If you're looking for the secret to creating buzz, don't bother: There isn't one, say Hemant Bhagwani and Derek Valleau.
They should know. The restaurateurs opened upscale Amaya the Indian Room on Toronto's Bayview Avenue last June. Ever since, they've been filling their 46-seat restaurant twice every night of the week. But the partners haven't taken out a single ad the entire time. "We just talked to as many people as we could," says Valleau. The pair reached out to the numerous contacts they'd amassed over 28 years in the restaurant business, and alerted potential diners by posting their menu on the front door of Amaya before it opened. "People are curious," says Valleau, "and they talk to each other." All that talking worked. Within weeks of opening, Toronto's major dailies, along with Toronto Life magazine, had given Amaya glowing reviews, and the restaurant was getting reservations from as far away as Los Angeles.
Amaya may have taken off overnight, but only after years of planning. Bhagwani and Valleau had been talking about opening a place together since 2004. Four years earlier, the two met at the CN Tower's 360 restaurant, where they briefly overlapped as sommeliers. Valleau then went on to run Toronto's Crush Wine Bar, while Bhagwani launched Kamasutra, an Indian spot also on Bayview. After selling Kamasutra for more than three times his original investment, he was itching to start a new restaurant in the area, and Valleau was ready to join him.
Indian was a natural choice for Bhagwani, especially since he feels his native cuisine is poorly represented in Toronto. The way he sees it, a highly complex gastronomy had been dumbed down to a few clichés, the same old curries and masalas, prepared as cheaply as possible. Valleau had a different inspiration: "It was eating at Vij's in Vancouver," he says, referring to Vikram Vij's world-renowned restaurant. "Here's this restaurant that serves upscale Indian food and doesn't take reservations, and it's jammed seven nights a week. I walked away thinking, Why hasn't anyone done this in Toronto?"
Actually, someone had. After his success with Kamasutra, Bhagwani opened Mantra in 2005 with a menu similar to Amaya's. He blames its failure on an ill-chosen downtown location. "We were relying too much on hotels, and realized that tourists don't eat Indian on vacation," he says. "For lunch, it was office staff, and they wanted buffet."
So when he and Valleau decided to give high-end Indian a whirl, location was top of mind. Bhagwani was convinced Bayview Avenue would tap the ideal clientele-in nearby Rosedale and Leaside neighbourhoods. "The people here are affluent and well-travelled," says Bhagwani. To get around the lengthy process of securing a new liquor licence, the partners decided to wait until an existing restaurant came up for sale, enabling them simply to transfer the licence. They had their eye on Jov Bistro, a popular neighbourhood spot, because they knew the owners wanted out. They waited a long time-until March, 2007, when Jov finally went on the block.
Within weeks, they had forked over $240,000 for Jov. Aside from expediting the liquor licence, buying an existing restaurant meant they didn't need to make structural changes to the space. But they weren't totally off the hook on renovations: They wanted a fresher, more contemporary look, and that meant putting in new floors, ceilings and lighting. Plus, they had to lay down a whack of cash for new equipment, such as a fryer and a clay oven.
While the 1,800-square-foot space was being recast, Valleau and Bhagwani went to New Delhi to find their cooks. Executive chef Kirti Singh was already in place, but they wanted all their staff to cook from their roots. After 18 interviews, they made three hires from high-end Indian hotels. Sponsoring their new staff to Canada proved surprisingly simple, says Bhagwani. The pair first advertised in Toronto publications, but didn't get a single application-a necessary step that demonstrated suitable talent wasn't available locally. The whole process cost about $2,000 in legal fees for each applicant.
Back on home turf, the partners focused on the menu. Their goal was to offer a little of what people expect (butter chicken), but also bring it up a notch (peppered duck breast). "Lots of Indian restaurants have 60 items on their menus," says Valleau. "Ours is like most high-end restaurants, where you see 10 or 15." Valleau and Bhagwani wanted to pair authentic sauces with non-traditional ingredients, such as short ribs, beef tenderloin and rack of lamb. Heartened by Amaya's quick success, in November they opened Amaya Express, a takeout business, a few doors down. In fact, Amaya Express has been so busy that in the winter Bhagwani and Valleau were driving around Toronto delivering meals themselves as they scrambled to hire more drivers.
A year after opening Amaya's doors, Bhagwani and Valleau are still talking to whoever will listen about their restaurant. Now, there are whispers of a second Amaya, as well as more Express outlets. That is, if they can put down their car keys long enough to make it happen.
Pitfalls: Location is everything. "I failed two years ago with a similar menu on Elm Street in Toronto," says Hemant Bhagwani; the downtown tourist crowd wasn't up for expensive Indian. But Amaya's Leaside community is eating it up.
Why do it: To break new ground. "We kept seeing the same kind of restaurants, especially in Indian cuisine," says Bhagwani. "They all looked the same, and the same food was served everywhere. We wanted to bring Indian food to a new level of respect."
Where the money is: In Amaya's case, the big cash is in the Express delivery business. With far lower overhead costs, the profit margins are better.