|Either scale up or be prepared to|
get copied by cheap imitators,
says restaurant mogul
Riyaaz Amlani of Impresario
Entertainment & Hospitality
By Sourish Bhattacharyya
"Starbucks positions itself as the 'third place' between work and home, but for me, Social is the 'second place' -- a place to work and to unwind for entrepreneurial young people who are setting themselves up."
ONE OF India's biggest self-made entrepreneurial success stories in the restaurant business, Riyaaz Amlani, is all set to raise another $20 million (Rs 120 crore at present exchange rates) to finance the ambitious growth targets that he has set for his hospitality company, Impresario Entertainment & Hospitality Pvt. Ltd.
Impresario has already received two rounds of private equity funding from Beacon India, the local arm of Baer Partners that has invested in entities as diverse as the National Stock Exchange, Ratnakar Bank, Saffronart and Delhi's Bhayana Builders, and Gaurav Goenka's Mirah Hospitality, whose showpiece brands include Citrus Hotels and Khandani Rajdhani.
After selling shoes when he was a teenager, getting an MBA in Entertainment Management at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), and working for media mogul and former Rajya Sabha MP Pritish Nandy, Amlani launched Mocha: Coffees and Conversations, a bold experiment to bring the culture of five-star coffee shops to young people like him, at a 500 sq. ft. location at Churchgate, Mumbai, in 2001.
Today, 13 years on, Amlani presides over a restaurant business that spans 39 outlets in 12 cities, and concepts as diverse as his star chef Gresham Fernandes's Gypsy Kitchen pop-up dinners at St Jude's Bakery in the quaint East Indian village of Ranwar in Bandra, Mumbai, to his newest (and most exciting) brand, Social, which has been conceptualised as a quirky work and party space for "young bootstrapping entrepreneurs".
|The view from Hauz Khas Social, the latest|
addition to Amlani's expanding restaurant
empire of 39 outlets in 12 cities
Having put his foot on the accelerator of expansion, Amlani plans to open 50-60 Smoke House Deli outlets in the seven major metros (Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai, Kolkata and Pune), and at least two or three each of the more fine dining-focused Salt Water Cafe in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, apart from taking Mocha to Tier-II towns because "Tier-I rental are driving us to them".
But at the core of this ambitious growth strategy is Amlani's belief that the 'cafe bars' catering to the young in metropolitan cities will drive his business. He spells out three reasons for his thrust on cafe bars. One, the audience is bigger, more loyal and much more appreciative of his concepts. Two, in this age of spiralling rentals, restaurateurs have got to sweat their assets by creating all-day dining spaces. "You no longer have the luxury to be a nights- or weekends-only, or fine dining-centric business," reasons Amlani. Three, and perhaps most important, "the battle now is for the customer's watch, not for his wallet." People's leisure time is "shrinking", so the restaurant of the future, such as Social, has to blur the dividing line between work and leisure spaces.
"Starbucks positions itself as the 'third place' between work and home, but for me, Social is the 'second place' -- a place to work and to unwind for entrepreneurial young people who are setting themselves up," says Amlani, as I dig the Pakistani street food delicacy, Anda Shammi, in a sea activity on the pre-opening afternoon of Hauz Khas Social.
Amlani got the idea of Social by watching people armed with laptops conducting business meetings at Barista or Cafe Coffee Day (CCD) outlets. He was quick to realise that coffee shops are becoming business hubs for young entrepreneurs, but there is an awkwardness in the equation, because people using these spaces for work have this feeling in the back of their mind that they are taking unfair advantage of the hospitality of a Barista or a CCD.
To end this awkwardness and give the people using the space a sense of ownership, Amlani has worked out a business model that allows a start-up the right to use Social for a nominal monthly payment of Rs 5,000 per person -- redeemable against food and drink vouchers. That's so much cheaper than owning an office space anywhere in Delhi-NCR and in this case, the 'office' comes with raw entrepreneurial energy all around it, decently priced food (as you'd expect from your workplace cafeteria), effective air-conditioning, working loos and, more importantly, a view to die for (and on a rainy day, a steady cool gust to keep you inspired).
With naked walls, recycled furniture, a work-in-process look and the hand-painted signs of street art pioneer Hanif Kureshi (better known by his brand name 'Daku', which is the abbreviated form of Design, Art and Culture), Hauz Khas Social, which sprawls across 8,500 sq. ft., also has fully equipped conference rooms that participating startups can use for free. And just in case you are tired of ordering the sumptuous all-day breakfast options (priced between Rs 250 and Rs 300), or the other offbeat menu items created by the brilliant trio of food and beverages head Sid Mathur, and chefs Gaurav Gidwani and Shamsul Wahid, you could ask for the Rs 150 daal-chaawal-sabzi combination of the Social Staff Meal Du Jour.
Is Amlani under pressure from his PE fund investors to expand at a breakneck pace? He answers the question in parts. "PE funds invest in you because of your ability to scale up," Amlani says at first, but then he admits: "Scale is the enemy of soul." But then he says that if he doesn't scale up a concept, others would roll out cheap copies and make a mockery of the original idea.
"I learnt this lesson from my Mocha experience," he reminisces. As soon as the original Mocha in Mumbai started gaining attention, others started copying the idea and before you could say Jack Robinson, as many as 2,200 Mocha copies came up around the country in less than a year. The challenge before Amlani, therefore, is to balance scale with soul -- not the McDonald's or Domino's way. And he does it successfully at Social, whose food and beverage offerings come with a refreshingly new twist (which will be the subject of my next Dining Out review). Restaurateurs like Amlani scaling up is good news for diners who are hungry for more.