61 restaurants in 16 cities in 20 young years. But that’s not the only thing that India’s homegrown iconic brand, Impresario Handmade Restaurants, and its makers - Riyaaz Amlani and his exceptional team are most known, loved and revered for.
The business of restaurants is much like movies. There is no single formula of success. What may seem to be good today, isn’t there tomorrow, and what is good for tomorrow may be the Achilles heel if repeated and so forth. There is simply no way of knowing what would work. And yet, just like the big screen, the dining topography in its last century of existence has witnessed some of the most prolific, Ben-Hur kind of movements with brands that have reached dizzying heights of numbers and success, those that have changed the way we dine, those that have defined the way we socialize and then those who have woven the new social fabric we call the new age dining.
But few have been able to do it all like IMPRESARIO HANDMADE RESTAURANTS. Whether it was the café style Mocha; the independent thinkers haven, Social; the solo diners Disneyland called ANTISocial; the diners mood board Salt Water Café or our very own thermopolium called the Smoke House Deli. Each of the above brands while being unique served a particular purpose and was relevant to the changing dining dynamics. Take Social for instance. When the first outlet opened in Mumbai in Colaba in 2014, it coincided with the rise of entrepreneurs and independent professionals who were looking for the place to brainstorm on the new. Social, despite the presence of co-working spaces and cafes like CCD, Barista, and the ilk, came through as this ideal place that promoted free thinking and brainstorming. Co-working place by morning and a cool neighbourhood hangout by evening, it became the ground that brewed brands including wearable tech brand boAT among others. Similarly, was Mocha, Impresario’s maiden brand, which for the years it existed, was the go-to place for everyone to bring in the weekend. Quirky in its design, food, and the informal ambience, it laid the idea and the format of ‘chilling out’. You could sit with a hukka for hours, nurse your favourite cup of joe in XXL size cup or even join in the crowd cheering someone who could finish the Chocolate Avalanche – a overflowing cup of chocolate, brownie, chocolate chips, syrup, and the works that foodpreneurs and food columnist consider as one of the finest masterpieces of zero wastage and a clever dessert. Back then, it was that effective ice breaker that found you a new friend, a group and became the second home if you were single in the city. A baton that Chaath – a short lived concept - took upon for some time where you could relive and rejoice being an unapologetic desi.
The brilliance was that the Impresario team repeated the feat with all its in-time concepts that were revamped once they outlived their purpose.
How was Impresario acing the game of pulse? The answers lay in two places: One with brand-maker Riyaaz Amlani and his exceptional team, which in my opinion, are easily one of the finest collections of brilliant thinkers and effective doers; and two, in the way they envisioned each new restaurant or the expansion of an existing one.
Since Mocha, almost all brands that Impresario curated were cultural spaces rather than just an eating outpost. Each had its unique character in terms of food, the ambience, the music, the design even the way the colour was chosen, and light fixture placed. Amlani’s knack of building a community gave each of the place its irreplaceable essence. Each outlet was built on ideas and people who could play it out with that quirkiness – a trademark of all Impresario Handmade Restaurants. Whether it was the design that gave Smoke House Deli that pop culture-meet-MAD comic world kind of feel or the food that made interesting pairing of two different dishes in Social and Chaath the new take on fusion/modern food. In fact, so popular was the quirky, hand-drawn art illustration that Priya Dali did for Smoke House Deli that it became the hallmark that defined a new café space in the market. A similar effect was the Social design that brought in everything that was unrestaurant-like into the restaurant: from the unfinished table, the steel chairs paired with plush lounges, the cargo style seating arrangement or even the mismatched plates and crockeries food was served in. Even for ANTIsocial, it was the thought of building a cultural space rather than a restaurant format that did the trick and transformed the crazy concept into a go-to place to start the after-work life. The team upped the game with one more ace: dealing with every outpost as a standalone.
Result, no two brands including Social have anything in common except for the name. Each has a theme, a city-palate based food and music, and of course the ambience. This all-round approach was the reason that Impresario management gigs were equally successful including the stint with Prithvi Café; and also, those that they built as part of its new avatar as angel investor with Slink & Bardot and Soufflé S’il Vous Plaît. Two brilliant chef-co-owned and driven outpost that cut loose the image of Impresario being just a café specialist.
Fascinatingly, for a large group of industry peers the name Impresario and the team behind never were in the need of any sobriquet. Considered as one of the architects of the new-age dining, the brand and its curated outposts inspired people differently. For peers and industry observers, Impresario became both a trendsetter and trendmaker with this unmatched ability of finding spaces that needed attention and filling it with an outstanding concept. Like the Swine Dinner that was created to present people with a platform for a gourmet adventure. For the writing world, the many restaurants under the brand were post of innovation that combined culinary ingenuity with local, sustainable practices- not to mention popular cultural hubs. For chefs and resource heads, it was the perfect platform to collaborate, learn and excel. For those in branding, Impresario brands helped thinking that could disrupt. And for diners, it became a multiverse of options. Once built with an idea to offer space that fit in between breakfast, lunch and dinner, Impresario brands in their collective 20 years of existence had transformed into a space that could suit any mood and time. Little wonder the brand with its brilliant minds and doers could build 61 outposts in 16 cities that continue to inspire despite all.
As the brand steps into its new innings, one cannot help but celebrate the team that has hand-made the idea of ‘being social’ in India: be it the brilliant and affable Riyaaz Amlani, who since the first time I had met him till date maintains the ‘you are as good as the last outlet you have built’; to the branding genius Shobita Kadan (former) to the bevy of some of the brilliant culinary heads who plated food that literally launched a thousand stories or more led by the slow food genius Chef Gresham Fernandes, Chef Glyston Gracias, Chef Shamsul Wahid, Chef Gaurav Gidwani and Chef Bainard Colaco (both former) among others.