Riyaaz Amlani: The Man Behind Mumbai’s Café Culture
Two decades ago, Riyaaz Amlani laid the foundation of India’s cafe culture, with a slice of casual dining, and argued for better nightlife. Today, while standards have been set, the bar continues to rise
On an as-winter-as-it-gets afternoon in Mumbai, I walk into Khar SOCIAL to meet Riyaaz Amlani, the man behind all the SOCIALs, and my first words to him are, ‘Mocha kicked us out when we were 17 because we weren’t legal for hookah.’ We laugh, the ice is broken, and I congratulate him on his parent company, Impresario Entertainment & Hospitality, completing 20 years.
The ride has been a long one, and Riyaaz Amlani knows it. He brought the coffee shop culture to Mumbai with Mocha (2002), proceeded to casual dining with Salt Water Cafe (2008), which is relevant to the city even today, and then upped the ante with Smoke House Deli (2011), the 2.0 version of which is raising the bar again. I know my generation of college-going early 20-year-olds at the time value him the most for SOCIAL (2014), which defined the new cool way of hanging out, and continues to do so.
The Byculla boy-turned-Bandra boy, who grew up on a diet of great Mughlai and Parsi food, initially worked in the recreational entertainment space. Soon, Amlani observed that in between bowling and laser tags, people communicated over food — and he realised that that’s where potential lies.
“People were hanging out and eating a bad sandwich and drinking an ordinary cup of coffee just because they didn’t have places to hang. That gave rise to Mocha, where it was about conversation,” he recalls of the beginning of it all.
As someone who is instrumental in creating Mumbai’s now relatively saturated café culture, Amlani has seen the space change like not many have. “I think that the cultural context has become very important. It’s no longer about importing a foreign precept and then shoving that down the throats of Indians. I think it’s now more of a self examination, and understanding what our social spaces should be. Starbucks was the Americanisation of an Italian concept, and then there was an Indianisation of an Americanised Italian concept. I think that has been rejected. I think we have found our own grammar,” says the man who made eating in steel plates quirky and cool, cue SOCIAL.
Amlani went from initiating coffee and conversations to bridging the gap between café food and fine dining with his version of casual dining — enter Smoke House Deli. With Smoke House, he plays with the character of each outlet based on the location it is in, while the food is a mix of nibbles and filling big plates (their burgers in Bengaluru got me through some really bad days), and as outlets increase — let me know if you ever find a table at the Pali Hill outpost — he states that he believes the last decade has been the decade of casual dining. “People started wanting great food in a casual, not fast, relaxed environment, and they’re expecting good quality, even though it may not be very expensive, or exclusive.Now that casual dining has become so pervasive, it serves as a good foundation on which finer restaurants can be built. “In fact,” he continues, “Now that quality cuisine is accessible to a larger audience, the next decade will become the decade of fine dining.”
From all that he does, be it the heartfelt Ishaara, or the French bistro sophistication of Soufflé S’il Vous Plaît, or the upscale Slink & Bardot, Amlani believes his forte is cafés. A restaurant is a restaurant. It’s a meal. But a café is more of a character in your life.” I couldn’t agree more, it’s the sanity of working from a café that has gotten so many of us through the insanity of these two years of working from home.
He is, in fact, the best judge of how the café culture in India has spread, and he’s seen that relationship change. “Two people coming from meetings and then lingering after the meetings, preparing for meetings, abandoning offices, and starting to sit in cafés. It’s also a place where people can bounce ideas off each other, push each other’s envelopes. You know the Shark Tank guy? He started boAt in SOCIAL. So many people have met their soulmates and work partners in cafés. There are different manifestations of cafes, whether it’s a Café or a Tasting Room, or a Smoke House, I think they all have a different expression of what a café can be,” he adds.
While his hold with restaurants and cafés is stronger than ever, 47-year-old Riyaaz Amlani has taken his plunge in the cloud kitchen business with BOSS Burgers, Hung-Li, and Lucknowee. These brands operate from his already existing SOCIAL kitchens, and I bite into a BOSS burger while we delve into the current hot topic of debate in the food industry: the coexistence of dine-in restaurants and cloud kitchens. Amlani feels that while his DNA will always be experiential, cloud kitchens have found their own place.
“You can do the cloud kitchen business if it resonates with you, otherwise, it’s not wise to get into it just because it seems like the next big thing. We will build on our delivery chops, but we will always be a café forward company. The delivery business is competing with your house help, with your mother, with your home cooking. It’s not really competing with going out. It’s like assuming Netflix will kill cinemas. In India, our idea of a community experience is very different,” he says, pointing to his growing up days, where the meals were big, and families and neighbours gathered around the TV to eat and watch films together.
Riyaaz Amlani has also been the president of the National Restaurant Association of India, and for him, being a part of the hospitality industry in such a big manner comes with a certain responsibility. I refer to a news article for the facts, but I clearly remember, as a cub reporter, reading about how Amlani, as NRAI’s president, created a dialogue about the importance of the nightlife industry, and argued to revive Mumbai’s 3am nightlife deadline. During the pandemic, as restaurants mobilised to encourage ordering directly through the #OrderDirect campaign, Impresario tied up with Mumbai’s dabbawalas to facilitate direct ordering from all its brands. It’s not like you made your name, and now you’re chilling, I tell him. He has nothing to prove, yet he’s conceptualising at a community level, for the people. What leads to this thought process?
“Deeply masochistic tendencies,” he laughs. I often feel, as an entrepreneur yes, but as a restaurateur especially, you’re subjected to a lot. When we were starting out, we felt very alone and scared. Interacting with other restaurateurs, I started understanding their challenges, and then little things that started bothering me about the perception of a restaurateur, of the industry. That’s why I joined the Restaurant Association. Service charge, how to treat wait staff, all these were conversations that needed to happen. Aggregator platforms were literally muscling their way through a lot of things. one way of fighting that was to first bring restaurateurs together, but also to sensitise customers. Aggregators decide commissions, they decide what restaurants you will see, they decide what discount you will give. It was very unilateral. While we’re not against the aggregators, we are against their tyranny,” he clarifies.
Challenges also come in the form of staying true to the essence of the brand you have built, yet recalibrate to keep up with the current demands, Riyaaz Amlani feels. “If I had to start today, would I be the famous restaurateur I am? It’s so much harder to cut through the clutter and do something unique now as opposed to what I did 20 years ago,” he says.
20 years in the business with the twenty first year in motion, a current network of 60 restaurants across 16 cities and multiple brands later, what, according to Amlani, makes a restaurateur relevant today?
“Paranoia,” comes the response. “Keeping your ears to the ground, listening to the customers, knowing what they want, and then giving it to them in a way that they love is very important. Being a restaurateur needs passion, it is not a side business. You can get the best consultants to come in and set up your menu, and design a restaurant and everything, but you have to be with your brand on a day-to-day basis.”
New-age hospitality guys, words from the wise should not be ignored.