The Telegraph
| Sunday, September 14, 2014 |
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A hunger for growth

Restaurateur Riyaaz Amlani is opening a new restaurant every month and he's about to pile his plate even higher, says Saimi Sattar

  • Pic: Rupinder Sharma

It's lunchtime and a long queue has already formed outside Social, the hip, new, casual dining place started by ace restaurateur Riyaaz Amlani. This is the 37th restaurant that Amlani has opened in the last 13 years and, like most of the others, it's getting the thumbs up from patrons.

Amlani has been called the Man with the Midas Touch in the restaurant industry and he has always been quick to catch the latest trends and stay several steps ahead of the competition. "I guess I have my ear to the ground. I can't afford to lose touch with the business. I am paranoid to an extent," says Amlani who's beaming broadly and looking anything but paranoid. But every now and then he casts a hawk eye over the restaurant to ensure that everything's going just right.

You could say that Amlani has been there and done it all in the restaurant industry. His 39 restaurants (he has opened two more after the Social in Delhi) include nine different brands in 12 cities ranging from fine dining establishments like Smoke House Deli to cafs like Mocha, which first made him famous. There are now 10 Smoke House Delis and 15 Mochas — the youth-oriented cafs have even reached more out of the way cities like Guwahati, Bilaspur, Nagpur and Raipur. Other smaller chains include the two Salt Water Cafs in Mumbai and The Tasting Room in Mumbai.

There's no sign that Amlani's slowing down in the near future. Last year he opened 12 new restaurants, just about one each month, and went to three new cities. He has just opened a third Social in Mumbai after Bangalore and Delhi. Another Smoke House Deli came up in the capital last week. What's more, his hunger for growth is growing and it looks like he will be opening new restaurants at high speed throughout the year. "We are looking at launching more Smoke House Delis and Socials in tier-I cities and Mochas in tier-II cities. We will definitely open more than 12 restaurants in the coming one year," says Amlani.

Amlani's convinced that being an outsider helped him to build the company and pile his plate high in the restaurant business. "I guess we didn't come from a restaurant background and so we approached it from a customer's perspective rather than that of business," he says.

  • The funky restaurant bar. Pic : Rupinder Sharma

Step inside Social and it's clear that once again Amlani is trusting his gut instinct and trying out an entirely new concept that will keep him ahead of the competition. Social has been created as a place where youngsters ("I wanted to create a brand for the 18-30 age group," says Amlani) can both work and party.

Anyone who wants to work out of Social can pay Rs 5,000 a month and become a member, which then entitles him or her to personal lockers, a conference room and post office facilities. In addition, there are hi-res printers, and high-speed WiFi. To further sweeten the deal, the membership fee is adjusted against food and drinks consumed.

Delhi's 250-cover Social is spread over several levels and has a dedicated space on the top floor which can seat 55 members. About 50 members have already enrolled in about two months and Amlani's now looking at carving out space for another 70 to 80 members.

  • Social, the hip, new restaurant in Delhiā€™s Hauz Khas Village, has one floor exclusively for members who enjoy the buzz of working in a trendy restaurant. Pic : Rupinder Sharma

Amlani's confident that the modern generation likes the buzz of working in a restaurant that's hip and trendy. "These are creative people whose excitement levels peak at the word collaboration. A fashion designer and visual artist who connected here are having an exhibition at Select Citywalk for instance," says Amlani.

But the restaurant has additional factors working in its favour. It has one of the best locations in Hauz Khas Village and overlooks a scenic lake. And the bare-bones dcor is carefully aimed at creating the right youthful image with partially plastered walls and naked light-bulbs that hang from the ceiling connected only by thin, old-fashioned wires.

Walk down a narrow corridor from Social and you reach the entirely different world of Smoke House Deli (they're connected by a circuitous passage). This is a chic but casual dining place — which is probably the format that Amlani does best. One section has sketches depicting the Khilji period (which is when the monuments around Hauz Khas Village were built). Another section turns the lens on the nearby Deer Park and the third shows how Hauz Khas Village has developed into a hip village with restaurants, designers and boutiques that have sprung up cheek by jowl.

  • Two of Amlani’s smaller restaurant chains are The Tasting Room

But Amlani isn't a micro-manager who checks each dish as it comes out of the kitchen — he could hardly expand at this rate if he was. He reckons that his forte is what he calls 'concept creation'. And with so many restaurants spread out across the country Amlani divides his time between various cities. So he spends about 10 days at his base in Mumbai and a week in Delhi. Another four to five days is spent keeping up with Bangalore's buzzing youth and restaurant scene and he also gives a few days to Pune. And yes, most of the time he is eating at his restaurants.

Restaurants are always a bitterly competitive business with a fatality rate of over 50 per cent and nobody knows this better than Amlani — he is quick to shut down anything that doesn't work, like a Le Kebabier that was packed up recently. Says Amlani: "I always remember that I cannot take my customers for granted as what works today won't work tomorrow."

There are other peculiarities of the restaurant business that have to be considered. Says Amlani: "It isn't just each city, but even each area in that city is different. What works in Hauz Khas will not work in Adhchini, despite the areas being close to each other. You can't just ride a high horse and claim that your restaurant has done well in another city. The menu has to be tweaked according to the city and even the area in any particular city," says Amlani.

  • Salt Water Café

To some extent Amlani has been forced to move quickly in the last two-three years because he has a war chest of Rs 48 crore given to him by two venture capital firms Mirah Hospitality and Beacon India Private Equity. And his company Impresario Entertainment & Hospitality is now reckoned to be worth about Rs 200 crore — don't forget it was started with about Rs 20 lakh in the kitty.

The coming years are also expected to see furious expansion. Amlani's hoping to become a Rs 500-crore company in about three years and he also aims to go public sooner rather than later.

All this is quite a change from when he and his partners Kiran Saleskar and Varun Sahni pooled in money to start the first Mocha. The legend in the restaurant industry is that Amlani was looking for a place where he could hang out with his friends and decided that a caf was the need of the hour. "The only places to go to were either the expensive five-star hotels, movies, or the roadside joints," recalls Amlani.

In those days the food industry experts were sceptical that Amlani could make a coffee shop pay. Says Amlani: "They were convinced that I couldn't make money selling coffee for 30 bucks while paying a rent of Rs 4 lakh." But now Amlani is opening Mocha only in tier-II cities as he feels all coffee shops, be it a Barista or Caf Coffee Day or his own brand, are replicas of each other. And that is where Social comes in — as Mocha reinvented.

  • Fine dining restaurant chain Smoke House Deli is also growing at high speed. Pic : Rupinder Sharma

Of course, checking out the competition is crucial in the restaurant business. So, when Amlani's not eating out at his own restaurants he's likely to be getting his fill of his rivals. Some of his favourites include Gajalee, the seafood joint in Mumbai, the innovative Indian Accent in Delhi, and Wasabi by Morimoto at The Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai. Amlani grins and admits that he loves to eat. But going to other restaurants has its drawbacks. "Even at leisure you are working. You are always watching out for the quality of food, the service, the staff — pretty much everything," guffaws Amlani.

However, with a new addition to the family — the restaurateur and his singer-lawyer wife Kiran Chaudhri Amlani had a baby boy, Khayal, in the second week of August — Amlani will try to cut down on his travels.

Amlani met Chaudhri, a British citizen of Pakistani origin, in December 2011 when she came to India to explore the country's music scene. "A common friend insisted that she should meet me as I was someone who had nightclubs in addition to having a keen interest in all kinds of music," remembers Amlani. The couple married exactly a year later.

Will Amlani ever move out of the restaurant business? He's definite that he doesn't want to do anything else. He says firmly: "I have no plans of venturing into any other business. Restaurants are what I want to set up for the rest of my life."