It was 2001, and high heels in Mumbai were beginning to get bored. All the fashionable floor space available to them seemed to be in the same kind of chic but suffocatingly formal establishment. Until, 20 metres from Churchgate station, past a circle of prosperous paunches leaning over a paan stall, a place that looked like the anteroom of a Moroccan palace invited people in for coffee. Designer dresses lounged on colourful sofas, lipstick stuck to carved wooden pipes, privileged hands gripped imperious mugs and perfumed smoke perforated an air that smelt of money.
People tend to forget that before hookah bars became synonymous with directionless college students, Mocha, Riyaaz Amlani’s first venture, was one of the trendiest joints in Mumbai. It was the kind of place where art enthusiasts would survey the furniture and paintings, all of which were on sale. Sheeshas, opulent-looking and marketed as the toys of royals who inhaled powerfully as they contemplated their might, fed a restless, aspirational society’s appetite for a new fad. Everyone felt like he had been invited to the most happening party in town — like a hundred Nick Carraways chasing the shadow of an invisible Gatsby.
Amlani specialises in creating concepts that become instantly cool. It is not surprising that before entering the restaurant business, he designed pool parlours, go-karting venues and gyms, all obsessions that shot through cities like crack. With Salt Water Café, he put high heels out of business. Casual flats lay on the floor as pedicured feet curled up onto chairs in a laidback cafe, where suits important enough to drink cocktails in the middle of the day sat alongside models catching a quick salad before an evening photo shoot. This year, he launched Social, a cafe that doubles up as a workspace. Amlani had noticed how people were increasingly visiting cafes to have meetings or work alone on their laptops. So, he decided to create an environment in which people could work over a cup of coffee without feeling the prickle on their shoulder of the staff’s impatient eyes.
At Social, which has outlets in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, you can rent a workstation for Rs 5000 a month, all of which is redeemable against food and drink. You are given access to high-speed internet, a fully-equipped conference room, printers, scanners, a personal locker and mailbox, a concierge service and even a PlayStation 4 that you can use to unwind. In the evenings, Social turns into a trendy bar, with live music, stand-up comedy and other entertainment.
A lot of what Amlani does in the restaurant space is what IT geeks would call innovation. He doesn’t see it that way, though. “We just create new experiences based on our observations of people and conversations with them,” he says. “Social was not a brainwave. We’ve been in the cafe business for 14 years and saw many people were coming to cafes to work. So, we decided to provide them with an environment in which they could feel inspired.” Social, like many of his establishments, seeks to give every patron an entry pass to being a part of the popular crowd. “People come there not so much for the facilities as to be around like-minded, inspiring people; to collaborate and interact with them,” Amlani says.
His Impresario Entertainment and Hospitality Pvt Ltd now owns 39 restaurants in 13 cities, and most of these are all-day cafes or restaurants with a casual, unpretentious atmosphere. “Globally, quality gastronomy is stepping out of stuffy, expensive fine-dining restaurants and creeping into casual bistros and cafes,” he explains. “People now go out more and, therefore, spend less each time they do. Earlier, people would go out once a month and spend a bomb, but now they go out three or four times a week. Also, people are tired of dressing up and eating in a stuffy environment. They feel judged in pretentious restaurants. They want to eat in a casual, comfortable atmosphere but not compromise on the quality of food.”
Amlani has realised that at all-day restaurants such as Smoke House Deli, Salt Water Café and Social, he can serve almost three times as many tables as he can at a fine-dining restaurant. It is common to see a Smoke House Deli outlet half-full at 4pm on a weekday, with customers availing of one of the several offers on sangria, cocktails or beer, another one of Amlani’s crafty conceptions. That is why Smoke House Deli and Social are the brands he is focussed on scaling up in the next few years. He wants to add 20 more stores by the end of 2015 (nine are already in the pipeline) and says he foresees at least 50 outlets of Smoke House Deli in the future.
Riyaaz Amlani is a fat man, but he is not overweight. There is a difference. Being overweight suggests that you subscribe to the societal belief that there is a particular weight a man should be. None of Amlani’s body language suggests he does. Apparently, he was conscious of his weight when he was in school. Perhaps those insecurities were buried in the Rs 66-crore turnover his restaurants make every year. Because, now, he is one of the most stylish entrepreneurs you will meet and walks with the confidence of a sculpted model. He is fat the way kings used to be: unapologetically, uninhibitedly, magnificently.
At the private meeting and party room above Smoke House Deli’s Pali village outlet in Mumbai, he makes it a point to talk to several of the staff members about what is going on in their lives. “My people drive me to keep expanding,” Amlani says. “I know that to give my people vertical growth — for a restaurant manager to become a zone manager and then a CEO, or a commis to become a head chef one day — I need to keep growing the business and creating new jobs.”
The other reason he gets excited about every new restaurant he opens is that it allows him to channel another one of his several influences. “I enjoy having an outlet for things that move me. I get inspired a lot by music, art, books and many other things. And I like to use those influences in some way in my restaurants. That stops me from getting bored.”
This self-indulgent streak also manifests itself in the pop-up restaurants he ho ssts from time to time, such as Swine Dine and Gypsy Kitchen. The most recent one is at St Jude’s Bakery, an old and iconic Mumbai property that he owns and has recently restored. His executive chef, Gresham Fernandes, has curated recipes from the residents of Ranwar, a village in Bandra, Mumbai, where Jude’s is located, and is serving them as a part of The Gypsy Kitchen. “Pop-ups allow you to step out of the box restaurants are put in,” Amlani says. “In a restaurant, if a customer tells you to microwave a croissant, you can’t tell him it will taste like a shoe. Customers are constantly ranting on the internet about how the staff at restaurants think they are too big for their boots and need a lesson in humility. At a pop-up, you can say, ‘This is what we are serving. Come only if you are interested.’ People come in looking to experiment and try new things rather than with certain expectations.”
Amlani says he is always focussed on creating experiences that will make customers smile. But, he has a sharp business mind too. In 2011, Gaurav Goenka’sMirah Hospitality invested in Impresario, and now Amlani has teamed up with Goenka to jointly approach landlords for restaurant space in order to get discounted rates. The pair rented space in the tony new First International Financial Centre building in Mumbai’s Bandra-Kurla Complex and got a 20 per cent discount. Amlani has opened a Smoke House Deli bistro there while Goenka launched an outlet of Ping Pong, the international dim sum chain. It is, perhaps, this knack for forming strategic alliances that got Amlani elected as the president of the National Restaurant Association of India this September.
As we leave Smoke House Deli, Amlani stops to ask the manager how children have been reacting to the new, specially illustrated children’s menu. Amlani, who became a father this year, says he has only recently begun to realise how much children enjoy looking at and eating attractive food. As he leaves, the several Carraways in his restaurant don’t look up from their food. They do not see Gatsby. They only hear his mind churn.