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It is time to perceive restaurants as an industry and not a rich man’s pastime: Riyaaz Amlani

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The strains of “Happy Birthday” waft out of the Bandra apartment even before you ring the doorbell. Inside, Riyaaz Amlani, arguably the most important man in India’s restaurant business, is celebrating his grandmother’s birthday. Amlani is surrounded by his immediate family; on the table sits his two-and-half-year-old son Khayaal with a huge chocolate cake. It’s a picture of simple domesticity that makes you forget the complex business dynamics outside.

The relaxed Sunday notwithstanding, Amlani, 42, is in the midst of what’s going to be Indian restaurant industry’s most high-powered deal — if it comes through. Word is out that L Catterton, the world’s largest consumer-focused investment firm, is looking to buy a majority stake in Impresario, Amlani’s company. (L Catterton was formed last year with the merger of American private equity firm Catterton and LVMH’s PE arm, L Capital, and has more than $12 billion in assets globally.)

A valuation of Rs 600 crore is being considered for Impresario, ET reported last week. While Amlani may continue as a minority partner with a 20-25% stake in his business, the investment fund may look at acquiring as much as 60-75%. “We are still in talks, nothing has been finalised or signed as yet,” says Amlani.

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As the birthday celebration winds down, I am led into a study that used to be the child’s nursery for a tete-a-tete with a man who has come such a long way from starting his business by pooling in Rs 5 lakh each with two other friends.

Even a decade ago, when I first met Amlani for a similar tete-a-tete, he was a successful Mumbai restaurateur though nowhere as influential as now. Mocha, his chain of cafes, had already taken off and he was taking his first tentative steps towards more substantial dining.

Smoke House ( in pic below ), his restaurant, had just opened in Delhi then, with unconventional European-style food that the butter chicken capital was not used to. We had gingerly tried a chicken in simla mirch sauce and pronounced it “inventive”.

Amlani had shared his recipe for Maggikeema that I had thought noteworthy enough to jot down, but more than that, there had been accounts of his biking trips. The restaurateur had been quite the society biker boy, his luxury bike parked outside the restaurant grabbing the attention of Gen X and Y.

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It’s been a long journey since — sans the bikes. “They are all gone, now,” says Amlani.

As the CEO of Impresario, one of India’s largest restaurant companies (it registered an annual turnover of Rs 255 crore last year and has 51 outlets across the country) and President of the increasingly proactive lobbying group, the National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI), with 7,000 members (up from 2,000, three years ago), Amlani clearly has a lot riding on him.

“My life has been taken over by WhatsApp groups,” he quips. Trying to run his business and help others run theirs in an increasingly tough environ is clearly a potholed ride. However, for the moment, there’s a new turn in the road.

Food & Fund
Slink & Bardot in a fishing village in Worli, where the Koli community still stays and plies its trade, has had one of the quietest restaurant launches in Mumbai this year. It was also the most exciting. Even in Maximum City, where some interesting bars, restaurants and cafés have opened, Slink & Bardot is unique.

It’s like a hidden lounge in an old home that evokes an era of mixed cultures. There are prints of flowers and foliage on the walls, a Frida Kahlo-meets-Pondicherry artiness, mirrors, lamps and a vaguely Art Deco aesthetic. All come together to create a space of undeniable warmth and charm.

The food is modern French. Small plates only — chicken liver parfait, pork rillettes, glazed parsnip paired with mango, a light olive oil ice cream on a plate of tomato and mozzarella tarts. All ingredients are locally sourced, the food is what you can comfortably nibble on with cocktails. There’s no coq au vin, no French onion soup (though that may be nice in winters), no pretence, only a chatty manager in the Canadian Nick Harrison and a competent chef in Alexis Gielbaum.

Gielbaum and Harrison ( in pic ) are the perfect team. One looks after the backend and is quiet (the “Slink” in Slink & Bardot. The other, at the front, is effervescent and in your face (“Bardot”)!
The two used to run AD Singh’s Le Bistro Du Parc in Delhi before Singh and his partner in that business Naina de Bois-Juzan exited.

Gielbaum and Harrison wanted to get into the business but were on the lookout for a partner. Enter Amlani. The result, Slink & Bardot, is a 50:50 venture between Amlani and the duo. While Amlani set the tone, look and feel of the restaurant-lounge, its day-to-day running and food are his partners’ domain.

That’s the blueprint for his next few ventures too. Amlani’s focus in the next two-three years is not just to have 100 Socials (his most recognisable, mid-market brand; there are 17 Socials now) but also to build a collective of individualistic, “mood restaurants”, as he calls them.

“People have great restaurateuring ideas. But if you want to open a restaurant today, half the time goes in liaising with the police, health authorities and municipality for licences.

Then, there are mistakes people with less experience make, which can be fatal for their business. I want to give them the benefit of my learnings,” says Amlani. There is a clear division of labour for these collaborations. “80% of the processes in any restaurant are the same. We will take care of these. The partners are free to focus on details and the product,” he says.

This is pretty much in keeping with the business in other dining capitals of the world, where ostensible mom-and-pop restaurants are owned by big companies.

The next two years are also going to see Impresario make some interesting acquisitions if all goes according to plan. “There are noted brands with just one-two outlets in Mumbai and Delhi. We are looking to invest in them. I am creating a sort of fund for restaurants,” he says.

Over the last two years, the investment climate for restaurants, once considered a booming sector, has become gloomier. Since exits are difficult, investors are no longer interested. The sector is dogged by ridiculous regulation and lacks infrastructural support.

Brands with a potential to grow to even Rs 100 crore businesses are small fry and not interesting to investors. Amlani wants to create a fund for these brands, in turn growing his own company’s value. “We are in talks with two-three brands. There will be some acquisitions this year,” he adds. Considering brands are easy to create but difficult to sustain, a big restaurant company can only focus on two or three, beyond which you start sacrificing the soul of the restaurant, Amlani feels.

Hard Lessons
“Mood” restaurants — casual spaces lending themselves to different moods of patrons through the day — are what Amlani is bullish about at the moment. Though the market for eating out has expanded considerably and diners are constantly evolving, fine dining or “needy restaurants that demand reverence for their food”, as Amlani puts it at one point in the conversation, don’t have many takers as yet.

“That may happen in the future, but today, there are very few chefs like Vikramjit Roy or Manu Chandra or Manish Mehrotra or Gaggan Anand who can pull it off,” he says.

In 2011, Amlani burnt his hand dabbling in this sort of needy gastronomy. Smoke House Room (different from Smoke House) atop Delhi’s Crescent Mall was ahead of its time. It was pretty and pricey, with the likes of chicken pate in Ferrero Rocher wrappers inside light bulbs! Chef Gresham Fernandes, executive chef for Impresario, had created attention-grabbing degustation menus. The restaurant didn’t work.

“Everything was cutting-edge. The food, crockery and cutlery, furniture. It was a cathedral to my ego, the restaurant I built for myself,” says Amlani candidly.

He lost Rs 10-12 crore in that project — Rs 7 crore to build it, Rs 5 crore to keep it afloat for two years because he just couldn’t bear to shut it.

“Then, I asked myself, why was I trying to jump through hoops for an audience that either didn’t exist or didn’t care,” he recalls.

Amlani’s investors in other projects too backed out around the same time but he had to keep going.

From this debris came a lesson that resulted in Social, a brand for millennials.

“Social was the opposite of Smoke House Room. We had mismatched crockery, we peeled off layers from design, took out lampshades and plaster, and I decided to see how I can sell anda bhurji!”

Amlani’s target was the millennial, self-confident in her Indianness, who didn’t want any foreignness, fakeness or frills.

As a 15-year-old, part-time shoe salesman with Metro in Mumbai, Amlani had learnt that products that worked in Colaba didn’t work in Sion. Now, the idea was to build a “location-neutral” restaurant to appeal to the maximum number of people. Social does exactly that.

It is interesting that the restaurateur should now be branching out into more individualistic spaces too. Wheels in restaurants always come a full circle.

Battling Policy
In 1992, during the Bombay riots, Amlani, then a teenager, came face to face with his attackers.

They were boys he used to play cricket with every day in a bylane in Byculla where he lived. “I knew them well, they knew us and yet they were bent on taking our lives. I saw their eyes and realised that the real anger was not about religion but class,” he recalls.

It is possible to argue that class tensions between the haves and have-nots (or those who perceive themselves as disenfranchised) is driving our Age of Anger, as Pankaj Mishra says in his new book. Whatever it is, restaurants in India increasingly find themselves in the thick of this tension.

Regressive policies aside, the last few months have seen a squeeze, with rulings, advisories and policies raining down on the beleaguered industry. Each time something like the highway liquor ban, portion control, the politics of licensing, or high GST rates plays up, Amlani, as president of the NRAI, finds himself in the eye of the storm.

“I have lobbied and lobbied but frankly I am at my wits’ end,” he says. Part of the problem, he says, is that restaurants are perceived as a rich man’s pastime rather than as an industry and thus become soft targets.

This perception is unfair because restaurants can be so much more — a country’s soft power can be exported through its food culture.

Then, there’s the workforce employed by the businesses but beyond that, there are intangibles. “The ease of using a city’s public spaces, including restaurants, is what contributes to a sense of belonging,” says Amlani.

Sitting at Slink & Bardot, chatting with strangers, sharing plates, changes us too — makes us part of Mumbai’s larger cosmopolitan soul. Even if just for an evening.

Source:  Economic Times

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