'Smoke House Deli 2.0 will continue to offer European comfort food but with local farm produces': Riyaaz Amlani

Restauranteur Riyaaz Amlani on Smoke House Deli 2.0, what made him switch to local organic produce, his famous logout movement and how the restaurant industry can change the fortune of India
Riyaaz Amlani, CEO & MD, Impresario Entertainmant & Hospitality Pvt. Ltd
Riyaaz Amlani, CEO & MD, Impresario Entertainmant & Hospitality Pvt. Ltd

Ten years ago when Riyaaz Amlani, CEO and MD of Impresario Entertainment and Hospitality Pvt Ltd started Smoke House Deli, he wanted to offer a quality space that serves accessible European food. And, he wouldn’t leave any stone unturned towards creating the right mood, be it importing ingredients like Wagyu beef, Norwegian salmon, Atlantic cod, Australian John dory or creating an ambience that reflected a classy vibe. A decade later, he has transformed the place - the ingredients are local,  sourced with complete focus on seasonal sustainability, the overall offering is greener and wholesome and the cafe is more casual and artful in its appearance. There is also a ‘Goodness To Go’ section that aims at offering healthier fast food and for the festive season, they have launched an all-vegetarian ‘Green Dot Menu’. Amidst so much going on, Riyaaz takes out some time to tell us about Smoke House Deli 2.0, what made him switch to sourcing local organic produce over importing ingredients, his famous logout movement and how the restaurant industry can change the fortune of India. Excerpts:

<em>(L-R clockwise): Homemade Ricotta & Sage Malfatti, Warm Burrata & Roasted Seasonal Fruits, Smoked Corn Soup With Black Rice Crisps and  Organic Mascarpone & Chocolate Cake</em>
(L-R clockwise): Homemade Ricotta & Sage Malfatti, Warm Burrata & Roasted Seasonal Fruits, Smoked Corn Soup With Black Rice Crisps and  Organic Mascarpone & Chocolate Cake

Q: Tell us about Smoke House Deli 2.0. What made you rebrand it?
Ten years ago, when we started off, the dining scene was very different, people were starving for imported. It was about Wagyu beef, New Zealand lamb chops, Norwegian salmon, Atlantic cod, Australian John dory, imported cheese, etc... If you are serving risotto, you are importing Arborio rice. It was that kind of a zone where foodies were far in between but they were extremely snobbish (about food). At that time, carbon footprint or local produce didn’t mean anything. So, Smoke House Deli was a child of that age. Over the years, of course, things have evolved and risotto is the best example of our transition. We have gone from using Arborio rice to using Bora rice from Assam. We are preparing European food with Indian-origin produce. To think, it is just a blink of an eye but things have changed at the consumer’s education level. Even that time, we knew Bora rice, it wasn’t like we weren’t aware of it but if at that point, we would have used it, we would have short-changed our customers but now the mindset has changed and it is about celebrating local. At that point, people weren’t that conscious and there weren’t as many dietary restraints. Now people are careful about consuming organic, local and healthy. The new Smoke House Deli embraces that and continues to do what it is known for - quality European comfort food but with more fresh, local and directly from farm produces.

<em>Smoke House Deli - The interiors</em>
Smoke House Deli - The interiors

Q: The ambience looks more vibrant and casual. Has your target audience changed in any manner? Also, over the years, you have created a niche for yourself. How have your patrons reacted to you Smoke House Deli 2.0?
Smoke House Deli has had a very set clientele base. When you make a change, you want to be careful because you don’t want to alienate your present customers. Yes, it was a little nervewracking for us... how do we transition the Smoke House Deli while keeping our identity intact and yet holding on to the new decade. Smoke House Deli, as a product, was more like a fine dining area, now it is a little bit more cafeish, we have lightened up the space and made it more accessible and friendlier.

It is always tougher to reimagine an existing brand and think of a new brand because when you start, it is a clean slate and you can do whatever you want but reimagining an old favourite, which is a cult with a devout following is challenging and we have got a lot of flak. But, I think they will come back and they are going to love it as much as they loved the old one.

Q: Is there any nervousness about the reception of this new version of Smoke House Deli?
The feeling of opening up a new restaurant never gets old, there are butterflies in your stomach, you are always concerned whether people will like it or not. But, I think it is good to be nervous and worried and not to get complacent. We call ourselves a handmade restaurant because it is handmade, everything is drawn by hand, including the illustrations that you see on walls. It is a labour of love.

Q: Tell us about Goodness To Go?
With all the WhatsApp messages and emails, which were supposed to make our lives easier, our lives have become much more stressed. We are always in a hurry and we have seen that whenever you are looking to eat something quick, your only options are the bad ones, which are high in salt and fat. You are either going for a burger or a pizza with cola or shake. At our Goodness To Go section, you can go for multigrain bread and instead of coke, you can go for cold-pressed juice and instead of fries, you can have vegetable crisps. And, it is still fast food but it is not junk. That’s the difference. 

Q: The mortality rate in the restaurant industry is really high. From someone who has successfully set up brands like Social and Smoke House Deli, we want to know where is it that most restaurants are failing? And, what are you doing right?
Every restaurant is someone’s dream, it is always a labour of love. It may not translate (into a good business) but the intentions are in the right place. I don’t know what I am doing right, I try to follow a mood or vibe and create something immersive for my customers but the conditions are really tough for us. Today, it is cheaper to get property in London’s Mayfair then it is to get in Bandra. So, you are paying first world rents in what is largely a third-world consumption power parity. There is a disconnect already. Then, there are too many restrictions and regulations and people are used to massive discounts, together they are making the conditions very very hard for upcoming restaurants. I feel very strongly for all those restaurants who fail. 

<em>Desserts at Smoke House Deli 2.0</em>
Desserts at Smoke House Deli 2.0

Q: Talking about the discounts, you were at the forefront of Logout movement. How exactly are these aggregators eating out the business? And, how important is it for the restaurant industry to unite in times like these?
There is only the restaurant unity that is standing between its continued survival and its utter destruction. Only the best restaurants in the country are making a double-digit profit, most successful restaurants make a single-digit profit. How can they give you a 50% discount? Besides, here, somebody else is taking money from you, you are giving it to him by cutting off your margins and in the process, it is not you who is earning customer’s loyalty but the aggregator. Every product has a perceived value and if you start eroding that valuation, there is a problem.

We don’t have any problem with Swiggy, Eazydiner, Dineout and others, they all are listing us. I think once you start thinking that you are a messiah of the restaurants, it is then that the disconnect happens. And, I think it is very very important that restaurants come together to understand their value and understand the fact that restaurants existed long before the aggregators and they will continue to exist long after the aggregators. The aggregators need restaurant and restaurants don’t need aggregators.

Q: How is Zomato different from other aggregators? 
The problem here is permanent discounting, others are time-bound. What is the hope here? The hope is that I will give a discount and with that discount, I will entice a customer who normally wouldn’t consider coming to my restaurant. I will give him good food and service and hopefully, they will enjoy my brand of hospitality and I will earn their loyalty and we will form a relationship. But, all you get with them, it is one night stands because you are not getting a relationship. Customers are only coming for discounts and next time, they will go to another restaurant to get the discount.

Q: Lastly, you mentioned several problems. Is there a role that government can play?
Ease off on the regulations. Right now, if I have to open a restaurant, I need 35 No Objection Certificates (NOCs) whereas I need only five to open up a gunshop. That’s the difference... I need 35 NOCs to sell a sandwich! For opening a restaurant in Singapore, you need three licenses, it is four in Thailand, two in Turkey and five in America, which is the most regulated country. So, we are overly regulated. And, if you ease off these regulations, the restaurant industry will change the fortune of India because, at the end of the day, India, which is a land of elephants, tigers, mountains, oceans, ancient civilisation and culture, sees only eight million tourists. To put it in perspective, Dubai sees 16 million, Vegas sees 35 million, Spain sees 80 million people visiting them every year. So, there is no tourism that’s happening. These eight million people generate eight million jobs. If India would see 80 million people, it will create 80 million jobs. There are 72 million jobs that this country very badly needs. I am employing 65 people in this small area of 1500 sq feet. A clothing brand is employing four people in the same area. See the difference! This is how intensive food industry is in employment generation and although it is very small compared to the international market, we employ three and a half time more people than the IT industry. The potential is huge and it needs to be unleashed by the government. 

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