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Socially irreverent Riyaz Amlani is changing the way India eats out


A Mumbai boy through and through, Amlani’s youth in the ’90s was spent bemoaning the lack of entertainment options in India’s Maximum City. Then he decided to take matters in his own hands.

It’s the late ’90s. At a shoe shop in Sion, a boy in his teens is sitting at the counter, exasperated. He had just had a two-hour long altercation with a lady over the price of a pair of rubber slippers. The bone of contention is a humble 50 paisa coin. The customer wanted to pay Rs 34, and the young shop owner could only come down to Rs 34.50. Suddenly, he gets up and walks out. Back home, he tells his mother that he is shutting the shop. He hates his job.

We’re chatting with the same boy at Khar Social, Mumbai. Now in his early 40s, he’s wearing a white linen shirt with a pair of denims, and a huge smile. Today, Riyaaz Amlani is a happy man. He should be: he owns half of Mumbai’s restaurants and is one of the most unique and promising voices in the Indian food and beverage industry.

Smoke & mirrors

“I started off 16 years ago, and today I have 44 restaurants in 11 cities across India,” says Amlani, far from content with these numbers. “I am a bit conflicted about this success. I feel satisfied that everything I dreamt of has been achieved, and more. But at the same time I feel I have not done enough. And there is so much more to do. I long for leisure, and when I have it, I feel as if I am wasting my time!”

A Mumbai boy through and through, Amlani’s youth in the ’90s was spent bemoaning the lack of entertainment options in India’s Maximum City. “In your leisure time, all you could do was watch movies or drive up and down Marine Drive or Worli Sea Face,” he explains. “So 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.”

Shoe shop shut, Amlani headed to UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) for a course in entertainment management. And back in Mumbai, he became an entertainment consultant, setting up bowling alleys, go-karting tracks and amusement parks. But the idea of getting into the restaurant business came to him much later, when he 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,” says Amlani, CEO and MD of Impresario Entertainment and Hospitality Pvt Ltd. “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. 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 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,” says Amlani, who was then besotted by the Moroccan Qahveh Khanneh (coffee houses offering hookahs) and wanted to create a similar experience back home.

He and his friends had invested Rs15 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,” says Amlani.

Pretty soon, he graduated into a full-fledged restaurateur – by sheer chance. “I stumbled upon a beautiful piece of beach, which was being used as a dump yard. It had an amazing view of the Queen’s Necklace on one side, and the Malabar Hills on the other,” he says. “For me, it was love at first sight. I wanted to share this with more people. It was a sense of civic pride. Back then, the class system was more rigid. The typical South Bombay kids would not hang out at Girgaum Chowpatty or have bhelpuri on the beach. I thought they were really missing out on this view, the experience of sitting by the sea, and enjoying the Mumbai coastline.”

So, he bought the property without delay. But there was a small hiccup. He couldn’t open a Mocha there, because a place like that would get its crowd only after sunset and it would need to wrap up by midnight. A café, after all, is a day-long affair. So, he decided to come up with a more high-end product and Salt Water Grill was born, successfully hitting the G-spot of Mumbai’s upper class restaurant-goers with the fine-dining restaurant’s ambience and food. This was followed by Smoke House Grill in Delhi and Stone Water Grill in Pune.

Unity in food diversity

(From left to right) A detox drink served at Smoke House Deli; chorizo and house sausages with skillet fried eggs served at Smoke House Deli; a thali served at Social, where food is served on chunky tin plates and alcohol in full-bodied Paua glasses.

But as time passed, Amlani grew more interested in creating spaces to foster interesting conversations where people could come and interact, and build a community vibe.

So several other successful ventures later (including Prithvi Café), he came up with the Socials: a chain of ‘day cafés and bars’. “Social was envisioned as the Mocha for the millennials,” says Amlani. “Unlike us, these kids have grown up in an India of fine-dining, casual-dining and Starbucks and Costa Coffees. But I always found those a bit factitious. I realised that at the end of the day, they just wanted a place to hang out over some chai or beer and some freshly-made food.”

So Social is known for its quirky menu.Disco Fried Egg, Social Bhurjee, Bombay Bhel Puri Salad, Tikka Tacos, Chinese Bhel, Vada Pao Bao, are all takes on regular street food.

“We had called Smoke House Grill’s menu comfort food. Then we realised that we were actually bullshitting ourselves,” explains Amlani. “That was not what we grew up eating, or what gave us comfort. It is humble dal chawal, or omelette pav, or fried rice-chilli chicken that does that. For the longest time, we were looking at the West for inspiration, and whatever was Indian was rejected as not ‘cool enough’. But with the millennials, things changed. They are comfortable being Indians. So, I thought it was important to come up with a concept that is tailor-made for India. Also, at certain point we had also reached the winter of our discontent with the Western lifestyle. We wanted to celebrate Indian food without getting clichéd and compartmentalised. I am a big champion of street food. That is our heritage.”

Amlani’s love for street food has its roots in his childhood in Byculla. “My experience of outside food was very non-gourmet. I would go to Irani cafés, roadside barbecues and buy banta bottles and golas. To me, that was food,” he says. “I didn’t grow up eating at fancy places. The only two restaurants I had been to were Flora in Worli and Berry’s at Churchgate. So there is a kind of nostalgia and romanticism that I associate with street food.”

It’s easy for him to choose his favourite dish from all his menus: the Anda Shammi Pao. “It is a really good shami kebab, crispy outside and soft inside, in a ladi pav with an egg and very little seasoning. It is not a burger but it is as convenient and totally Indian!”

However, what works in Colaba doesn’t necessarily work in Kurla. And we are talking about different cities and cultures and very different street foods as well. “Delhi wants laal mirchi, Bengaluru wants black pepper and Mumbai wants things sweet! Making a pasta would have been easier, but I refused to take the easy way out,” says Amlani. “We try to find the common ground and figure out where India unites. And people are also curious about other cultures. Delhi is opening up to Assamese cuisine, Mumbai is warming up to the Chettinad style of cooking. It is an interesting time to run this business.”

Talk of the town

Shockingly, the man who has built an empire in the food and beverage industry is not a foodie himself. “I am really not that picky about my food. I can eat anything,” Amlani chuckles, sipping masala chai from a ‘cutting glass’ that has now become the trademark of all the Socials. “I enjoy creating experiences and the Socials are the sum total of all the sensory experiences.”

Any Social regular would know exactly what he means. Instead of regular crockery and cutlery, Socials serve their food on chunky tin plates and alcohol in full-bodied Paua glasses. “It is all about the kind of experience I want to create. If it is a fine-dining restaurant, I will serve tea in delicate China and you will pick it up with two fingers and take a measured sip. But if I serve you coffee in a robust mug, you will cup it in your hands and drink it while feeling the warmth in the palms. The weight of this big, thick glass we serve in at Social is part of the mood,” Amlani explains. “I think inanimate objects lend an emotional tonality to the experience – the touch of wood will make you feel a certain way, and that is very different from the touch of steel. I use materials according to the mood I want to set. Socials are casual, chilled out, non-fussy places where people can really be themselves.”

Of course, not everyone gets the concept at first go. “There is an initial apprehension. Often first-timers complain, ‘Jail ke plate mein khana dete ho, finish nahi hai…’ but they soon get into the groove,” laughs Amlani.

Most of the Socials are set up in garage spaces or inside old mill compounds. While the usual practice is to buy such spaces and tear down the old edifice to create a chic new café, Amlani believes in upcycling. “We wanted to do Hindustani grunge. These are things we see every day but overlook the beauty of them. We celebrate the Indian aesthetic and awesomeness of jugaad, without being kitschy. I take up a place only if it talks to me, if it has a character of its own. I keep the old as much as I can and add to it without changing the original vibe of the place.”

However, this is not without consequences, “My mother-in-law came for the opening of one of the Socials and asked me ‘Beta, yeh kab tak ban jayega?’ ” he chuckles.

Bring back the night (life)

Now Amlani is gearing up to launch his first Social in Kolkata. “That city, unlike Mumbai, has a goodnightlife. I think for any kind of cultural osmosis, a city must have a vibrant nightlife. It is important for the growth of contemporary culture. What we today consider as culture is what we did in the past, basically we confuse our heritage with our culture. We have plays, live music, and various kinds of gigs here at Social. These contribute to the liveability of a city.

“These cafés and pubs are still considered a rich man’s indulgence and their deeper impact on the society go unnoticed. You keep people segregated and there will be animosity. You bring them together in a box and shake them up, and they will start mingling with each other and inculcate a community feeling,” says Amlani, who is also the president of National Restaurant Association of India and is campaigning passionately these days to improve the quality of nightlife across India.

Compared to the tourist footfalls in Singapore, Hong Kong, London, New York, Vegas, Dubai, India’s numbers are dismal. “While Dubai sees approximately 55 million tourists every year, India’s annual score is a paltry eight million. This given the tigers, the architecture, culture, history, spirituality and all the incredibility. And nobody seems to be talking about this. We need to create experiences. Brand India needs a nightlife to attract tourists.” And that’s Amlani’s new challenge.

Source: Hindustan Times

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