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The service charge debate is the latest churn for a troubled restaurant industry, but the man who’s ridden the wave keeps drawing silver linings.

It’s a tad ironic to listen to Riyaaz Amlani speak of the restaurant industry being “under severe stress” at a packed Salt Water Café on a Thursday morning. The “sector negativity and a lack of investors in the business” he attributes to the slowdown following demonetisation. “Now we have this unnecessary service charge ruckus,” says the 42-year-old restaurateur, who recently hosted a sundowner at his sprawling threestorey Versova Social, the 16th outlet of the franchise in the city.

The man in the Nehru jacket has been in the news since the Consumer Affairs Ministry directed that paying service charge on a bill should be optional for customers. As President of the National Restaurant Association of India, his stance is clear. “Service charge is internationally a best practice. It’s good for all stakeholders — restaurant owners, staff, customers and government. This has simply created confusion, whereas the law is on our side. We can levy service charge and clearly mention it on the menu,” he explains, calling for a green tea. That the man who started out as a shoe salesman, created a string of successful restaurants and cafés is proof of his customer insight. “If I see a beer worth Rs 100 rupees but eventually pay Rs 140, I will be ticked off. But government taxes take up a majority of that. A beer that costs Rs 7 to Rs 12 to make is purchased for Rs 140, out of which Rs 78 go to the government! Why are we are the only industry that’s charged VAT, service tax and excise?” he questions.

Amlani’s arguments for waiters are compelling, even if one doesn’t know that he waited tables, took calls and flipped burgers at restaurants while studying in the US. “We Indians have a feudal ‘dus rupaiya’ mentality when it comes to tipping. We hand over a note as ‘baksheesh’ and go ‘yeh le beta, aish kar,’ and that’s a measly three per cent on an average. And this after treating restaurant staff most disrespectfully. It’s a cultural issue, we expect servants, not servers. And now, we don’t want to pay them well!” he says, adding that if ‘no service charge’ were a law, menu prices will inflate as margins are thin.

Aware that the directive doesn’t affect a most restaurateurs, Amlani is all for service charges. “70 per cent of the players are unorganised, but many of them don’t ensure equal distribution of tips among staff while some even pocket the taxes. If service charges are mandatory, there would be more transparency and the government would get more,” he argues. “We levy service charge proudly, deliver excellent service and advise restaurants to do the same. Anyway, in this age of Zomato, every eatery is under a microscope, we can’t afford to be lax in service or we’ll get badgered,” he adds.

In between exchanging greetings with regulars at the café he frequents, Amlani breaks into anti-establishment mode, especially while speaking on the recent Supreme Court order that bans sale of liquor at shops on highways. “We are in a state where alcohol is considered taboo, so we become punching bags — anyone who sells alcohol is a shady, evil profiteer, and going after alcohol makes for electoral equity,” he explains.

Speaking of India’s restaurant business, which is worth four lakh thousand crores — one and a half times the size of railways — and employs 5.8 million people, he asks, “Do we see a minister for restaurants? Instead this ‘restaurant wale ameer hai’ attitude brings more regulations that screw us over. Where is your ‘ease of doing business’ for us?” This, he pins as a reason for why no restaurant chain has survived in India, “except for Dominos”.

It’s true. Amlani, whose Impresario Entertainment and Hospitality raised funds from private equity rounds in 2008 and 2011, could not do the same in 2015. Despite that, he is bullish on taking his Social brand to 90 outlets in four years. It’s no surprise that the man who disrupted the café market with Mocha is now setting the casual dining space abuzz. “Mocha was for the Gen-Xers, Social is for the millenials. It’s for the Indian who wants to spend on chilly chicken and bombil and not pretzels!” he says, emphasising on the importance of an X-factor in any business.

For someone who was quoted in 2011 as ready to retire in four years, today Amlani seems far from ready to hang up his boots. “Every time I feel like quitting and going to the Bahamas, I enter a restaurant and see people having a great time, so…” he says, smilingly. With a two-and-a-half-year old at home and his sibling on its way, he might soon have a reason to be asocial.

Source: Mumbai Mirror

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