Q&A with Hemant Bhagwani: the Amaya co-owner on building his Indian restaurant empire
Although the recession is officially over, its effects—shuttered doors and restaurants offering humbler, more comfort-driven cuisine—can still be seen on Toronto’s culinary landscape. So we were a bit surprised when we heard the news that the Amaya Group is set to open yet another outpost next month, this time on Ossington. With even further expansion ahead, we asked Amaya co-owner Hemant Bhagwani about the secrets to his success and the future of the empire.
In the space four years you’ve opened Amaya, Amaya Bread Bar and six Amaya Express locations. Just how big would you like to get?
I never planned it in such a way when we first opened the restaurant, but slowly, with time, the goal and ambition have grown. My goal is to have a hundred [restaurants], with an Amaya Express in every neighbourhood in Toronto. We’ll start in the core because our brand is recognized in Toronto (we’ve got sauces and other items in Longos, Metro and Loblaw’s). We’ll slowly move into other areas in the GTA and Ontario in the next few years. These are all corporate stores, and I’m not trying to franchise so it’s slow and steady.
What is the motivation behind such an ambitious plan?
When I came to the country 10 years ago, there wasn’t much happening. I kept going to Indian restaurants in the city and I felt that we, as Indians, had not presented our food well. Everyone wanted to play it safe. We were all doing buffets or greasy foods. I basically wanted to take it to the next level and bring what I had been eating at home, or even food from other parts of the world—I had four restaurants in Australia.
How is it that other restaurants are struggling to survive coming out of the recession but you are able to expand?
It’s good when you’ve got a good cash flow to keep investing back into the company and make it larger. When the recession hit, I sat down and wrote a business plan about how I would like to see these locations. It was a good time to buy restaurants that were closing and turn them around; landlords were giving three or six months rent-free. I also started streamlining the company, which gave this company a little growth. Once I got these locations going, the banks and landlords started to see that our company was expanding, and I kept getting phone calls to open in bigger malls.
Can you tell us what the new Amayas are going to be like?
Most are Amaya Expresses—quick service restaurants that’ll be in the food courts of almost every mall in the city. We’re also putting in 30 seats and a liquor licence in some locations so that we can do more dine-in business. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out—we’ve got a lot of locations being offered to us right now. The malls are even asking us for a 2,000-square-foot restaurant instead a food court shop.
I have been thinking of a flagship store with Indian street food that’s all sharing plates. Yes, it’s tapas. Yes, it’s passé or whatever, but I’ve been fascinated with what Susur Lee has done at Lee Lounge or Claudio Aprile at Origin. Derek [Valleau, Amaya’s other co-owner] and I have been sommeliers, and I’ve always thought that there’s a scope of Indian food that can be done similar to Terroni’s Bar Centrale, with people coming in to have a samosa or a kebab with wine. I’m thinking of calling it Chutney Bar by Amaya. The location has been tentatively selected, but I’m sorry I can’t say where. It’ll be revealed before the end of the year.
Given the impending growth of Amaya Group, how will you ensure consistency?
The quality and service have always been there, but we’ve now set up a small call centre in Toronto that’s taking all the calls for all the restaurants and reservations. It was something we felt was needed when we decided it was time to streamline. It’s eight restaurants now—what happens when it’s 15? Or when we open up Ossington? It was natural to get this and our reservation system going.
Any fears of over-saturating the market?
No, I don’t think so. Amaya Indian Room is pretty unique—it’s got a good wine list, it’s a nice place to go. The fine dining will stand on its own legs. The express locations have been very popular for people who can’t come to the restaurant. So I don’t think there’s any crossover. I also realized that there’s a scope to putting an Amaya Express every three to four kilometres. When we opened at Yonge and Lawrence, sales at Bayview didn’t drop. We don’t know about the future, but right now it hasn’t affected anything.