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Out of the box

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It was his passion for food, especially biryani, that led Ammi’s Biryani founder and CMD 40-year-old Navaj Sharief to step out of the family steel business to launch a unique concept in 2008 in
Bangalore. Predominately a home delivery brand, Ammi’s Biryani is the brand that introduced the concept of biryani on the go. Funded by SAIF Partners, TMA Hospitality, the company that owns Ammi’s Biryani, is now 68 outlets strong. Nivedita J Pawar speaks to Sharief, who’s all set to make Ammi’s Biryani the largest Indian QSR by 2015.

Ammi's Biryani

Mumbai is already a crowded space as far as biryani is concerned. What brought you to Mumbai and that too with six simultaneous store launches in a week? 

We are established in the south with Bangalore and Chennai being our key markets. Mumbai is known for its culture of eating out and to be honest, there is no established biryani chain in the city. The existing players in this segment have not gone beyond 3-5 individual outlets. I see far more potential here. We will be rolling out 50 outlets in Mumbai over the next year. That will make us a strong organised player in this segment and give us the first mover advantage with a sizable number of outlets.

How has the journey been for Ammi’s Biryani right from the launch in 2008 to 68 stores currently?

We introduced Indian food in a box.Convenience is our forte. I got funded when investors realized that Indian food served in an international format can be a scalable business model. Currently,
we are growing at 100 per cent. Deliveries account for 70 per cent of the revenue, the rest comes from dine in. Funded by SAIF Partners, one of India’s leading equity funds, in 2012, we have sufficient revenues to grow at the retail level in Mumbai and Pune. I want to be the first Indian born QSR to reach the
scale of 500 outlets. No Indian brand has grown above 70-80 outlets. Even a Goli Vada pav that has reached 100 outlets has taken the franchise route. By December 2015, we aspire to be the largest Indian QSR.
Do you have a signature biryani style or have you localised the recipe to suit local taste buds? 

Our signature biryani – Chicken Jeera Samba – is a typical muslim household biryani. That was the starting point of the biryani journey for us. It’s made with Jeera Samba rice (a small grain rice variety), which absorbs the masalas far better than Basmati
rice. As we evolved we got into the Hyderabadi kacchi dum biryani space. And when it was time to step out of Bangalore, we incorporated the regional flavour in the biryani. So, for instance, in Mumbai we have the Mumbaiya Biryani with kevda, rose
water and more masala. Our biryanis in Bangalore are served with salan (a gravy preparation). But we decided to do away with it in Mumbai. In Chennai we have added ‘Virundhu Biryani’ and ‘Prawn Biryani’ to the menu.

Do you work with trained chefs or local cooks?

We have a set of masters who have been trained over a period of time in making biryanis. These cooks train the kitchen staff at new locations. We have broken down the biryani into various processes. As an organisation, we are not people-dependant but
process-dependent. While we don’t use machines to cook the biryani, the ingredients – spices, onions, salt, etc – are defined clearly.

With 68 outlets up and running how do you ensure consistency in product and services?

As mentioned, our biryanis are process-driven, not people-driven. The processes are clearly defined and monitored; this rules out any human error and maintains consistency in taste across outlets. We have tried eliminating skill at various levels. We have a stringent quality policy and the quality team reports directly to me.

How do you tackle food inflation?

It’s something that you have to deal with. At the end of the day it’s all about purchase efficiencies. We have yearly contracts with vendors so that price fluctuations don’t impact our day-to-day
operations. That being said, we do get affected when onion prices skyrocket from Rs 20 to Rs 150. No vendor will absorb that kind of price rise.

Tell us something about your central kitchen

Our central kitchen in Mumbai is at Marol, Andheri. The biryani is cooked at the central kitchen. The stores are equipped with custom built warmers with humidity control. This keeps the
biryani hot at 70 degrees centigrade and keeps it moist. We have two despatches (morning and evening) daily. Each central kitchen spans 7,000 sq ft of area and services 45 outlets.

What’s the retail reach of Ammi’s Biryani currently?

We have 45 outlets in Bangalore and 18 in Chennai. We will be 55 outlets strong in Bangalore by March 2015 and 25 in Chennai by the same time. We are at six outlets in Mumbai and hope to grow to 60 outlets within a year. We will be launching in Pune in Jan 2015 and would like to close it at 20 outlets by June 2015. Delhi is the next city for us. All our outlets are company owned.

How do you tackle the manpower challenge that is faced by most restauranteurs today?

Managing and retaining store level staff is the toughest thing in this business. Their loyalties shift for Rs 500! When you scale up at a rapid pace it’s imperative that people at the lower levels believe in your vision. We have been incentivising our team with various schemes. We have introduced the concept of Ammi’s
Rupee wherein top level executives pay a surprise visit to the store. Upon finding that the store is at par on all parameters, they reward store employees with a cash voucher. Our Star Programme recognises and selects good performers for training and development and scales them up faster; some who had joined us as cleaners are now heading stores. We also have an attractive employee retention bonus.

What are some of the lessons learnt
along the way?

Initially when we started we stuck to the smaller rice jeera samba for our Biryani. I personally love it. But I soon realised that our customers didn’t! We had to shift to the longer Basmati rice
after three months. It’s no point being stubborn; you have to listen and adapt. The other valuable lesson I learnt was to be cautious. When starting up, the adrenaline is high and one tends
to spend like a king. Don’t. It is easy to get carried away and invest heavily in infrastructure and human resource, but these investments are not valuable until you have set your business right. In Bangalore, there are roadside eateries selling biryanis at Rs 70. So when we launched the Executive Biryani, it brought us a lot of traction, especially with consumers who want to eat out on a daily basis but don’t want to spend too much. The portion
size is just apt for one person and is priced at Rs 99. Also, in the initial days, I didn’t have the bandwidth to tackle the online space. That was a big mistake. The initial negativity was high; people who liked the product didn’t bother to write about it while the ones who didn’t did. That was a huge oversight. So in Mumbai we have hired an agency to monitor Zomato, food  bloggers and other platforms