A Taste of Time

With Salt Water Cafe having replaced the original Mocha,Riyaaz Amlani talks about how his hospitality empire has evolved with the city’s palate.

Written by Meenakshi Iyer | Published: November 12, 2013 12:36:42 am

The idea for 39-year-old hospitality mogul,Riyaaz Amlani’s empire germinated over a chilly night out with friends,12 years ago. “I was in Panchgani on New Year’s Eve. Instead of partying,we ended up just talking for 12 hours straight. One of us said ‘if we bottle this moment and sell it,we can make a lot of money’,that’s how Mocha happened,” says Amlani whose first entrepreneurial venture was a footwear store in Sion when he was just 16 years old.

Within a decade of starting Impresario Hospitality with his friend Kiran Salaskar,they now own 33 restaurants,including various outposts of Smoke House Deli,Smoke House Grill,Stone Water Grill,Mocha,among others. Amlani started the Moroccan-themed restaurant in the space where his father ran the iconic Berrys. Last month,he went back to his roots — after serving scores of youngsters from nearby colleges for more than ten years — Mocha finally gave way to the second outpost of Salt Water Cafe. Amlani,who first started the café in the outside section of his dad’s restaurant,says,“There would be Hindi music playing inside Berrys and here we were playing Billy Holiday and other jazz numbers outside; inside,people would be eating butter chicken with naan and here people would be enjoying biscotti and panini.”

Within a few months of its opening,Mocha took over the entire space as it served coffee from different regions of the world and sheesha,which later acted as the biggest crowd puller for the chain. Amlani was part of the change,where Mumbai’s culinary scene evolved from family-run Iranis and Udipis to the emergence of quick service restaurant chains to what we see now,hand-crafted standalone restaurants. “Four evolutionary cycles took place in the west,with each lasting between 15 to 20 years. In India,all of them have been compressed and exist simultaneously,” says Amlani,who credits Indigo and Olive for being torchbearers for the Indian hospitality industry.

Now,Amlani is competing with international biggies such as Starbucks,Hakkasan,Yauatcha among others that are trying to make inroads into the country. But he feels it is going to take some time before they can give local players serious competition. “We are not a homogeneous market. Even within Mumbai,what will work in Ghatkopar will not work in Colaba. We have such depth in our flavour profiles and we love complex flavours. Foreign chains have served people bland food with mayo and pepper as seasoning across the world and have gotten away with it. It is much tougher to understand Indian food preferences.”

One of the reasons Amlani’s Impresario has been able to survive for so long in an ever changing market is that he is always coming up with new ideas. His latest is Social — a cafe-cum-bar — which will be launched next month in Mumbai,Delhi and Bangalore. With Social,Amlani wants to pair Mocha’s vibe with an affordable menu. “Today,people are rejecting chains and going towards more artisanal concepts. I learnt it early that what works today may not work tomorrow. It’s a dynamic business and has to keep evolving,” says Amlani.meenakshi.iyer@expressindia.com

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