Sanjay Vazirani, chairman and MD of catering and restaurant chain Foodlink Services Pvt. Ltd.
From being a waiter at Tina and Anil Ambani’s wedding to having them as his first celeb clients and building a sought-after catering business in India Sanjay Vazirani has come a long way.
His company has served at high-profile events such as the wedding of Isha Ambani and Anand Piramal; Aakash Ambani and Shloka Mehta; and at Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone’s Lake Como wedding.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a curveball at the sector, Vazirani sees a silver-lining as the industry gears up for ‘mindful weddings’ among heightened sanitisation standards. The guestlist may have shrunk, but the sheen hasn’t faded, according to Vazirani. Edited excerpts from an interview:
The catering and wedding industry has been one of the worst hit by the pandemic. How is Foodlink coping?
It was tough. Finances had hit rock bottom, and for 18 months we were cashless and maintaining a staff of 880 people. But we approached it as a challenge and went back to the drawing board to work on increasing cost effectiveness without cutting corners. We stayed alert and looked at geographies that were open and not so badly affected with Covid.
Expanding into the UAE was a huge risk, but it turned out to be the best decision we took during the pandemic. For the next five years, the UAE is going to be our biggest market for wedding catering and restaurant business.
But most of all we maintained transparency with the teams and engaged them in the long-term vision. I feel blessed to have a driven and loyal team who understood that the company’s survival was paramount and some difficult measures had to be taken to ensure that. We may have used up our reserves but we have survived and are raring to go.
Also read: Weddings in the time of Covid-19: Livestreamed, yet intimate
What are some of the lessons that the pandemic has taught you?
There are many but the most important has been to segregate good expense and bad expense. Staying frugal and keeping the fixed costs low and aligned with long-term business survival are the other lessons. The pandemic also taught us to look for an intelligent mix of in-house and out-sourced talent pool. We have also moved the hygiene protocol from aesthetically clean to clinically clean and have been following it as a religion more than just compliance.
The around $50 billion Indian wedding industry is marked by its lavishness. What changes has the pandemic brought in, and do you think the changes are here to stay?
There is a strong desire to return to the essence; i.e., quality, hygiene and delicious food with less extravagance. Minimalism and ‘Less Is More’ is the mantra today as people are still not comfortable with large gatherings. Likewise, we have reoriented our product offering and moved towards less interactive and assistive service. Smaller gatherings with focus on single cuisine menus with great styling will be the future. The change is here to stay till the pandemic is behind us completely.
Is hyper-regional cuisine still trending in Indian weddings?
Yes, it is. People love to explore the world but the comfort of familiarity is always significant. Same applies to food. One may like all the exotic delicacies but the regional food we have grown up eating has a special place.
The Gujarati food at Ambani events is hyper-localized with Ahmedabadi, Surti and Rajput food.
For the Ruia family wedding, the focal point was Rajasthani food from Kolkata.
For a diamond merchant’s son’s wedding in Thailand, we flew in chai wallahs and chat wallahs.
More recently, for Ranveer Singh-Deepika Padukone’s wedding, we created the perfect Sindhi food for Ranveer and organized a south Indian style sit down meal for Deepika. We carried 4,000 kilos of ingredients from India to Italy to keep the taste authentic.
For Gautam Adani’s family wedding, we conducted extensive research on Jainism and Jain food before we proposed the menu. We have even gone as far as mobilizing local water from Jodhpur to recreate exact versions of Jodhpur’s popular street foods like Pyaz ki kachori, mirchi bada and kofta. I can’t get into the details as we are bound by NDAs (non-disclosure agreements).
You have catered some of the biggest weddings in India and abroad. Tell us about the kind of research and detailing that goes into these weddings.
For high-profile business families and celebrity weddings, there are no fixed boundaries. One has to create new benchmarks. Before meeting the family, we do a thorough research into the food and customs of the region the family comes from. This helps us to create a tailored experience that reflects their personal tastes and aspirations. This is followed by assigning the right culinary team to the event, styling the buffet and equipment set-ups to keep the look in sync with the décor, studying the guest list and assigning the butlers and captains who excel in the art of service and hospitality.
Once the entire event flow is understood, the teams are briefed accordingly. If the turnaround time between functions is too tight, we divide our people into two teams in charge of different functions to execute it smoothly. We have even created a live kitchen on a frozen lake for an event in Switzerland.
The cloud kitchen space in India has exploded during the pandemic. You recently entered the fray with Art Of Dum.
Currently, the cloud kitchen segment is fragmented and unorganized in India. But I see great potential for the business in the near future. ‘Art of Dum’ follows the authentic ‘Dum Pukht’ style of slow cooking, something that is rarely heard of in the cloud kitchen format. It is about letting the dishes breathe in their own aroma and juices. We have a zero-plastic policy, and the food is packed in reusable glass jars and clay handis with steel cutlery.
What are your plans with respect to your restaurants Glocal Junction, China Bistro and India Bistro?
Foodlink currently operates 25 restaurants and cloud kitchen units across all brands in India and UAE. In fact, seven of these were launched in the last eight months. We will be opening nine more restaurants in the UAE in the next 12 months, and a few more at strategic locations in India. Going forward, a Franchise Invested Company Operated model for our dine in outlets is also on the cards.
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