FRESH START

With her maiden venture, the one-stop lux­ury chain Foodhall, AVNI BIYANI is fan­ning a gourmet goods frenzy By An­nie Philip

Harper's Bazaar (India) - - BAZAAR -

“I AL­WAYS KNEW I WAS GO­ING TO DO THIS. My sis­ter Ashni and I have lit­er­ally grown up on shop floors. We have been help­ing peo­ple mer­chan­dise since we were five,” says Avni Biyani, com­pletely mat­ter-of-fact. Start­ing off at such an early age is clearly pay­ing div­i­dends to­day for this 24-year-old. As the con­cept head of Foodhall, the gourmet and spe­cialty food venture of the Fu­ture Group, one of In­dia’s largest re­tail busi­ness houses, Avni is set­ting an in­dus­try bench­mark with her ‘food lifestyle ex­pe­ri­ence’ store that prom­ises to in­dulge ev­ery whim of the con­nois­seur.

I meet Avni at Foodhall’s nerve cen­tre, the Fu­ture Group of­fice in Mum­bai, and she comes across as ev­ery bit a hands-on man­ager, in­volved in all as­pects of the busi­ness, and ex­pect­ing the same from her young team. Her agenda: To cre­ate a store where cus­tomers don’t just pick prod­ucts and leave; in­stead they dis­cover the love of food in an un­hur­ried shop­ping en­vi­ron­ment.

To this ef­fect, Foodhall stocks ex­otic in­gre­di­ents and condi­ments from the world over. From Greek Kala­mata olives and South Amer­i­can Inca berries, to Turk­ish Mor­tadella and Tzatziki dips, to even au­then­tic idli rice and podis (pow­ders) from South In­dia, aisle af­ter aisle is filled with ex­cit­ing op­tions. The store also or­gan­ises live demos, mas­ter­classes, work­shops, and the­matic fes­ti­vals that en­cour­age cus­tomers to learn and ex­pe­ri­ence food at mul­ti­ple lev­els— you’ll of­ten find chefs teach­ing cus­tomers how to use a tahini paste cor­rectly or ex­plain­ing the dif­fer­ent uses of a Ha­banero chilli or which Thai curry paste works best with your recipe. A va­ri­ety of ap­pli­ances like food pro­ces­sors, waf­fle mak­ers, cof­fee ma­chines, gar­lic pressers, and le­mon zesters aim to com­plete the food shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ence; there is even a con­tent-rich web­site geared to­wards this. Spread across large re­tail spa­ces at up­mar­ket lo­ca­tions, the store has many ex­pa­tri­ates fre­quent­ing it—Avni says sev­eral cus­tomers have com­pared shop­ping at Foodhall to sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences abroad.

“I love food, and Foodhall was maybe part of my des­tiny,” rem­i­nisces Avni, who is the younger daugh­ter of group CEO, Kishore Biyani, con­sid­ered by many to be the poster boy of the re­tail rev­o­lu­tion in In­dia, a mav­er­ick who op­er­ates by his own rules. Un­der him, the Fu­ture Group started mul­ti­ple re­tail for­mats, serv­ing around 300 mil­lion cus­tomers a year, with stores spread over 16 mil­lion sq ft of space across In­dia. Ashni Biyani, Avni’s older sis­ter, is the chief ideator for Fu­ture Ideas, the group’s strate­gic in­no­va­tions con­sul­tancy venture. Ashni also helped con­cep­tu­alise and cre­ate Holii, a fash­ion ac­ces­sories brand in part­ner­ship with Hidesign. In 2011, when the group ven­tured into the spe­cial­ity food space with its first out­let in Mum­bai, Avni joined op­er­a­tions just a cou­ple of months into its de­but, fresh from the New York Univer­sity Col­lege of Arts and Science. “My time in New York re­ally made me un­der­stand food deeper. I did some classes around food and society, I trav­elled a lot. Food was some­thing I got more and more pas­sion­ate about,” she says.

She ac­tioned her learn­ing im­me­di­ately on her first job—in the con­stantly evolv­ing field of gourmet food, she says in­no­va­tion and be­ing open to ex­per­i­men­ta­tion are es­sen­tial. “Sev­eral times I have gone with my gut in­stinct, so we are con­stantly try­ing to do newer things.” To this ef­fect, Avni and her t eam care­fully hand­picked part­ners—“ex­cit­ing peo­ple who are do­ing ex­cit­ing things about food”—who set up shop-in­shop. One such part­ner is English­man Ju­lian Amery and his brand of ASA spices. The Biyani fam­ily dis­cov­ered his or­ganic spice store in a Copen­hagen mar­ket while on hol­i­day, and sens­ing po­ten­tial, in­vited him to set up a stall at the store. “Cus­tomers re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate it and keep com­ing back for it,” says Avni.

‘Va­ri­ety’ is a term of­ten used in re­views of Foodhall. Avni does this by be­ing open to the best brands in the busi­ness and lesser-known

“I al­ways knew I was go­ing to do this. My sis­ter Ashni and I have lit­er­ally grown up on shop floors. We have been help­ing peo­ple mer­chan­dise since we were five.”

but de­light­ful prod­ucts from in­de­pen­dent ven­dors. Al­ready, the store’s live food coun­ters, patis­series, and bak­eries with their in-house breads, are a hit among cus­tomers. Aware of how fickle food trends can be, she reg­u­larly haunts lo­cal mar­kets in dif­fer­ent coun­tries and is a keen ob­server of what chefs like Yo­tam Ot­tolenghi, who spe­cialises in mod­ern Is­raeli cui­sine, and Man­ish Mehro­tra, who has “rev­o­lu­tionised the way In­dian food is viewed,” are up to. “Con­sumers’ tastes and habits are very fluid, es­pe­cially in a busi­ness like ours. Truf­fle may be the flavour of last sea­son, it cer­tainly isn’t the flavour of this sea­son,” she says. Depart­ment stores like the Ja­panese Isetan, British Fort­num & Ma­son, Ital­ian Eataly, and New York’s Dean & DeLuca, have all pro­vided am­ple in­spi­ra­tion. She picked in­sights on ven­dor se­lec­tion from the spe­cial­ity foods store Zinger­man’s Deli in Ann Ar­bor, Michi­gan. “Food is exploding in In­dia. Aware­ness is grow­ing. In the next three to five years, we def­i­nitely see con­sumers al­ter­ing their life­styles per­tain­ing to spe­cific kind of diets. So we see that ve­g­an­ism and gluten-free diets will be on a rise,” pre­dicts Avni.

It’s no wonder then that in the nearly three years since its launch, Foodhall has ex­panded steadily to five stores across Mum­bai, Pune, Delhi, Gur­gaon, and Ben­galuru with a sixth store sched­uled to open in Saket, Delhi, next month. Post that, Avni would like to con­sol­i­date and set pro­cesses right, give a “method to the mad­ness”. This, how­ever, does not stop her from dream­ing big. “We will be the l argest gourmet player in fi­nan­cial year 2014-15. We are look­ing at a ny­where bet ween

` 125- 150 crore of busi­ness. The idea re­ally is to say that you don’t need to go else­where if you want to look for the best.”

Does be­ing Kishore Biyani’s daugh­ter mean added pres­sure? “You prob­a­bly are at a stronger wicket be­cause you un­der­stand the busi­ness bet­ter. I have seen the busi­ness vir­tu­ally through my father’s and my sis­ter’s lenses all these years. But at the same time, you have your own set of chal­lenges. Like the way I run Foodhall, I run it in­de­pen­dently,” she says. What about seek­ing ad­vice? “Yes, all the time. I spoke to my father this morn­ing on some­thing I needed help with. But it’s in­for­mal. I will not for­mally seek help or ad­vice.” In­ter­est­ingly, her father did not want them to study busi­ness. “He had this strong phi­los­o­phy that you will learn and gain knowl­edge as you go along in life. We both chose fields we felt would open up our minds and en­able us to be­come

Does be­ing Kishore Biyani’s daugh­ter mean added pres­sure? “You prob­a­bly are at a stronger wicket be­cause you un­der­stand the busi­ness bet­ter. But you have your own set of chal­lenges.”

bet­ter lead­ers. I did so­ci­ol­ogy and pol­i­tics to un­der­stand peo­ple bet­ter.”

As a re­sult, Avni is con­stantly putting her­self in the cus­tomer’s shoes. “I think what is in­ter­est­ing is that I re­late to peo­ple who come to Foodhall with a spe­cific list... they re­ally want to find that one spe­cific in­gre­di­ent. I am also a shop­per like that, I un­der­stand the im­por­tance and the need of find­ing par­tic­u­lar in­gre­di­ents.” Like Avni’s search for good av­o­ca­dos led Foodhall to im­port the high qual­ity Hass av­o­ca­dos—the store now sells 60 kg at ` 1,700 a kilo a week. “I shop at Foodhall all the time, much to the dis­may of my mother be­cause she doesn’t like the bills that I bring home,” she laughs. All in a day’s work, we say.

Avni Biyani at Foodhall in Pal­la­dium Mall, Mum­bai. Dress, ` 27,500, Ashish N Soni. Ear­rings, ` 2,000, Cu­rio Cot­tage. Shoes, ` 5,990, Ken­neth Cole.

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