In under two years since she started, Ahuja has already managed to rebuild her family farm into a massive and luxe property. What’s next for this young entrepreneur? We find out
At 24, Aaliya Ahuja isn’t different from other 24-year-olds — her energy is palpable, free of the drudgery that seeps in with age; she subscribes to the Gen-Z brand of self-deprecating humor, and is often unaware of her own mettle. Irrespective of how much you prod her, she’ll say that she’s “just going with the flow” and “taking it one step at a time,” and most probably she is. She’s on the good side of the 20s after all.
None of this, however, has deterred her from functioning like an aggressive entrepreneur. Although, it isn’t as apparent as her candor or warmth. I visited Oleander Farms, which Ahuja helms, for the first time in February 2021. Their first establishment — Saltt, a fine-dine restaurant — had just opened its doors to patrons. At the time, the restaurant lay bare on a 170-acre land among swathes of green. But since, has grown into a luxe property, with all the trimmings of a high-end resort, complete with a pool and a man-made lake (which was built just before and for Ahuja’s older brother’s wedding!). Once you check-in, you pretty much don’t need to step outside the premises for anything at all. Aside from the 46 rooms, a 3BHK villa (which used to be the Ahuja family home), and Saltt, it also comes with a brewery, coffee house, poolside bar, a gourmet chocolate shop, and a cellar with a vintage wine collection and tastings; shopping options, in the form of a nursery and boutique; plus, a vintage car showcase of their family-owned automobiles, including a Morris 8 belonging to the great M.F. Husain. It is experiential, and modern and manages to find the sweet spot between luxury and idyllic. And it is an ambitious project being driven solely by this vicenarian’s gusto.
“We’re working on building more rooms to take the count up to 100,” Ahuja reveals, adding that a world-class spa is in the works, too. But where did it all begin? After studying business management, the budding entrepreneur started her journey in F&B with an internship at the renowned KA Hospitality which owns franchises for Yauatcha in India, alongside Hakkasan and CinCin, under the aegis of its own boss lady, Karyna Bajaj. “I was a management intern and I wanted to understand how a restaurant works. I had no idea I was going to end up doing this at the time. I was just exploring,” she shares, adding that working with marketing, ops, and kitchen teams at KA helped her understand the nuances of the food business and get acquainted with terms like ‘inventory management.’
Things took a turn when Ahuja returned to her family’s duty-free business, but soon enough, the pandemic hit, rendering operations moot and forcing the entire household to relocate to Karjat, where Oleander Farms sits. It was during this time, that Ahuja and her folks began incepting Saltt. And much of it — despite what the scale of the project today may suggest — was DIY. Friends chipped in as HRs, Ahuja’s mother was roped in to do the interiors, and people who had been taking care of the farm for eons were trained and refashioned into on-ground staff. “The moment we put up the board for Saltt, we got flooded. In fact, we had people coming in even when we weren’t entirely ready. Slowly we realized that this was real and had to make changes accordingly. But once Saltt was done, we thought, what next? A complementing coffee house felt like the need of the hour, so we did that. Then, we saw a lot of families coming in, so we created a space for kids. Personally, I wanted something younger that would resonate with me, so we built Common House [the brewery]. Then, we saw that people who were making the journey wanted to stay back, so we decided to start building rooms. We began with eight rooms that used to be guest rooms and spruced them up. And when we saw that even a basic amenity like that was running full, we thought we needed to tap into it,” she says, explaining the progressional growth of the property.
As we speak, banquet halls and an Asian diner, along with a volley of rooms are being built on the farm, which is effectively going to turn it into a go-to wedding destination from a mere weekend getaway. And all this, in under two years since she started her first restaurant. Even if it has come to Ahuja in fits and starts, her vision — whether charged by young blood or as she opines, encouraged by her family — is large. And the way I see it, this kid is quite literally, unstoppable.