All about work, and play

In just two years, Impressario’s CEO and Director, Riyaaz Amlani’s brainchild, Social, has made a very distinctive space for itself. Back in 2014, the idea it worked with was both fresh and unique; a hybrid that brought together not just the usual combination of cafes and bars, but threw in a third, unexpected concept in the mix — a collaborative third space that could easily double up as your workspace. It took a little time for the idea to click, but when it did, Social quickly gathered both outlets and patrons. It also opened up a new possibility for restaurants, so that soon, there were collaborative workspaces doubling up as cafes everywhere.

Now, Amlani and Impressario gear up for the launch of the 14th Social outlet in the country, and this time, take it to the heart of NCR’s office-haven, Gurgaon. Here, Amlani, talks about the various layers that came together to give shape to Social.


As a concept, how would you explain what Social is, and what it seeks to do?

There is a very important difference between restaurant and cafes, and a third space. We are in the business of building third spaces. A third space means a neutral venue for the community created for no other purpose but gathering. It fulfils a very important need. The reason why we find urban areas so densely populated is because its comforting to be around other people. But even if a place is densely packed, sometimes there is no common area to share and congregate. That can become very alienating.

We have always created this third space — whether with Mocha, Smokehouse Deli, Prithvi café or the rest. We saw the need for it anyway, saw people coming to cafes more, for just getting a sense of belonging. We saw these places become meeting points.

But Social does more, it creates a third space that can double up as a working space too — a kind of alternative to conventional offices. As things changed, we also saw the rise of the freelancing economy, which was more about open source and collaboration rather than keeping business secrets and protecting your work from everybody else. That’s marked the difference between Gen X and the Millennials. Yes, working is a very important part of their life but they also like to be social while they are working. I think the lines between the two are blurring. Today, the same bunch of people who work together the whole day hang out together in the evening.

And was Social a result of this observation, of watching your customers in the other third spaces you had created show you this need?

A large part of what we have built comes from the 15 odd-years of experiences, and the evolving relationship we have with customers. We saw people, who had their office next door, come for lunch to us. They would get their laptops and linger, not being in a hurry to go back to their office but being very productive anyway. Over time, it so happened that a lot of people entirely abandoned their office and were working from a Smokehouse Deli or a Saltwater café, even though they had an office space available to them.

When you are working from office, you feel alienated, work feels more intensely like work. Life is passing you by somewhere, but you are holed up in this tower, only meeting the people you will meet every day anyway. But in a café, you aren’t cut off. You feel like you are part of this world, even if you are working. You don’t have that FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). There’s also the fact that in a café, you can allow for coincidental meetings that can solidify into something amazing. In offices with cabins and cubicles, sometimes members of different teams don’t even know each other’s names.

Of course, a lot of this move had already been happening, we weren’t the pioneers. Look at coffee houses, for example. And offices too had begun to realise that a relaxed frame of mind means more productivity. In fact, offices started imitating cafes way before cafes became offices.

The moment you throw in the idea of workspaces along with a restaurant/café, it calls for a synergy between the food, the beverage, and the concept. How does Social seek to achieve that synergy?

Social is many layered. The basic premise revolves around the idea of the third space, and everything is worked around it. In the sense of office work, we have separated the work space from the café space during the day, so that the work space can enjoy a little quiet. We provide high speed wifi and ergonomically correct seating. When it comes to the menu, we understand that people are going to be there throughout the day, so we have breakfast, lunch, dinner, and then snacks. People also get fed up of eating restaurant food on a daily basis, so we have kept basic ghar ka khana that changes every day — sabzi roti pyaaz, daal chawal. The philosophy behind the menu is that it should be simple, unpretentious and have a little sense of humour. We aren’t trying to do too much, we don’t have tanks of liquid nitrogen. The food is occasionally served in a quirky manner, but that’s just to bring a smile on your face, not show off our culinary knowledge.

The location seems an especially important part of Social. In fact, your outlets take on the name of the area they open in. Tell us about the process of finding the right places.

So far our strategy has been to go and disrupt expensive office real estate and provide people the cheapest real estate in places like that. So we’ve gone to Connaught Place, Hauz Khas Village,Cyber Hub etc in Delhi, In Mumbai, we have gone to Lower Parel, Colaba, Badra Kurla Complex. These are places which are office intensive and where we know our customers are going to have a lot of work, especially the freelancers and start-ups, who would need to be around the venture capitalists, media, etc. So we pick location based on that.

Going forward, though, we would like to serve every community that exists. So if I were to look at Mumbai, we see Bandra as one community, Khar as another and so on. Then in Delhi Saket is one, Vasant Kunj another and so on. We would go out into every community and put a small Social there.

With so many outlets, and a plan this extensive, Social also becomes a chain. In that case, retaining the individuality that it began with, how difficult is that?

We are very hyper local. Like you said, the name takes on the location, and a lot of elements of each Social is particular to that location. For example, the Social in CP tends to be more nostalgic, and we try to recreate the days of old offices and government bureaus. We have bought second hand furniture and scavenged around CP for our décor. No two Socials ever look the same. In Hauz Khas Village, we have gone for a bit of a ruin theme, taking our cue from the Hauz Khas ruins next door.

We ask our designers and artists to interpret the locality as they see it. We have a basic maxim — minimum intervention and maximum upcycling, which means, retain as many features of the place you open in and try and work with whatever we find around the locality. Each new designer gives this maxim his or her own interpretation. For example, in Bandra Kurla Complex, the heart of India’s financial capital, where things are as capitalist as it can get, Social has opened in a building called Capital, so obviously we went with the Communist theme, taking our cue from Karl Marx’ Das Kapital. We keep things fun and irreverent, not revolutionary, but light hearted.

So tell us about your latest outlet, Cyber Hub Social. What new ideas does it bring to the plate?

Cyber Hub social is unique in terms of design. We have taken the concept of a chawl, which is particular to Mumbai. I thought Gurgaon has enough of those steel and glass façade, everything is manicured, plush looking, modern. To work with the concept of the chawl was a kind of juxtaposition, a bit of an attempt to subvert the sanitised spaces of Gurgaon. Chawls are the first real organic commune space if you think about it, where everybody is living and sleeping in open areas, their doors always open. In terms of the menu, we have introduced some typical Punjabi dishes.

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Printable version | Mar 8, 2021 9:28:57 AM |

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