Creating a Restaurant Revolution : Riyaaz Amlani

His is one of the most famous names when you speak of restaurants, food and cafés. His first brand Mocha – Coffees & Conversations was one of the earliest ‘hangout’ spots for one and all and pioneered the hookah concept in India well over 15 years ago. And now Social, one of his most contemporary offerings is metamorphosing the ‘hanging out’ concept by adding on the co-working zones. Meet hotshot restaurateur Riyaaz Amlani, CEO and Managing Director of Impresario Entertainment & Hospitality, the firm that is synonymous with brands like Smoke House Deli, Smoke House Grill, Smoke House Room, Stone Water Grill, Salt Water Grill, and of course, Social. In a tete-a-tete with RITZ, the effervescent Amlani speaks of the fast-changing F&B market in India and how Impresario aims to capture a chunk of the pie.

“It’s great value, great experience provided at a great price that draws in and retains consumers,” says Amlani. “It’s also good food; good service and good story-telling…yes showcasing the legacy of the brand that is equally essential in the restaurant business,” says the man who now runs a Rs 250 crore venture spread across metropolitan cities and second-rung towns, but whose journey is as exciting as a movie script. Considered one of the best restaurateurs in the country, he started off by working at Metro Shoes in Mumbai at the ripe young age of 13. This was followed by opening a shoe shop in Maximum City, working as a DJ at Parsi weddings, flipping burgers in the US, and then finally setting up ‘Mocha’, the café known for its hookahs in 2001.

“I had to kiss many frogs before finding my prince. Career-wise, that is,” he winks, adding that today he is extremely comfortable dealing in restaurants, “as this is what I like to do and I’m talented at.”

Under the Impresario umbrella, Amlani runs 44 outlets in the F&B space across India. “The plan is for 100 more over the next 5 years.” Bengaluru, a city boasting 5 brands from Impresario, is slated to have 10 more over the next 3 years. “Bengaluru has that great F&B culture, a superb regard for hanging out and a vibrant cosmopolitan population, all of which forms the right mix for us.”

Riyaaz Amlani

Of all his brands, be it in Bengaluru or in any other city, it is Social that stands out the most. The all-day café and bar with dedicated collaborative workspace for freelancers and small ventures is the perfect zone for working, networking, eating and being merry. Positioned as the café of the future, Amlani is optimistic that Social is going to be bigger than even Starbucks in India.

The 16 Socials under Impresario are however superseded by the 17 Mochas. Amlani, who liked the idea of the quahveh khanneh (coffee houses offering hookahs) of Morocco and Turkey, which eventually lead to the first Mocha in Mumbai, has now shifted all the Mochas to the non-metros. The space in the metros has been left for more Socials to come about. Why is that so? “It’s purely economics and rising real estate prices in cities,” he says, specifying that an average cheque per head in Mocha can come up to Rs200, while in Social, it can be as much as Rs800. “So considering the cost of operating in metros, it made more sense to shift Mocha to the non-metros.”

What’s interesting is that Amlani has gradually weaned away the hookah from Mocha “to appeal to a wider audience. There was a ban on hookahs in 2007-08. We had contested that ban and we won. But we came to realise that we were highly dependent on that one product which was risky from a business perspective. Hence we decided to take out the hookah from Mocha,” he says. Quite a bold move indeed.

Like the hookah ban which was a challenge (and which helped him turn around Mocha drastically), taxation, regulation and realty pricing are the major challenges that he has to confront. “Restaurants employ a lot of people and the business (both organised and unorganised sectors) contributes to around two percent of the country’s GDP. So we need more impetus to grow and thrive.”

Amlani is a big fan of Spain…Spanish architecture, beaches, weather and of course the food. So can we expect a Spanish themed restaurant or say a tapas bar coming out of his portfolio in future? Without directly divulging any plans, he says that he seeks great inspiration from Spain and Spanish food. “And that will grow through my work.” Impresionante!