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Where Else, a BYOB in Gurugram.

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BYOBs, called ahatas in the city, are changing social dynamics, while boosting Haryana’s excise revenue, finds Ashok Kumar. With businesspeople investing heavily in these ventures, the open-air spaces are developing a sub-culture unique to Delhi’s corporate hub

December 29, 2023 07:38 am | Updated February 08, 2024 04:30 pm IST

Where Else, a BYOB in Gurugram.

Where Else, a BYOB in Gurugram. | Photo Credit: SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

In the parking lot next to Where Else, one of Gurugram’s most-coveted open-air bar-pub-clubs on the Golf Course Extension road in Sector 59, stand Porsches, BMWs, and Mercedes-Benzes, even the odd Aston Martin. The neon lights of the signage reflect off their shiny surfaces. People from DLF’s Camellias and Magnolias, luxury properties that cost ₹50 crore upward, come in, dropping names (obviously, this is The ‘Gaon), to cut queues for a table.

They can afford some of the best bars in Delhi-NCR — Sidecar for instance, that’s on the world’s top 50 bars list. They’re here instead, at a local bring-your-own-bottle (BYOB) place, where they’ll buy liquor from the theka (Hindi slang for a shop selling alcohol) outside, and carry it in to drink in plastic glasses. They’ll order some (fairly mediocre) chicken tikka or a burger or French fries, sitting amidst 20-somethings — the legal age to drink is 21 in Delhi-NCR, mid-lifers, and corporate types. They revel in the freedom of a city that has seen development over just the past two decades. There are no ‘uncles’ judging, or children running around, or stools for luxury handbags to be placed with care.

Gurugram’s BYOBs or ahatas, as they are informally called locally, were once places where middle-class executives went after a day’s work. They would buy a bottle of beer or wine at the liquor store next door, eat a snack, and catch up on office gossip. Ahata is Hindi, meaning premises, also called anumat kaksh or permit room, a throwback to pre-liberalised India, where a room within a restaurant was demarcated to serve alcohol, and was mostly frequented by men.

In the three or four years before ahatas became popular, they were simple open-air spaces with no frills — just tables, chairs, and a basic menu. “Post-COVID, this changed, with people preferring open spaces over closed ones,” explains Lalit Khurana, the general manager at Where Else, called WE, abbreviated by generation Z that shortens everything. Their profile changed from economics to a new kind of culture that shunned congested night clubs as disease spreaders.

Today, there are 54 ahatas across Gurugram, Delhi’s corporate suburb that stretches to 1,253 square kilometres. From last year to this financial year (2023-24), Haryana’s revenue department has seen between a 200% and 236% hike in the auctioning rights of the lands on which these establishments are run. Each year, a new auction brings in more money.

A new lease

“The State excise policy rules in 1988 find mention of aahaats, temporary enclosures close to liquor vends, basically to prevent drinking in the open,” says Amit Bhandari, deputy excise and taxation commissioner, excise (East). “However, over the past couple of years, these places have ‘graduated’ from unsightly spaces fenced with bamboo mats into popular eating and drinking places. Rechristened BYOBs, they offer tough competition to bars and pubs,” he adds.

Surender Singh, a manager at a Sector 47 liquor store says, “In most cases, ahatas are run by one of the partners in the liquor vends, or the service is outsourced.”

The informality of the space has made it conducive to being different things to different people: the staff is pestered to discuss the details of a deal for mass booking, while a couple may walk in with their adult children and few demands. Now, some establishments have bright multicoloured lights visible from great distances, attracting those who drive down the highway, like Ebowla; while some stay simple, with fairy lights, like Kavo.

Ebowla in Gurugram that has opened in Gurugram a few months back on the Delhi-Jaipur highway.

Ebowla in Gurugram that has opened in Gurugram a few months back on the Delhi-Jaipur highway. | Photo Credit: SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

Many have celebrities coming by, live bands, and even dance performances. They’ve gone from corporate drink-joints to places where birthdays and wedding anniversaries are celebrated. A strong social media presence has helped, with postings about upcoming events, videos of guests talking about their experience, and pictures of people having a good time. Like bars, they hire a professional photographer to take pictures of people enjoying themselves, for social media.

Where Else, next to Discovery Wines that has 40-odd branches across Gurugram, can accommodate 700 people with multi-level seating, including a cover charge of ₹5,000 per table for those seeking privacy in a PDR (private dining room), a dance floor in the middle, two air-conditioned enclosures with a capacity of 40 and 70 people, and fountains at the entry gate. “The safety and security of the guests is our top priority. We don’t allow stag entry. We ensure that the guests have the best experience, though the only flaw, if you could call it that, is that we use plastic glasses instead of glassware, due to high breakage rate,” says Khurana.

The BYOB is run by Bring My Brand, a six-year-old company that owns a couple of similar spaces in the city, with the licence outsourced to them by the adjoining vend. “The vends are auctioned every year in Haryana and the land where these are located is mostly government-owned, so there is uncertainty over the location and the continuity of BYOBs beyond a year. But in our case, the land belongs to an individual and we have a nine-year lease agreement for it. Alcohol is allowed only from the neighbouring vend. So it increases their sales volume as well,” says Khurana. He is quick to add that running a BYOB is not more profitable than owning a bar. “It involves a huge cost in terms of licence fee, and the fee to run beyond midnight. We end up paying ₹1 crore every quarter for both,” he says.

Patrons’ pick

Utkarsh Shikar, 34, an HR manager with a private firm and his wife Ranjana, who leads a team at a prominent bank in Gurugram, drop by at ahatas regularly. “It is cheaper [than a regular bar], but the ambience is at par with bars and pubs,” says Shikar, sitting across a wooden table with Ranjana, 27, at Dockyard, a BYOB next to The Liquor Warehouse in Sector 47 on a Saturday evening. He feels there’s a greater mix of people at a BYOB, compared to a bar.

Where Else, where many alcohol companies do promotions.

Where Else, where many alcohol companies do promotions. | Photo Credit: SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

Ahatas compete with the many bars that dot the Sector 29 market, where parking is similarly chaotic, and alcohol is not as expensive as some of the suburb’s top bars. A premium gin in one the bars at Sector 29 is in the range of ₹300-350. At a bar in an upmarket location like CyberHub, the same gin is ₹475-550. At an ahata, each drink would work out to ₹120 or so, because payment is on actuals.

As she munches on peanut masala and glugs a Hoegaarden, Ranjana says, “BYOBs offer a certain freedom in terms of timing [most start in the evening and work until 4 a.m.].” Her husband adds that most bars shut at midnight. “Then there’s the way one can dress. I would never go to a bar dressed like this,” she says, pointing to her casual green pyjamas and tee. “In fact, many bars allow entry only if you adhere to their dress code.” Plus, she says there are many BYOBs close to residential areas, unlike bars, making them more accessible.

Gaurav Katyal, 29, a businessman who owns a bar each in Rohtak and Karnal in Haryana, has now opened Ebowla, next to Brotherhood Wines that he claims is India’s biggest BYOB with a seating capacity of 1,000-odd people, at the Signature Towers intersection off the Delhi-Jaipur highway. “A group of 20 people can party four times in a BYOB for the cost of one outing at a bar,” he claims. “Bars these days are lenient about allowing stags; BYOBs are safer for families,” says Katyal, adding that the phenomenon is only growing.

It’s not just businesspeople who are looking at ahatas as a sub-category in the hospitality industry, but also professionals who are considering it as a salaried job. Udit Kumar Shrivastava, an Agra Institute of Hotel Management graduate, has worked with a few prominent BYOBs in the city over the past couple of years he’s been in the city. “The biggest drawback is the uncertainty over its continuity beyond a year. Employees may end up searching for a new job every year,” says Shrivastava. He says the long evenings and nights also tell on health.

State money

BYOBs are the new cash cows for Haryana’s excise department, adding to their revenue in terms of auction prices, license fee, and the fee for keeping an establishment open past midnight. The city has been divided into two excise districts, East and West, and the these are further divided into 150 zones for the annual auction of liquor vend sites and warehouses. Only two liquor vends and one BYOB are allowed in each zone.

“Zone no. 9...and zone no. 12...were auctioned for ₹18 crore and ₹11 crore last year. This year they went for ₹36 crore and ₹26 crore respectively”Amit BhandariDeputy excise and taxation commissioner, excise (East)

“There are 22 ahatas in the West zone and 32 in the East zone. The department charges 3% of the total auction price as licence fee for a BYOB, which varies from ₹15-20 lakh to ₹80 lakh-1 crore for different sites,” says Bhandari. “In fact, the auction price for the zones with popular BYOB sites has doubled over the past one year.” For instance, zone no. 9 in the East (near Bristol Hotel) and zone no. 12 in the West (near Hyatt Regency) were auctioned for ₹18 crore and ₹11 crore last year. This year they went for ₹36 crore and ₹26 crore respectively.

For the year 2023-24, the West district earned ₹4.63 crore by way of licence fees just for the ahatas, and ₹657 crore from the auction of sites for liquor vends. The licence fees from 82 bars in the district came in at ₹13 crore. In the adjoining East district, locally known as New Gurgaon, the department earned ₹11.54 crore from the ahata licence fees, and ₹947 crore from the auction of the vend sites in the zones. The 248 bars in the East district have together contributed ₹38 crore as licence fees.

The ahata concept was extended to a few large villages last year, but the response was tepid and the drive was discontinued, according to an excise department official. Now, only areas within municipal boundaries, extending to a 5-km radius outside, are allowed ahatas. Gurugram, Faridabad, and Panchkula together have about 90% of Haryana’s BYOBs, says the official.

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