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How Riyaaz Amlani became the cafe specialist

The CEO and managing director of Impresario Handmade Restaurants on celebrating 20 years of the brand, staying relevant, and being part of the change within the F&B landscape

Riyaaz Amlani wants to scale up the brands that the company has and not create new ones as of now. Illustration: Priya Kuriyan
Riyaaz Amlani wants to scale up the brands that the company has and not create new ones as of now. Illustration: Priya Kuriyan

It is a crisp winter evening and the Smoke House Deli in Vasant Kunj, Delhi, is sporting a new look, with tendrilled windows and a new menu. Not only is the brand, which started in the Capital in 2011 to offer a fun take on European food, being relaunched, it’s also celebrating 20 years of its parent company, Impresario Handmade Restaurants. “We made it!” smiles Riyaaz Amlani, the 47-year-old CEO and managing director of the F&B company.

There have been several milestones in the journey: the novel coffee shop Mocha (2002), cafés—a new concept at the time—such as Salt Water Cafe (2008) and Smoke House Deli (2011), the urban hangout SOCIAL (2014), and now the pivot to dark kitchens with Lucknowee, Hung-Li, and BOSS Burger.

Today, the company, which has preferred to stay focused on select brands, has made its presence felt in just about every major metro. It has eight dine-in restaurant brands, including SOCIAL, Smoke House Deli, Slink & Bardot, Souffle | S’il Vous Plait and Ishaara. “We want to scale up the brands that we have and not create new ones as of now,” says Amlani, who is excited about Smoke House Deli 2.0, which offers old classics along with some additions, such as a charcuterie section. He also plans to add four more SOCIAL outlets—including one in Dehradun in the first quarter of 2022—taking the total count to 31. Amlani hopes to grow this number to 200 in three-four years.

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Through it all, he also has plans for another three cloud kitchen brands. For, the pandemic has brought with it some learnings for the badly hit industry: like the need to invest more in the delivery format or rationalise costs by skilling staff for multiple roles. Amlani, who has set up new safety protocol-friendly restaurants, is leaning on technology as he bats for some succour from the Union and state governments on taxation rules and processes and tries to minimise waste. The restaurant chain has partnered with AtWorks, an entrepreneur support organisation, for solutions to the plastic and other waste generated by its operations.

The F&B industry is a fickle space, cluttered with brands that open and shut in a jiffy, often within a year. Amlani, who believes the key to creating a brand that will last is flexibility, traces Impresario’s growth to illustrate the point. “People were starving for something new all the time. There was no Mexican, and very little Italian. European food was called Continental. As the dining space evolved, and people’s exposure started growing, trends started to take shape,” he says. The buzz around European food soon gave way to Asian, followed by Japanese.

However, trends wax and wane. “Trends tend to wither away. With SOCIAL, we didn’t force ourselves into a corner. This allowed us to keep evolving seamlessly with time and space. Today, no two SOCIALS look the same. The menu offerings are vastly different in each outlet, so we are not restricted to one particular cuisine,” says Amlani, who shuttles between India and Dubai. “It is important not to get stuck too tightly in a concept. Having that flexibility to grow with the customer helps you sustain your brand.”

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In a way, the growth of Impresario has been in sync with the evolution of the food landscape in India and the rise of millennials. In the 2000s, there were just a handful of good stand-alone restaurants, with the fine-dining experience restricted to five-star hotels. Most of the stand-alone restaurants were multi-cuisine, offering an assortment of Mughlai and Chinese dishes. At the other end of the spectrum was street food and Udupi-style restaurants, with pav bhaji and idli-sambhar under one roof. “We have, in the last 20 years, been part of a change that has led to where F&B stands today,” says Amlani. “When we started Mocha in 2002, the insight we had was that people had absolutely no place to go between lunch and dinner, or between lunch and breakfast.” 

Restaurants were only open from 12.30-3.30pm and 7.30-11.30pm. If you wanted to meet people in between, you would either go to Udupi or a coffee shop in a hotel. “When we started Mocha, the fine-dining experience within a stand-alone restaurant was in its nascent stage. Rahul Akerkar’s Indigo and A.D. Singh’s Olive brought fine-dining out of five stars into a restaurant,” he adds.

There still weren’t any casual dining food chains, though, apart from QSR chains like McDonald’s and Pizza Hut. Mocha, which emerged at the same time that Barista came into play, brought an intimate coffee shop culture with it. Seven-eight years after coffee shops and fine-dining stand-alone outlets had taken wing, the casual dining ethos began to put down roots. “That’s when we started Salt Water Cafe and then Smoke House Deli. People realised you could get fine quality food outside of expensive restaurants. Casual dining became a thing. And then partying moved away from clubs and pubs to resto bars and lounges. In that scenario, SOCIAL acted as a disruptor with its café-bar format,” Amlani explains.

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This coincided with the time millennials were beginning to come into their own, and brands knew they had to keep evolving to stay relevant. “We have had to grow and change very quickly, turning and twisting at times. We have evolved with the dining space and tried to stay as current as possible,” notes Amlani, who had a bird’s-eye view of the shifts in the F&B space as president of the National Restaurant Association of India from 2014-17. It took the West 40 years to cover the distance the Indian F&B industry had to in half as much time.

But Amlani didn’t always plan on entering the F&B business. Before starting Impresario in 2001, he was working in the entertainment-recreation industry, setting up bowling alleys and go-karting tracks in the metros. Alongside, he would set up little canteens, with “really cheap coffee and bad sandwiches”. “(That’s when) we realised just how central food was to human interaction, and that there were no real places where people could simply hang out. That’s how Mocha came into being—the central offering was conversation and coffee,” he says. Amlani started with Mumbai. In 2008, Deepak Shahdadpuri of Beacon India came on board as the first external investor. In 2017, the private equity firm L Catterton bought a 70% stake in the company.

Over the years, Impresario has explored different café formats—be it The Tasting Room in Worli (2009), the Prithvi Cafe or Salt Water Cafe and Smoke House Deli. “It has been fun exploring different facets of this segment. At a restaurant, you go for lunch or dinner, for novelty and the experience. But cafés are open all day, and people seek comfort, convenience and community from them. These are two very different segments and I think we specialise in the café side of it,” says Amlani.

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2020-21, a gloomy year for the F&B industry, proved to be crucial for Impresario as it moved away from food aggregators to launch its own delivery platform. To offer consumers a restaurant-like experience at home, it innovated with SOCIAL mixers and DIY kits for Smoke House Deli. Dwarka SOCIAL in Delhi was designed with covid-protocols in mind—separate cubicles, no-contact menus; this was followed by similar outlets in Thane, Maharashtra, and Chandigarh. Impresario also moved into new territories in 2021, with SOCIAL launching its first outlet in Chennai and then entering Indore, Madhya Pradesh.

Impresario also entered the field of cloud kitchens. BOSS Burger has the largest footprint, operating in Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Pune, Indore, Ahmedabad, Kanpur, Ranchi, Chandigarh. Lucknowee and Hung-Li operate in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru. “There is a crucial difference between a dark kitchen and a restaurant. The former is primarily about food and hunger and not so much about the experience, lifestyle or a sense of community. At the end of the day, the dark kitchen is taking a slice out of your own home kitchen and not out of a restaurant. Cloud kitchens and restaurants will continue to coexist in the foreseeable future, and not at the cost of one another,” says Amlani.

Impresario has been using the infrastructure in its restaurant kitchens for some of its dark kitchen brands. Now it’s working towards exclusive kitchens. “Right now, our cloud delivery business is about 5 crore, which has gone up by 100% from the same time last year,” says Amlani. “We are working on building our own delivery capabilities to cater to this demand.”

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The rise of the dark kitchen has also shone the spotlight on the digital opportunity within the F&B space. “The pandemic has acted as a catalyst. Efficient third-party developers such as DotPe and Thrive have aided this shift. We now manage our own consumer database and delivery mechanism, with the customer having the choice of ordering directly from the restaurant. That has been a game changer,” he says.

Even within their outlets, technology is playing a pivotal role. You can place an order directly on a digital platform, enter your table number and pay without having any contact with the staff. However, customer response to tech within restaurants has been slower than in the virtual space. “There was a bit of reluctance as people were used to looking at the physical menu and placing the order. But now the change is happening. We are also using tech to tie up loyalty points, inventory management and point-of-sales system,” says Amlani.

In the financial year 2019-20, the company saw a revenue run rate of 480 crore and a store level EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) of 15%. In recent months, it has managed to notch up 90% of its pre-pandemic revenue. And it hopes to be back to pre-pandemic levels this month. All in all, things are beginning to look up.

While companies such as Impresario are adapting to the changes wrought by the pandemic, Amlani hopes for some facilitation from the government for a sector he says is among the top three affected. “The biggest pain point is non-allowance of input tax credit against the GST (goods and services tax) collected by the restaurants. Currently, F&B is the only industry which doesn’t get input tax credit. Our capital and operational costs have become 20% higher, and if this allowance is given, it would be a huge relief,” he says.

Amlani also calls for simplification of the processes required to set up restaurants. At the moment, there is duplication of paperwork required by the Union, state and municipal agencies. Perhaps there is a need now for one nation, one policy for restaurants. “Policies change from one municipal limit to another. We also need extended operating hours. Restaurants are among the highest employment generators in the country. If favourable conditions are granted, we can scale newer heights,” adds Amlani.

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