Home > Your Money > LSA & You: Restaurateur Riyaaz Amlani on how to grow a food business in a pandemic
LSA & You: Restaurateur Riyaaz Amlani on how to grow a food business in a pandemic

The food industry has been one of the worst hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. Riyaaz Amlani, CEO & MD, Impresario Handmade Restaurants, shares how to grow and sustain an F&B venture at such a time.

social thane
The new Social in Thane

One of India’s most prominent restaurateurs, Riyaaz Amlani is the man behind cult favourites such as Mocha, Prithvi Cafe, Soufflé S’il Vous Plaît, and many more across India. Completing 20 years next year, Impresario boasts 11 brands and 57 restaurants in 16 cities at the moment. These span several F&B concepts – millennial-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 restaurant groups have ventured.

That’s not just a lot to offer, but also a lot to uphold. Amlani has not only managed to sustain, but also expand during this time—with three new Social outposts opening in the last two months in Chandigarh, Delhi, and Thane. Here, he shares his insights on the how to tackle it, and come out winning.

What steps have been taken at Impresario to sustain its restaurants during these times?

All our restaurants follow mandated SOPs, including key things like digital menus and payments, acrylic partitions between guests and tables, running at 50 percent capacity, and one-meter distancing between tables. We have taken a slightly light-hearted approach to our safety communications, which will make you smile while making you feel at ease. To promote social distancing within the kitchens, menus have shrunk. We’ve reduced our menus by about 30 percent to accommodate this.

Restaurants have been slow adopters of technology so we have been using this time to work on our tech integration. COVID-19 has definitely heightened our digital transformation. We launched our own tech-enabled platform to build direct relationships with our customers. We are making it really convenient and safe for our customers to order, both inside our restaurants and through home delivery, to order directly via our tech-enabled platform, eliminating the third party aggregators.

We have been constantly innovating our product offerings. Our F&B innovations have not only helped drive and sustain top-of-mind recall with our consumers, but also helped us aggressively double down on home delivery via our own platform and in-house fleet of delivery staff. In markets like Bengaluru, we’re at almost 30 percent of pre-COVID revenues. We have seen exponential growth in brands that people trust. For Social and Smoke House Deli, we’ve seen delivery businesses go by 200 percent or in some cases even 300 percent of pre-COVID levels.

Social has also doubled down on its co-working operations given the fact that a lot of companies had to let go of their office spaces. While work from home may work, we feel that work from Social is a great need of the hour for people who find it difficult working out of their homes. We are encouraging people to use our facilities.

Ishaara review
Ishaara, Mumbai

What statistics provided the confidence for expansion?

At the beginning of the financial year our business saw a major drop given the country-wide lockdown, but by October we saw growth in business. We feel that in November we will hit 55 percent, and by December, business will be 75 percent or more of the pre-COVID level. We are taking a month-on-month view rather than an annual or quarterly view right now. These figures definitely gave us the confidence to expand further.

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A Private Dining Room at Social, Gurugram

How are you scaling up at the moment?

We feel that the business will continue to grow at around 8 to10 percent, month on month. To scale up we’re focusing a lot on activations, for example, to drive footfall back to the outposts. Starting October 9, Social introduced a pan-India bar campaign called #ThatOnePerson to destigmatise the act of finally going out. We invited patrons to come by and celebrate responsibly with their best friend by offering their first drink together on the house. This has been a large campaign for us, and has been extremely effective. Many incredible stories have emerged on how Social has played such an important part in people’s lives. Our plan is to utilise and strategise on creating some great campaigns in order to scale up. The reason for this growth is the trust that people have in our brand. We are building on deliveries by introducing Cloud Kitchen brands in the coming months.

To promote our co-working concept Social Works, we launched #OpenHouse week across Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, and Chennai for creative entrepreneurs. There are a lot of opportunities that are presenting themselves in Tier-2 towns which we will be taking up. Our plans are not fully crystallised but we know the direction. For now, we are taking Social to Indore.

riyaaz amlani
Riyaaz Amlani

Did the pandemic redefine your strategies?

Currently, we are just seizing the day and responding on a week-to-week basis. We have made design interventions, where people get their own space, but at the same time are not cut off from others. They have their own little cabinets while being in a social environment, we call this ‘Social With Distancing’. Small towns are our main focus for expansion, since we have seen the biggest recovery there. We are also building up on our cloud kitchen vertical and will introduce seven brands in the coming months.

Has there been an upside to the pandemic?

The pandemic has definitely heightened our digital transformation. You can order food directly from our Instagram, Facebook, also while using Whatsapp. For dine-in one can use the tech-enabled platform to refer to our digital menu, ordering and payments.

Smoke House Deli
Smoke House Deli

Any advice be for those starting a food business at this time?

For anyone thinking for starting a food business at this time, my advice would be to rethink your strategies to minimise the costs, combat the virus by becoming the virus itself that is by going on a minimum life support system, make sure you wait for favourable conditions before going ahead with the expansion plans, try and take care of as many people as you can in the meanwhile.

Re-examine all your cost items of your business right from rentals, labour costs to purchases and add as many efficiencies as you can. There’s no way of making money in the restaurant industry for the next one year.

The customer’s expectation will be way more from the restaurants for a good experience now since they have been devoid of it for a while now and brands would have to live up to their expectations if they have to survive in the current scenario.

All images: Courtesy Impresario and Riyaaz Amlani

Megha Uppal
Senior Associate Editor
An innate love for travel and food has translated into many a trips since childhood for Megha; it also fed her curiosity to know about local cultures. When not writing, she is on the lookout for three things: A great dark chocolate dessert, a beautiful pool where she can practice her backstroke, and art that she can save up for.