Necessity is the mother of invention. You’re probably unaware of how deeply this proverb is woven into your eating out habits today. Back in the 90s, a twenty-something Riyaaz Amlani was not satisfied with the limited and polarising options when it came to dining out—it was either a 5-star hotel or a local tea stall. A wish to change that led him to set up the first Mocha in Mumbai in 2001, a space that was a runway hit with youngsters for its hookah and coffee. Many more mushroomed across the country, and the entertainment industry executive had found a new calling. And though no one knew it then, but dining out, as India knew it, had changed.
Almost two decades and over 50 restaurants in more than 15 cities later, Amlani seems to have figured out a solution for success. “You don’t give people what they want, you give people what they love. You try and figure out what they want but give it in a manner that they’ll be pleasantly surprised,” Amlani says. His restaurant group, Impresario, today spans several F&B concepts – millennials-friendly spaces (Social), an upmarket cocktail space (Slink & Bardot), fine dining (Smoke House Deli), Indian cafes (Flea Bazaar Cafe), and even one run by staff with hearing and speech impairment (Ishaara). He’s also branched out to Tier II cities such as Ranchi and Nagpur, where few other restaurant groups have ventured.
“You spend time in the trenches, see behaviour patterns, and when you listen very hard to your customers that gives you a little window into their minds and figure out what they really want,” he shares as he launches the country’s 26th Social in Navi Mumbai and the first Mocha in Ranchi in the same week. “Also, you start seeing trends worldwide—a lot of avocado and toast—and completely avoid it! A lot of these things come from deep introspection as opposed to looking over your shoulder and trying to see what the West or other people are doing.”
Restaurants are not simply a business for him, they’re a movement unto themselves–contributors to the socio-cultural and economic evolution of the country. And be it disposable income or disposable time, whichever you have more of, it’s safe to say that Amlani has cracked the code for what you’re looking for — the customer’s frame of mind is his prime concern. “Sometimes you’re in a mood to go someplace elegant, sometimes you want to stay casual…these are all psychographics. And restaurants have to own a mood space; when you are in a particular mood you’ll go to the restaurant that best fits your mood.”
Decoding the wants of different age and income groups can be reached by logical assumptions. However, where it gets tough is making the same concept successful across different cities, when each one has a soul of its own. While menus and decor get tweaked as per people’s choices from city to city, that’s not where it ends. “Restaurants are not working in isolation, they also respond to elements like the other models in the market, what is over-done—you want to try and give something new and fresh—you’re introspecting but also seeing what is missing and put something in that space.” And Amlani credits his motivated and enthusiastic team for ensuring quality across Impresario’s vast quantity of establishments.
He believes that the constant innovation is a two-way channel between the industry and its patrons. “I don’t think it is one leading the other…once a vacuum gets filled then the customer wants something else, or somebody comes up with a unique idea and customers go to that…so it is a dialogue between what the customers want and what the creators need to offer.” This also leads into how diners have also become more sensitive towards servers over the years, “Earlier people used to click their fingers and call for servers, now they are conscious enough to say ‘excuse me’, ‘please’, ‘thank you’. Even the young leadership is changing, like they’ve introduced the 24×7 rule in Mumbai, and hopefully that will lead to a major transformation,” Amlani shares.
And while he “doesn’t plan even two weeks ahead!”, and is modest about his authority on forecasting for the industry (but who better than him?), Amlani is kind enough to share is insights on how we’ll dine in the coming couple of years. “Everything is on demand, people want everything instantly and efficiently.” He also predicts that people will start cooking less and less and start ordering more. ”Food technology will influence food a lot, in terms of ordering in, making everything available all the time, that’s going to be a big change. And more and more people are thinking about where the food comes from and its environmental impact, so the carbon footprint of what they’re consuming—ethical, healthy eating will be on the rise.”
Interestingly, that takes us to where we started—him knowing what the people and industry want even before they know it—as he’s been following the upcycling regime since the first-ever Social in 2014. “Even for new restaurants our brief to our architects is minimum intervention and maximum upcycling.” And as he continues to champion that one outpost at a time, the next thing he’s got his eyes on is getting the F&B space to attract more tourism towards India.