BEING SOCIAL WITH RIYAAZ AMLANI
This dynamic restaurateur has revolutionised the way people party and spend evenings in India through his uber-cool ventures like Mocha, Social and Smoke House Deli. Read on to know how…
The dynamic restaurateur Riyaaz Amlani talks to RahulPaul about his hopping ventures like Social, Smoke House Deli and The Flea Bazaar Café over some food and drinks.
The meeting venue is Riyaaz’s latest brainchild, Flea Bazaar Café at Lower Parel, Mumbai. The place boasts of delicious food and drinks from 14 different brands put together. Before we could start, we had our orders placed as the place fills up like crazy as the daylight dims. Riyaaz arrived casually dressed with a mischievous smile on his face. We congratulate him on the opening of his 10th outpost of Social in his home town Mumbai, where he has had a very happy childhood, he tells us. “I remember, I was very fond of reading and was basically an introvert, still am. People find that hard to believe but it’s a skill. I went to school at St Mary’s and started working in a shoe shop in Colaba at a young age of 13,” he says. I stopped him for a moment to ask him if he was good at selling shoes. “I was very good at it and had figured out that people didn’t want the product but how the product made them feel,” Riyaaz says matter-of-factly. He doesn’t cringe from taking credit for his talent and observation skills. By the time Riyaaz was 16, he thought that he knew everything about the shoe business. So he started his own shoe shop at Sion circle. “I thought I had hit the jackpot with the location as people that time used to go up to Bandra or Dadar to buy shoes. Hence, I thought it will work. But it didn’t work. There were five shoe shops in Sion and none of them had a showcase or an AC (Air Conditioner). Lights were turned on when the customers came in and the shoes were kept on cardboards. Whereas my shop
had AC, showcase, lights, everything… and that’s why customers didn’t come in, thinking that it will be expensive. What I learnt is that India has many different kind of markets and people are looking for honesty. They are scared of too much fancy stuff,” he observes. Having said that, Riyaaz believes that the dynamics is changing and everything is in the state of flux at present. The next thing that Riyaaz’s ever observant mind deduced that people didn’t have many options for entertainment. He felt there was a big need for entertainment. So he went to UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) to study MBA in Entertainment Management. After coming back, he set up an entertainment consultancy firm and started bowling allies, go-karting tracks, video game parlours, sandwich shops and coffee shops in various public arenas. “We observed that people who came for bowling always ate a sandwich, even if they didn’t end up bowling. So we focused on improving the food menu and gave more options. People like having places to go around them. They prefer living in a small flat in a buzzing area vis-à-vis in a big bungalow with nothing to do around. It makes them feel more human,” Riyaaz explains. Through his venture Impresario Entertainment and Hospitality Pvt Ltd, he even tried to venture into films and Broadway shows. But couldn’t quite get that right. Riyaaz’s partner in business and crime is Kiran Salaskar, with whom he has been friends with since kindergarten. How they decided to start their first outlet of Mocha is another interesting story. “So we used to talk generally about restaurants, like ‘what kind of restaurants are these? We will start one of our own someday’. So when I got bored with the film industry, I told Kiran, ‘you remember we talked over drinks one day about opening our own restaurant? You want to do it?’ Kiran readily agreed but we only had five lakhs each, which wasn’t enough. We brought another college friend of ours, Varun, into the business to take the total to 15 lakhs, but it wasn’t enough still. We didn’t have money to buy furniture, so we brought things from our own houses, I even got my watchman’s stool, and somehow we opened the restaurant,” he recounts. People liked the mismatched furniture and other unique features of the place and it became a hit and the outlets kept growing in number. Riyaaz’s next venture was Salt Water Grill, a fine dining restaurant set up on the beach at Marine Drive. The venture was taken to Delhi as Smoke House Grill and then to Pune as Stone Water Grill. After a few years of running the cafés and fine dining places, Riyaaz realised that there is a ‘casual dining’ concept between the two and that made him start Salt Water Café and Smoke House Deli. “India is a heterogeneous market—what works in Colaba will not work in Masjid Mandir—which is not even half a kilometre away. Also, intimidation is a very big factor. People feel ‘do I belong
here or do I not’. So the idea is to get everybody to a democratic platform and that has been an evolution. We started off by catering to only a particular kind of audience to find that the real skill is to cater to a wider audience,” he points out. Riyaaz’s most successful venture is the all-day café-bar Social, which has become a rage in just a few years. “Mocha had been there for 15 years and it was predominately for gen-xers, people in their 40s now. Millennials are different kind of creatures. They want to hangout but at the same time they want to work on making an app or building a start-up and collaborate with each other. So we wanted to create a space where people would come together and collaborate. A place where they can work during the day and shut down their laptops and party in the evening. Social was created for them,” Riyaaz says enthusiastically. Talking about collaboration, Riyaaz remembers all the collaborators who came together to start Social. “Ayaaz Basrai has been very instrumental for us in creating the concept of Smoke House Deli and Social. Then there is Faizan Khatri and Samir Raut of Studio Eight Twenty Three, who are responsible for creating Flea Bazaar Café and a few outlets of Social. Hanif Qureshi, who is the founder of street arts, has designed the menu, logo, design language and voice for Social. Illustrator Kriti Monga has done calligraphy for us. There are many more people who have worked hard for the success of Social,” he says thankfully. As for future plans, Riyaaz says, “My plans are restricted to tomorrow morning. I can’t make plans further than that because the situation is so dynamic. We want to expand our brands, scale up Social, Smoke House Deli and also Flea.” We part ways and hope to meet again at the launch of the next Social or Flea, or maybe an altogether new place that this prolific entrepreneur decides to kick-start.
Flea Bazaar Cafe