A Growing Tribe

Interview by Caitlin de Laure
Photographs courtesy of PTT Family

From restaurants to hotels, PTT Family projects are known for their distinct aesthetics and intricate narratives. More importantly, there is a constant emphasis on inclusion and community instead of exclusivity. Co-founders Ronald Akili and Jason Gunawan had previously opened an art gallery together before starting the first Potato Head restaurant in Jakarta a year later. The rest is history, as they say, because the group has been launching establishments in swift succession over the past seven years—Potato Head Hong Kong being the latest addition. Ronald shares more on how this collective was seeded, the realities of living a dream and personal insights on staying grounded amid rapid progress.

ronald akili potato head a growing tribe

Please tell us more about yourself and PTT Family.

I was never really professionally trained in anything, be it hospitality or property development. I majored in entrepreneurial studies and was always immersed in design, architecture and art, so I always knew that I wanted to create something tangible rather than join an intangible industry like finance. The first approach was property. After working at a property development company for a year, learning the property business, development stages and processes in Jakarta, I started my own company and created my first residential project called Tanah Teduh. From there, everything has been very hands-on, learning day by day through experience.

potato head hong kong

The storefront that greets all visitors to Potato Head Hong Kong.

Soon after Jason and I opened the art gallery promoting contemporary Indonesian art, my wife, Sandra, returned to Jakarta from culinary school and wanted to start a restaurant. Naturally, I approached Jason with this idea—we could do the design of the restaurant together while Sandra came up with the food concepts. That’s how Potato Head started.

My wife was in the kitchen from day till night, and the rest of us knew nothing about the F&B industry—I didn’t even know how the POS systems worked—so we learnt everything from scratch. It was complete chaos, but it was a beautiful chaos. In a sense, it was our naiveté that propelled us to accomplish something very different from what the Jakarta F&B scene was offering then; we weren’t scared because we didn’t know better. And since we didn’t have fixed guidelines, we only featured the things that we liked: the menu consists of comfort food from our daily lives and the design is very industrial to keep everything as raw as possible. A year later, my wife was expecting our child so I ended up taking over Potato Head and I fell in love with the industry. What I think contributed most to our success were the day-to-day experiences and the expertise stemming from our love of food, drink, design, and art.

Potato Head Hong Kong_All-day cafe and bar_2

The all-day café and bar at Potato Head Hong Kong.

In your immensely fruitful friendship with Jason Gunawan, how do you complement each other?

I think we find the right balance in each other, and it’s great to have a sparring partner because we’re constantly challenging ourselves. Also, it’s important for checks and balances. A partnership is never easy, be it business, marriage or family. But both of us trust, understand and respect one another, and I think that’s key. If Jason is working on something, I’ll trust him on it, and vice versa.

When did your passion for hospitality begin then—was it sparked off by your family’s background in the travel industry?

Subconsciously, I’d say yes. I was brought up by very open-minded parents and because of their background, we were constantly travelling when I was young, living from one hotel to the next. What always mesmerised me was how a hotel was like a big theatre with everything so nicely curated. Since then, I knew I wanted to be a hotelier some day. It’s funny—there was this talent show when I was in 4th grade, and I remember my presentation being a drawing of a house that was to be a hotel.

Read more in The U Press N˚12 (Singapore edition).