused where to go."

How has Ragusa survived increased competition?

"To tell you the truth, our business decreased when industrial ice cream first came to this country in the 1980s. But soon, the sales improved," Buntoro said.

"Ragusa is a homemade ice cream made of pure milk, it has no bubbles like industrial ice cream and it only has seven flavors.

"With only seven flavors to choose from, people can quickly select the one they prefer."

Ragusa also offers various ice-cream combinations like Tutti Frutti, Banana Split and Spaghetti ice cream.

Another "secret" is that Buntoro uses low-fat powdered milk, imported from Australia, to make the ice cream.

"Most women are concerned about their weight. But when consuming our ice cream, they don't have to worry because we only use low-fat milk," he said.

"I just guess children and their parents realize that our ice cream tastes much better."

Affordability also brings in the crowds, even if it means lining up to wait for a seat, especially on weekends.

"Kids on their bikes, working people and even families can come here to buy various kinds and prices of our ice cream," Buntoro said.

-- Primastuti Handayani