Creating Entertaining Social Spaces

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Riyaaz Amlani, CEO & MD, Impresario Handmade Restaurants shares his journey on providing unlimited entertainment options.

BY NAMITA GUPTA

How did the idea of getting into the restaurant industry come, after a Masters degree in event management from UCLA?

A Mumbai boy through and through, my youth in the ’90s was spent distressing over the lack of entertainment options in India’s Maximum City. At that point, in your leisure time, all you could do was watch movies or drive up and down Marine Drive or Worli Sea Face. Although I love my city, I always felt that Mumbai lacked options as far as leisure activities were concerned. Also, I was dating a girl at that point, and if we wanted to go out and have a chat, the options were either some Udipi restaurant or a five-star coffee shop. There was nothing in between. So, the problem was really very real to me. After doing a course in entertainment management at UCLA, I came back to Mumbai and became an entertainment consultant setting up bowling alleys, go-karting tracks and amusement parks. For me, it was always about creating these entertainment spaces. But the idea of getting into the restaurant business came to me much later, when I was on a weekend holiday in Panchgani with close friends. We were chatting over cups of coffee and sharing a hookah, which I had procured during one of my trips abroad. The weather was amazing and everything was just perfect.

A friend of mine randomly said “I wish I could bottle this moment” and that was my Eureka moment. I thought to myself why not bottle the experience and also sell it? The seed of Mocha was planted in my head that night. Today, the Mocha chain has been through several avatars, but in 2001, when the first Mocha opened in Mumbai, the city had no coffee shop culture. It had just got its first Barista a month earlier. All we wanted was to create an affordable space where youngsters could sit and chill over a cuppa. We started small – it was a 500-square-feet space. We served good coffee from around the globe, some desserts and a few sandwiches. And of course, the hookah. My friends and I had invested INR 15 lakh in the venture and it was supposed to be a one-off thing. I never thought it would spread into this! But pretty soon, seeing the numbers, we realised the tremendous business opportunity it had. And we opened a few branches in Mumbai, and one in Delhi. But as time passed, I grew more interested in creating spaces to foster interesting conversations where people could come and interact, and build a community vibe. That was my approach towards restauranting then and that is still the approach.

What were the challenges then and how did you overcome them?

It’s always challenging to grow a restaurant business. When functioning as a startup, banks debt is not available to you, and you have to rely on your friends & family. When I started my business with Mocha, it was a self-funded venture, I and my two friends from college decided to get together and start the place. There were a lot of estimated costs involved for which we raided our homes. Also, the fact that till you don’t improve the scale and revenue private equity also does not get involved. Back in the day, our business was doing very well and we managed to recover our investment within six months, after which we approached private equity. That lead is difficult for restaurateurs to make. We were fortunate enough to get the necessary money in 2008. For most restaurateurs when it comes to growth they have to initially rely on friends and family and internal approach. That is a little bit of a challenge for restaurateurs. There is an increase in demand for new experiences, and going to a restaurant is not limited to just eating good food. People expect a wholesome experience and view going to a restaurant or café as a form of entertainment. This changing scenario can be seen as beneficial to the F&B industry, leading to an increase in job opportunities and a boost in tourism as well.

How has the journey been since then? What have been the highpoints of your journey?

Personally, the journey has been amazing. We went from creating Mocha, which was a cafe for Gen-X-ers like me to now a legendary brand like SOCIAL which was created keeping the millennials in mind. People used to go to cafes for social interactions and slowly business meetings have started taking place there. Our first project was Mocha – Coffees & Conversations almost 20 years ago, and at that point, consumers had very few options. Over the last two decades, the consumer’s tastes and preferences have evolved; social media has had a big impact and has allowed local and global boundaries to merge into homegrown global food experiences. Perceptions around food have changed, and going out for a meal or ordering in is a whole experience in itself. Restaurants are adapting to interesting ways to make dining out for customers a novel experience through innovations in concepts and menus. Cloud Kitchens are gaining momentum and so are home delivery formats, as we see many double-income homes doing away with functional kitchens, and monthly food subscription packages are also becoming the norm rather than the exception.

How do you think you revolutionised the industry, stayed ahead of the game and made people stand up and take notice with each of your brands?

Restaurants are vying with each other to give customers novel experiences. You need to keep in touch with your customers and listen to them. They have interesting things to say. You can also watch your peers and see what they are doing food-wise. Most of us learn from each other and build on newer things. We learn from our own and others’ mistakes and successes. At Impresario Handmade Restaurants, we are conscious about things like creating a space for the community, a physical platform for the community to come together. We try not to make it very gimmicky or trendy, we want it to be more about the people than the space.

How do you keep innovating everytime (like Smokehouse 2.0) and what keeps you motivated?

I just listen to my customers. They tell you a lot. You spend time in the trenches, see behaviour patterns, and when you listen very hard to your customers that gives you a little window into their minds and figure out what they really want.

How do you maintain a work-life balance? What are your other hobbies?

I usually am happiest when I am creating things or building things. I’m the happiest when I’m in the middle of building a restaurant. I enjoy the entire creative process. Other than that, I’m really happy just being with my family, wife and kids. Just being with them makes me phenomenally happy and extremely satisfied and that’s how I maintain work-life balance. In terms of hobbies, I would love to have more musical abilities. I would love to be able to sing well and master a musical instrument. Currently, I play the guitar very badly and can’t even hold a note.

You have been launching quite a few new restaurants and pubs across the country. How many are there under your Impresario Entertainment & Hospitality umbrella now?

Impresario Handmade Restaurants’ umbrella of brands include, SOCIAL, antiSOCIAL, Smoke House Deli, Salt Water Cafe, FLEA Bazaar Cafe, Ishaara, Slink & Bardot, Souffle’S’il Vous Plait, Prithvi Cafe, Mocha & The Tasting Room. As of March 2020, we have established 59 restaurants across 15 cities in India.

What are your future plans?

We at Impresario Handmade Restaurants are expanding our flagship brand SOCIAL in every neighbourhood. Also, we will be seeing more outlets of FLEA Bazaar Café across India.

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