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Interviews

Organised sector of hospitality industry in India, at this point, is quite vulnerable – Kabir Suri

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His professional career began in the field of commercial real estate finance but his personal interests in the food and hospitality segment led him to shift to the hospitality sector and he co-founded Azure Hospitality in 2009. Focussing on importance of simplifying food, Kabir Suri, Co-Founder & Director, Azure Hospitality, shares his insights with NRAI.  

Please take us through your journey. Tell us about your restaurants.

I started off my career in commercial real estate finance in New York and always took special interest in investment strategy and in depth finance research in banking and hospitality segments. This personal drive led to a shift of focus to hospitality and I spent three years with internationally acclaimed restaurants Zuma and Roka in London. Shortly, I found myself move from operations to brand strategy and business development spearheading global expansion. Azure happened by chance as I moved to India to explore the hospitality industry here, and given the limited dining options back in 2009 and increasing demand with ever-evolving customer segment, my partner Rahul and I saw tremendous potential and started off with Mamagoto to make Asian dining fun. In eight years, we grew to 14 outlets, launched QSR brands Roll Maal and Speedy Chow, and acquired Dhaba Estd 1986 Delhi from the Claridges for retail expansion. Our focus at Azure now will be boutique restaurant chains after launching the new brand Sly Storys that started off in Bangalore last year, the recent extension of Mamagoto with Mr Mamagoto serving posh hawker cuisine, and April 2018 launch ‘Foxtrot’ under Sly as a brand of subculture catering to a varied segment by stressing on the underground music scene in India, introducing an organic café with a movement studio within, a book exchange library and a restaurant in the student/corporate hub ‘Koramangala’ in Bangalore. And of course, further expansion in the cities of Pune, Delhi and more!

What are your growth and expansion plans? Are you planning to expand overseas?

Azure has about 40 restaurants & kitchens at this point, and we aim to expand Sly Storys to other cities in India in 2018-19 after a successful run in Bangalore. Each Sly is an intense project, hence while most of your energies will be diverted here, Azure will drive JV and franchise-based expansion within India, and also expand in London, Dubai and Cape Town this financial year.

Azure Hospitality was the first to introduce a pan-Asian café format – Mamagoto. What prompted you to introduce such a concept?

Back in the day, authentic Asian cuisine was a luxury, only meant to be enjoyed at hotels in fine dine formats. Consumers enjoyed good disposable incomes yet were limited to either spending at local Chinese restaurants or splurge at star properties; they were more exposed, better travelled and much more experimental now. Hence, came the idea of Mamagoto, to make Asian dining casual, fun and affordable!

Now that you have entered fine dining format with Dhaba Estd 1986 Delhi, how different is it to manage it as compared to casual dining formats?

Well, Dhaba is also more fun dining than fine dine with team springing in to a dance routine in the middle of your meal, blaring Bollywood and Punjabi numbers. That said, the basics of running any restaurant – fine, casual or fun, remain the same in today’s competitive market; one has to prioritize delighting the customers, having motivated staff that enhances your dining experience and serving quality offerings. Mastering the basics is the rule of the game!

You have introduced a non-restaurant concept called Sly Granny. How did you come up with the idea? Tell us more about it.

We were working on new project ideas, and hit a dead end when we realised how easily restaurants are labelled these days. From cafes to pizzerias to pubs or resto-lounges, we couldn’t settle over this idea, and wanted to create a space that is different for each kind of customer that walks in. A multi-dimensional space that is a restaurant, a cafe, a favourite bar, a venue for live music, a space to meet like-minded individuals to share opinions over topics people don’t discuss in public anymore – there’s really no ‘one name’ for the space. And given Sly Storys (the parent brand) is all about unique stories told via each outlet, the concept just fit right in. Today, we are running Sly Granny as a successful restaurant, a bar by the evening, we’re soon going to start a breakfast club and regularly host Mind Manifesto (Sunday philosophy club) events, art & wine evenings, perfume-making/coffee brewing workshops, malt tastings, invite-only personalized table dinners- there’s really no barriers to collaborations!

You are an industry stalwart. How do you keep yourself ahead in this competitive time?

I keep learning, keep going back to basics. Traveling is the most enriching experience and helps one learn new traditions and cultures; hence, I naturally end up reviewing our current practices, thereby innovating constantly.

Can you brief us on your major learnings as a restaurateur? 

Always keep customers first, WOW them, listen to them and they’ll become your advocates forever.

How do you keep a balance between your personal and professional life? What do you do to unwind yourself?

Knowing me, one wouldn’t believe so! But I always take time out to spend time with my children, being there for them for all their important moments. Golf is my stress-buster, I love a good game on weekends.

You have recently been elected as the Delhi Chapter Head of the NRAI. How do you plan to strengthen the restaurant sector in the region? Please elaborate.

Organised sector of hospitality industry in India, at this point, is quite vulnerable, more so for the lack of representation. I hope to be able to bring the community of restaurateurs together in unison for the cause of the industry, as we’re sitting on the tip of the iceberg just yet!

One tip you would like to offer to youngsters aspiring to enter the restaurant business?

Always learn ground level up, it’ll help you remember Restaurant 101s, and understand your customer a lot better.