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Taste the Masala in Ammi’s Biryani!

Jubin Mehta
16th Aug 2012
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It was only a matter of coincidence that the day after I watched Ratatouille for probably the umpteenth time, news broke out that Ammi’s Biryani had been funded by SAIF partners. Getting to know about it and having had the Biryani before, I had to meet the founder who was able to raise INR 40 crores for his food chain. I got in touch with Navaj Sharief, the man behind the chain which has 13 outlets in Bangalore now, and setup a meeting in a commissary in the interiors of the city where his office is. A huge foodie himself, Navaj tells me that the journey hasn’t been easy. “I’ve had to struggle a lot! It’s been close to 4 years now and trust me, it hasn’t been a bed of roses,” he informs.

Starting Up and the Name Game

An MBA from Bangalore University, Shareif joined his father’s trade in 1997- the Steel Business. The business was good but it wasn’t something that excited him too much. Even on the financial side, the business wasn’t doing as good as they’d have liked it to. Something new was always on the cards and being the lover that he was of Biryani, Sharief had this gut feeling that he wanted to do something around it. What? He didn’t know.

One fine day, gorging on home cooked Biryani, he thought that Biryani is available everywhere and consumed widely in India. Who wouldn’t love a well packed hygienic meal of Biryani? Thus came the idea of “Biryani in a Box” (hassle free Biryani) and he decided to go ahead with it. In no way a revolutionary concept, Navaj went ahead and made it happen. Being from the Muslim community, naming it “Ammi’s Biryani” as it is fondly called in Urdu, his consultants and family were a bit skeptic about calling it that would allow a wider acceptance. A definite case in point, Navaj considered but the feeling was just too strong for him and he said, “Be that as it may, we’re going with this name. It has a good vibe and I’m sure people would accept it.” And that they did!

A Daunting Struggle and the Moment of Redemption

Having set up the first outlet in a popular part of Bangalore, Koramangala, Ammi’s Biryani chugged along silently. The second outlet came up a few months later in February 2009 and Sharief had made a decision that he’d go forward with a central commissary model. Building an inhouse ERP, Ammi’s Biryani is technologically strongly backed, providing the management team with all the data that one requires to ensure smooth working.

Other outlets started coming up slowly and in the meanwhile talks were underway with investors but nothing went through. “Putting a foot down, I decided to move ahead with a franchisee model. Having opened three more outlets via franchising, I realized the problem. Too many entrepreneurs on board lead to a certain sort of a chaos and I wasn’t sure if this was the right way forward,” said Navaj. Looking for support, SAIF partners approached Ammi’s at the right time in late 2011 and finally the ideals matched. Sharief got a validation and finally when the deal went through, Ammi’s Biryani got a boost which will propel things forward.

Is it a crime to build a company single handedly?

The team is very important,” this is what Navaj was hearing all along the way. Everyone talks about the team and that seems to be like the primary parameter for getting funded. “I totally understand the significance of a good team but is it a crime if you’re doing it alone? The funds I had were scarce at the time I started and getting along a management team/co-founders would have thwarted my growth,” believes Navaj. The stores did have managers but Navaj himself did the majority of work in terms of management. Once stabilized, Navaj went out and looked for a strong management board and also setup an HR for the company. Now, a very strong team, Navaj believes that this wouldn’t have been possible if he hadn’t adopt the path he did.

Dining v/s Delivery

Focusing on delivery, there were challenges like ensuring the warmth of the Biryani, maintaining the moisture and the sort, which were all cracked early on. Each outlet is decently sized with an approximate size of 500 sq. ft. and has a small dining area but the core competency with Ammi’s lies with the deliveries. Putting the ration roughly at 2:1, Navaj believes deliveries is what will drive Ammi’s Biryani and wants to keep it that way.

One might presume that post the funding round, Ammi’s will expand pan India but the there are no such immediate plans. “We want to consolidate in Bangalore first,” says an adamant Navaj. Expanding across the country and building a national brand is definitely on the cards but it is a good time away.

Don’t be Stubborn and please don’t spend lavishly!

The journey has been long and it has been tough. Navaj loved the smaller rice for his Biryani and was sure everyone else would too! He stuck to it for 3 months but the customer proved to be the king once again and Ammi’s had to shift to the longer Basmati rice. “Don’t be stubborn. Listen and adapt.” says Sharief.

The other valuable lesson Navaj learnt was to be cautious in the initial stages. “When starting up, the adrenaline is high and one tends to spend like a king. But don’t.” warns Navaj. It is very 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.

We wish Navaj and Ammi’s Biryani all the very best and hope to see Ammi’s develop as a very strong Indian Brand. And just so that I play my part in this, I’d go and hog on a plate of piping hot Biryani!

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