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‘I imagined a Crawford Market vibe with good food brands’



Riyaaz Amlani talks to Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi about channelling an old Gothic Bombay bazaar for his latest food venture

Anything is possible at this eatery. Diners may find Tunday’s galouti kebabs on Del Itali’s Neapolitan pizza, or they may get Saransh Goila’s Sindhi mutton in a Bay Burger, or The Bohri Kitchen (TBK)’s chicken “Russian cutlets” in a pao at Super Pao. Already, Roasted Today’s cold-brewed coffee floats on Svami’s Indian tonic water, or gets into an ice cream alongside Watsappam’s sweet coconut dosa.

For a while now, Riyaaz Amlani, restaurateur and CEO of Impresario Entertainment & Hospitality Pvt Ltd, has been speaking about encouraging young new food entrepreneurs, giving them a leg up into the industry. With his latest property, Flea Bazaar Café, it’s clear he didn’t mean inane investment ideas and mere mentorship. At this, Impresario’s new property which launched last weekend, 13 food “stalls” (about half of which are already known to Mumbai), a paan shop, a bar by Social, and online store PropShop24’s first physical outpost, have been set up in a 7,000-square-feet area that belies definition. (Flea’s closest comparisons would be NYC’s Chelsea Market, or Lisbon’s Time Out Market.) Entering the space, diners can choose to turn right, towards the food, or go straight ahead to bar island and the performance space behind it.

Flea has the energy of a bazaar, the options of a khau galli, the colour of a covered market, and the efficiency of an Asian mall food court – all this in a room that’s festive, vibrant, strung up with woven fairy lights, fizzing with ideas, and imbued with detail. Four stores are housed in a shipping container, its metal doors lifting away to become awnings. For TBK’s shopfront, windows from Bhendi Bazaar have been repurposed to build a cottage that is lined with floral wallpaper to look like a Bohri home. Watsappam has a typical toddy shop vibe. Bayburger’s Winnebago-like food truck feels like it’s parked on a beach in California. Hung-Li, pushes its punny name by tag-lining itself as “endowed Chinese”. Lucknowee by Tunday Kebabi has the minarets of Lucknow… If for fresh food brands, Flea is a business incubator, then for diners, with its options and its amusements, Flea is the Tinder of eating out. Edited excerpts of an interview with Amlani about his new concept.

How did the idea of Flea Bazaar Café come about?

I lived at Carter Road, up that khau galli. People love coming there because they have so much choice. You nibble a little here, you take a little something from there, you mix and match your meal. You’re not committing yourself to one person – it’s a very millennial thing to do.

There is something very exciting about sitting to eat and watching somebody walk by carrying other food, and thinking, “Hm, I want that!” It’s not as static as a buffet. In CBDs (Central Business Districts) people need places where they can eat at an affordable price in a non-food court environment that’s slightly more intimate, slightly more fun.

There is a lot of energy among new food entrepreneurs. I thought it would be a great idea to create a collaborative café, providing a storefront to these guys who are mostly running dark kitchens. Some of them do just one thing, but they do it so well. It’s really hard to open a restaurant around it, but it’s perfectly fine to do a stall around it. This generation is also more about collaborating than about closing up and clamping down. To me that’s very interesting, what can come out of these collisions.

What do you see Flea growing up to become?

We were looking at a larger format space; this one is a little smaller than I would like it to be. This is the first Flea – a lot of learning, experiments will happen here. With this, we also wanted to set an example of what the traders can expect. The Flea Bazaar Café will become larger and more ambitious. Eventually our palate, so to speak, will become much wider, because there will be more and more brands coming up. Each outpost will have a few similar and some different brands. Brands will pop up briefly. We have a couple of placeholder brands here as well, and we want to rotate them around. The brands that get edited, for them there will be learnings – they’ll realise when you need to bring your game up, what changes you need to make. The brands will feed this place, and this place will feed more brands.

How do you select the brands and people who get a spot at Flea?

[With food], it’s either young guys who are trying to do something exciting, who want to put themselves out there. Or it’s great, established brands (like Soam’s Flea outpost Chakhna, or Tunday’s Lucknowee) who haven’t really pushed themselves – ones who are older in their ways, but don’t have a modern storefront. We can show them how it can be done. Also, the investments are done totally by us, the brands don’t need to spend anything.

At the Social Pop-Up bar at Flea, we’ll try and push craft breweries. We’ll try to do beverage pop-ups, and have guest bartenders and guest establishments to come and run the bar for a while.

The space is flexible, and that’s also gonna be our philosophy. Here, the tables at the back get drawn up to the ceiling on pulleys and the DJ van goes away to free up the stage. We’re gonna have live bands, acoustic bands, guest DJs, stand-up comedy. I want to make this more of a live performance space, a very “morphable” one which offers a lot of variety, but also where things keep changing. Like the food, the performances will shape-shift. We’ll get a line-up of non-genre specific performances that get slots to play through a day. For new people who want to get noticed, this space will be a great platform.

How did you spin this room around this idea?

I imagined a Crawford Market vibe – an old Gothic Bombay bazaar – with good food brands. That is the atmosphere is what Faizan [Khatri] and Samir [Raut, both of Studio Eight Twenty-Three] helped me recreate. Elements have been borrowed from Crawford – stone slate floor, steel fenestration. Our mismatched furniture and uniforms are from various flea markets.

It can be very difficult to have a place where you can eat and party at the same time. Putting the bar in the centre really helped us with that. With the brands, many of them don’t have storefronts, so their branding and design was formed and executed through a series of interviews with them. A lot of the personality of the space comes from the stores. We wanted to create different zones within a massive 7,000-square-feet space, so that it feels intimate, not intrusive, yet alive.

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