Recent years have seen an increasing concern in chemicals’ harmful effects on health that has pushed some to switch to organic food. Paolo Righetti, a 45-year-old Swiss national and co-owner of the Bali Buddha chain of health-food stores and restaurants, spoke with Carla Albertí de la Rosa about the importance of awareness and how Bali still has a long way to go.
Q You took over Bali Buddha after it had been struggling for a number of years. How much was your investment and why were you interested in Bali Buddha?
A I was always a good client at Bali Buddha and knew the owner very well. It used to be a normal restaurant and then the owner left. My idea when taking over Bali Buddha was to give locals environmental education.
Brenda and I invested about US$6,000 each initially. Since then, we have expanded a lot. Our aim is to raise awareness, with food and products.
I also believe the more you give the more you receive. It’s amazing how it really works. We donate almost 50 percent of our monthly profits to different foundations that are doing great things. Not just environmentally but also socially.
Q What did you do before you took over the business?
A I developed a school project in Ubud. I spent many years at school but only used 1 percent of what I learned in the real world. The school system is far away from real life. I wanted to do something so that kids wouldn’t have such a big gap with reality once they came out of school. I wanted them to keep a good relation with environment and at the same time show them how to use technology.
The school was like an embryo school initially, with three teachers and 20 kids. It was developed by someone who left the country when Suharto was in power. In five years we got 25 teachers, 250 kids and full sponsorship programs for kids with no money.
It was a great community project.
Before that I worked in importing and exporting back in Switzerland.
Q How did you turn the business around? Was it merely by making it more comfortable by adding cushions and better seating?
A It used to be a normal restaurant and we focused on health. People are developing allergies because of some products so we try to meet their needs.
We also cook with very light oil, no local oil. We try not to use the microwave or to freeze food and we take care of our waste.
So we try to look after our whole cycle, from the moment we plant our seeds to the way food is treated, until its waste.
We also changed the venue’s décor. We wanted to make people feel like at home. Some spend hours here just reading or writing and it’s also a meeting point.
We also have a message board to let people know about social and environmental projects.
Paulo Righetti: I like to eat well and in accordance to what my needs are.
Q Now you’ve just opened your third shop, on the Bukit. As your core customer group is expats, is there enough of them in the sparsely populated area to make it viable?
A It’s a very small shop, without a restaurant for the moment. We’ve just been open for a month now, so it’s a test. The good thing is that from day one we’ve had income, even if it’s still a small income.
Many of my customers, who are also my friends, moved there and asked us to open a Bali Buddha. The idea is to franchise and develop more all over the island, but it is a lot of work. The one on the Bukit is like our new baby.
Q A review on organic foods published by the UK government’s Food Standards Agency last July found that “there are no important differences in the nutrition content, or any additional health benefits, of organic food when compared with conventionally produced food.” So is the whole organic foods industry a scam, especially given that organic foods cost a lot more? Or, at least, are people deluding themselves?
A I’m not a scientist. I don’t have a way of proving it. I accept it can be possible but I prefer a tomato that grows in cow excrement to one that grows in a greenhouse. Maybe it’s the belief that works and makes you feel better. But what I do know is that I’m never sick.
Q Bali Buddha sells big, chocolaty and other sugar-packed cakes. How does this fit with your image as a health-food store?
A It fits well because we want to meet everybody’s needs. People miss out on a lot. Without being obsessed with food, I like to eat well and in accordance to what my needs are. We have some products, like the chocolate mousse cake – it’s a bomb for cholesterol but it’s made differently to other mousses. The base is made with rice flower, so at least there’s a healthy side to it.
We were only vegetarian to start with, but then we asked ourselves why. It’s closing your business down in the market. I don’t believe in extremism and we want our customers to have a choice.
Q Bali Buddha prices are high. For example, a carton of Japanese soya milk costs the equivalent of nearly US$10. Why is this, and does it mean that your customers are affluent and not price-conscious?
A When we buy and resell we just add 30 percent. These last years have been a nightmare for importing products, so prices have increased a lot and we have increased them too.
If a customer wants a specific product they won’t look at the price.
Q Some purported health-food products are somewhat controversial, in that their efficacy has not been proven – for instance, spirulina and resveratrol, which are sold at Bali Buddha. What is your view of these compounds? Are they a waste of money or do they boost health?
A This world works by trends. If people want something then we will offer it to them. I’m a fan of spirulina. I don’t know if it boosts health, but I know I’m never sick.
Resveratrol is a new product that I didn’t know of. It comes from the skin of the grapes. It’s one of the bestselling products. Obviously people know about it and buy it for a reason.
Q Bali Buddha also sells fresh and frozen wheatgrass that is advertised in your stores as containing the equivalent of a large amount of fresh vegetables – up to 1 kilogram. This claim is disputed, however, so why do you advertise it?
A I know someone with cancer that is taking it and it’s working very well for her. It has a big amount of chlorophyll and for what I see, people are happy with wheatgrass.
Q What health supplements do you take, and why?
A I drink coconut water every morning with spirulina. Then I blend coconut water with bee pollen, goji berries, banana, cocoa beans, which are incredible for the brain. They renew your neurons and it’s also a substitute for coffee. I also add some maca; it works in your body according to your needs. It’s good for the pancreas and thyroid. I blend it all together and have it every morning.
Q Do you follow a specific healthy diet, and if so, what is it?
A Not really, just those two drinks in the morning. Then I’ll also have a big bowl of fruit salad.
I also have a big bowl of mixed greens before 11am. After that I can eat anything I want. I eat meat and even smoke sometimes. I also drink. Some people live in denial; they would love to smoke or eat chocolate but hold themselves back. I believe that’s worse than actually doing it once in a while.
Q Indonesian, including Balinese, dishes are mostly fried and can have high fat content, especially coconut-based fare. As a result, cholesterol levels and heart disease can be high in some areas, notably in southern Sumatra, where meat forms the basis of the popular rendang dish. What do you think of this food? Could it be made healthier?
A It could be healthier by changing the oil. Indonesians reuse oil until it is black. They use it for a month and it’s saturated, but it’s cheaper for them to do this.
They should not cook vegetables so much and reduce the amount of meat and fried food. But they love it.
It could be made healthier but it’s very difficult to change this habit.
Q What are Indonesians’ perceptions of organic food? Is it available at the local market?
A Thirty years ago everything here was organic. They didn’t use any chemical products for fertilizing. Within the last 25 years there’s been a great explosion of government-supported programmes of chemicals in order to increase production. So for the last 25 years the country has been exposed to very high use and abuse of chemicals in agriculture.
Balinese people are still not aware of the negative effects of using chemicals. They’re starting to realise now that people are dying from cancer and have other problems they did not formally have.
Organic food is available to locals in places like Bali Buddha but it’s too expensive for them.
Q How do Indonesian organic standards compare to those of other countries?
A There’s no national certification yet. But the great success is that in the last few years, people know more about organic food.
Locals have created the Bali Organic Association, BOA. It’s not standardised to the level of certification that they have in Australia or in other places. But it means moving a step further.
I can’t prove that my tomatoes are organic if someone asks me. But I do checks with the farmers. I go to the fields and customers can also go there. It will develop into something; it’s just a matter of time.
Q In most countries, organic produce costs more, and consumers are generally willing to pay a higher price because they perceive that they are getting a healthier product – free of chemical pesticides – that will better benefit them. But does organic always have to be pricier?
A Prices of organic have gone down a bit although they are still more expensive than in the local market. The more we spread this organic approach, the more products will be available and the prices will drop. I don’t like the idea that because it’s organic it’s more expensive. The ideal would be that everything was organic.
Q What impact are pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers and hormones in non-organic food having on Indonesians’ health?
A People are having fertility problems, breathing problems, miscarriages, cancer… It’s not just that, but also the diet. In Indonesia, they don’t eat raw vegetables or much fruit. Now, Bali and the rest of Indonesia have been taken over by Monsanto’s GMOs (genetically modified organisms). They don’t have awareness and they are happy because crops are resistant to diseases.
But on a spiritual level, if you eat the DNA of a seed that has been modified, the seed’s bad DNA will also be your DNA. So somehow, by absorbing GMOs, we will be modified. We don’t see it now but we will in future generations. The key is education.
Q Is organic farming more environmentally friendly?
A It’s more environmentally friendly because it uses composting, has natural pesticides and tries to avoid as much as possible the use of chemicals.
Q Bali Buddha staff are friendly but on many occasions we’ve seen that they are not knowledgeable about the products in the store. As Bali Buddha is a specialist shop, don’t you conduct training for staff?
A Staff is my major problem. There’s an incredible turnover. I train them but they don’t stay long. Some are eager to learn, but for others it’s just a job and they don’t care.
Q Retail competition in Bali has dramatically increased in recent years, most notably with the arrival of the French hypermarket Carrefour; but smaller delis have also sprung up, to serve the expat market. Are you concerned Bali Buddha customers will be enticed away?
A I was worried. But there is something magic about Bali Buddha. I never advertise and we keep increasing our sales. We’re still a niche market and if you’re good you succeed.
Q Buddhists in Jakarta were furious last year over the name Buddha Bar – the French franchise part-owned in our capital by a daughter of former president Megawati Sukarnoputri – and their protests resulted in the name being taken down. The Buddhists were also unhappy at images of the Buddha inside the plush bar. They said neither the name nor the image should be used as a sales pitch, and that it is disrespectful. What will you do if they turn their attention to Bali?
A We have thought about that. Bali Buddha is a lucky name. We try to respect all religions. I’m Christian, Brenda (co-owner) is Muslim and we live on a Hindu island. We don’t do anything bad; there’s no alcohol or smoke; it’s not a bar; and we’re not disrespectful.
Q Do you have a standby name?
A Not yet.