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Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Avni Biyani: The gourmand retailer

Avni Biyani, concept head of Foodhall, on how the chain of gourmet stores has grown from 'an experiment' into a destination for everything from truffle oil to specialized cooking gear

Avni Biyani, daughter of Future Group founder and chief executive officer Kishore Biyani, is in a hurry. We meet at the Lower Parel, Mumbai, outlet of Foodhall, the gourmet supermarket chain that she runs. Clad in white pants and carrying a large tote, the concept head of Foodhall gives instructions to her team before sitting down to talk in the café area of the brand’s flagship store.

There’s a live counter for salads and pasta that uses Foodhall ingredients, and the store always offers samples of recently launched Foodhall products. Today, it is guacamole and ragi chips.

Avni Biyani, 27, started Foodhall in 2011 from this store, visualized as a “destination centre" catering to well-travelled Indians as well as expatriates, and one that would introduce new ingredients. Today there are five Foodhall stores and two “Little Foodhalls" that sell a smaller selection of products across three cities—Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru.

The chain is part of the listed Future Retail Ltd—it has Future Group’s other popular retail formats, including Big Bazaar, fashion store chain fbb, small store chain Easyday, and furniture retail chain HomeTown. In 2016-17, the company had a turnover of Rs17,100 crore.

Biyani generally tries to carve out some time for skiing with friends. Early this year, for instance, she was supposed to go to Switzerland for work but had to cancel, so she decided on a short holiday there with friends. “I don’t actually get to go all the time, so I try and go once a year. It (skiing) was a skill that I picked up in college and it would be nice to refresh it once a year.-

“When we set up six years ago, we had thought, okay, it will be an experiment," says Biyani. “Foodhall got set up in May and I officially joined the business in June. I always thought I would do something with food and Foodhall was something I naturally gravitated towards."

Today, Foodhall is a one-stop shop for people looking for “exotic", hard-to-find cooking ingredients—everything from truffle oil and hass avocados to the equipment required for specialized cooking. These premium stores are located in neighbourhoods where at least 30% of those walking in are expatriates—areas such as Saket and Vasant Kunj in Delhi and Whitefield in Bengaluru.

“We use Foodhall as a testing laboratory. We see everything happening in the store, pick up trends for Future Consumer Ltd (Future Group’s consumer goods arm, which owns nearly 30 brands in the food, beverage, home and personal care segments), for Big Bazaar and for our small store formats," says Biyani.

In her first year at Foodhall, she says, all she did was observe customers, helping them look for products and guiding them along shopping aisles. “I just observed and applied my mind on how to bring in a range and decide on an assortment of goods."

Deciding on the assortment is one of the biggest jobs in a speciality food store. “You cannot imagine the pain of a customer who has decided to cook something for a meal and cannot find that one ingredient he/she needs," Biyani says. The exercise helped her decide which products Foodhall should always keep in stock—from a gigantic range of Indian and Middle-Eastern spices to cheeses designated for specific cuisines, such as French Emmental and Roquefort to Italian Grana Padano, Bocconcini and goat cheese.

When I ask her to walk me through Foodhall’s range of in-house brands, she immediately asks, “If you don’t mind, can I show you?" She then grabs my pen and notebook, begins charting out each of her brands, from gifting service Blue Ribbon and premium tea brand THT to gourmet spices Arqa, and an entertainment service called Party Chef that allows customers to hire Foodhall’s chefs for boardroom parties and other events.

“I’m very competitive by nature," she says. “I don’t like it when people say something is better somewhere else."

Biyani did her bachelor’s in sociology and political science from New York University (NYU) before heading home to Mumbai in 2011 to help her father manage his consumer and retail empire. At the time, her elder sister Ashni was already director of Future Ideas, the group’s innovation centre.

“I actually really enjoyed sociology and I’m a political news junkie," she says. But ask her if she wants to do something with her sociology degree, and the answer is a clear “no".

“I think we did a lot of different things in college. I learnt how to ski, I still ski today. With sociology, we used to do different things around New York City. In Chinatown, I volunteered for two semesters in schools where Chinese immigrant parents would send their children to after-school programmes. So we saw a different side to New York City. It was fun, I travelled a lot. I did one semester abroad in London.

“I think the aim was always to go to college, broaden your horizons, meet people, learn more, come back after four years after having a good time," Biyani says in the trademark staccato tone that she shares with her father.

Sociology was part of the effort to immerse herself in something new. “I never really wanted to study business," she says. “Every summer we anyway spent with dad, meeting people, seeing how he works. So I thought, okay, let me learn more about people and culture and societies. It was interesting."

Two passions have remained with her from those NYU days: skiing and cooking.

“I actually started (cooking) in college because I didn’t want to put on too much weight," she says, referring to the notorious Freshman 15 phenomenon—first-year students in the US gaining 15 pounds (7.5kg) owing to unhealthy diets. “I’m a very picky eater."

“So I cooked for my roommates. I like cooking almost everything," she says. “Even today, all my friends tease me that I plan all these elaborate dinners at home where I make different cuisines. And they ask me, ‘Avni where did you get this ingredient from and where did you get that ingredient from?’ My answer would almost invariably be Foodhall. So it’s now a disclaimer for everyone at a dinner I host—‘everything is available at Foodhall unless otherwise specified.’ This is my way to bribe them to go to Foodhall."

It’s not just cooking—Biyani, who lives with her parents, loves collecting kitchenware. “I love buying good crockery and cutlery," she says. “That’s really where my passion lies. If I lived alone, I would have the fanciest gadgets.

“One day I’ll have my own kitchen but for now, me and my mum share one and I fight about the kitchen and what is made all the time. But if I ever say, ‘I don’t like this or that,’ she will immediately tell me, ‘All right, go out and buy whatever it is you want, don’t tell me!’"

That’s how Biyani came up with the baking equipment brand WhisQ, which was launched earlier this year and is touted as one customized for the ovens commonly used in India. The range has been made in collaboration with Pooja Dhingra, founder and executive chef of the Mumbai-based French bakery chain Le15 Patisserie. Dhingra helped Biyani resize baking trays and loaf pans.

For Biyani, the first couple of years were all about reaching out to people like Dhingra. “I went and knocked on a lot of people’s doors to say, ‘Okay, give me some ideas, do you think we can do this together, that together?’"

In moments of doubt, however, she relies on family. “The go-to person for me is, I think, my father to a great extent and my sister sometimes," she says. “Mostly in the family. Sometimes you go to team members when you’re lost. I sit down and chat with them. It’s good to just sit with them when you don’t know what you’re doing."

The Biyanis are a close-knit Marwari business family that believes in “going with the flow". It’s a philosophy that her father swears by. “It’s not like we have a rule that we will not talk about something at home. Work is an important part of our life and we discuss it at the breakfast table too," she says.

When I ask Biyani if she ever goes to her mother, Sangita, for work advice, she immediately replies, “Are you crazy? All the time!" Biyani says her mother helps her keep an eye on prices at Foodhall, particularly fresh produce. “My mom will always tell me when something like tomatoes or strawberries costs much less outside Foodhall."

Biyani is grateful for her round-the-clock support system. “Sometimes I feel like I’m busier, sometimes I feel like my father is busier. But even (when I was) in college, I would call him up and speak to him twice a day. No matter what part of the world we are in, we speak twice a day.

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