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